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Analysis

Brexit Britain and the West

by Bill Emmott | 27.06.2017

Margaret Thatcher was a great defender of Western ideas and values, so it is entirely appropriate that the Centre for Policy Studies should have named its major conference on security and the future of the West after her. It is also appropriate and welcome that the government’s senior representative at the June 27 conference, the defence secretary, should invoke her memory and words when declaring that Brexit Britain will remain a “proud defender of the West and its values and institutions”.

There is every reason to believe Michael Fallon when he asserts that under a Conservative government Britain will continue to support those values. But his claim to be a proud defender of Western institutions must be taken with a pinch of salt. After all, Brexit means by definition that the UK will be leaving one of the most important of those institutions, and thereby undermining it.

His words must also be placed in the political context in which this country now finds itself, thanks to Brexit: ahead in the opinion polls is a Labour leader who is proudly critical of many of the very values and institutions that Fallon associates with the West. Whether in government his party would actively seek to undermine them is open to doubt. But the fact is that Brexit Britain could be within months of having Jeremy Corbyn as its prime minister.

Furthermore, Fallon boasts proudly that Britain’s defence budget will rise by £1 billion this year to £36 billion, which will be 0.5% ahead of inflation, and a further £1 billion next year.

We now know that this means his government is thereby committed to spending 50% as much each year on retaining the 10 votes of the Democratic Unionist Party in its “confidence and supply” deal as it is on strengthening Britain’s defence contribution. (The DUP deal is for an extra £1 billion over the next two years.)

On BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Fallon defended the deal as being “not a bung” but rather a necessary investment in Northern Ireland’s prosperity. Perhaps it is, though the scale of that investment does put his own defence budget into a new perspective.

Fallon also, correctly, outlines the commitment of British forces in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Africa, as well as their involvement in NATO’s deployment in Estonia.

What was missing from his Telegraph article, however, was any mention of the Royal Navy’s involvement in the EU’s Operation Sophia, the coordinated naval effort, under Italian command, in the Mediterranean to hunt for people smugglers while also rescuing migrants. The survey vessel HMS Echo is currently taking part in that operation.

Will Britain continue to support its European partners in this sort of combined operation after Brexit, or will it pull out of EU defence cooperation and limit itself to NATO? The latter course, far from marking a “stepping up” of Britain’s engagement, would dilute our commitment to common defence.

The defence secretary and his colleagues could benefit from drawing inspiration from the person for whom the CPS named its annual conference. In Margaret Thatcher’s famous 1988 speech to the College of Europe in Bruges, the Iron Lady said:

“Britain does not dream of some cosy, isolated existence on the fringes of the European Community. Our destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community.”

And

“We should develop the WEU [Western European Union], not as an alternative to NATO, but as a means of strengthening Europe’s contribution to the common defence of the West.

“Above all, at a time of change and uncertainty… we must preserve Europe’s unity and resolve so that whatever may happen, our defence is sure.”

Now, there was a true defender of the West’s values and institutions.

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Edited by Alan Wheatley