On 21 January 2021, Lord Lancaster of Kimbolton (Conservative) is due to ask Her Majesty’s Government “What role are the British Armed Forces playing in support of the ‘Global Britain’ agenda?”.

What is ‘Global Britain’?

The UK Government began to use the phrase following the referendum on EU membership in 2016. The Government’s website states that “global Britain is about reinvesting in our relationships, championing the rules-based international order and demonstrating that the UK is open, outward looking and confident on the world stage”.

What has the Government said about the armed forces and Global Britain?

The UK’s armed forces currently have personnel stationed around the world on deployment to help counter terrorism, keep sea lanes open and deliver humanitarian aid. As the UK is one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, the Ministry of Defence has said that “the UK has particular responsibility for maintaining international peace and security”.

On its blog, the Ministry of Defence has given five examples of its overseas operations as at July 2020:

  • Royal Navy ships were in the Gulf and Indian Ocean.
  • British forces from all three services were in Kabul, Afghanistan.
  • The UK armed forces were part of the NATO presence in Estonia and Poland.
  • Royal Air Force jets were in Lithuania, as part of NATO’s Air Policing Mission.
  • The British Army was engaged in UN peacekeeping missions and training operations.

Integrated Security, Defence and Foreign Policy Review

During the Queen’s Speech on 14 December 2019, the Government announced an Integrated Security, Defence and Foreign Policy Review. It said this would be “undertaken to reassess the nation’s place in the world, covering all aspects of international policy from defence to diplomacy and development”. In a foreword to a briefing document accompanying the announcement, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it would be “the most radical reassessment of our place in the world since the end of the Cold War”. A call for evidence was published on 13 August 2020 and was closed on 11 September 2020.

On 14 September 2020, the Government announced the review would:

  • Define the Government’s ambition for the UK’s role in the world and the long-term strategic aims for our national security and foreign policy.
  • Set out the way in which the UK will be a problem-solving and burden-sharing nation.
  • Set a strong direction for recovery from Covid-19, at home and overseas, so that together we can “build back better”.

It added that the review was “being led by the Prime Minister with the National Security Council, and is a whole-of-government effort with colleagues from across departments, including Defence, contributing”.

In a statement to the House of Commons on 19 November 2020, Boris Johnson said that the integrated review would conclude in early 2021.

Defence spending

In the same statement, the Prime Minister announced an increase in defence spending of £24.1 billion over the next four years, £16.5 billion more than the 2019 Conservative manifesto committed to. He went on to explain the rationale behind the increase as follows:

The Ministry of Defence has received a multi-year settlement because equipping our armed forces requires long-term investment, and our national security in 20 years’ time will depend on decisions we take today […] Reviving our armed forces is one pillar of the Government’s ambition to safeguard Britain’s interests and values by strengthening our global influence, and reinforcing our ability to join the United States and our other allies to defend free and open societies.

The international situation is now more perilous and intensely competitive than at any time since the cold war. Everything we do in this country—every job, every business, even how we shop and what we eat—depends on a basic minimum of global security, with a web of feed pipes, of oxygen pipes, that must be kept open: shipping lanes, a functioning internet, safe air corridors, reliable undersea cables, and tranquillity in distant straits. This pandemic has offered a taste of what happens when our most fundamental needs are suddenly in question. We could take all this for granted, ignore the threat of terrorism and the ambitions of hostile states, hope for the best, and we might get away with it for a while, before calamity strikes, as it surely would. Or we could accept that our lifelines must be protected but we are content to curl up in our island and leave the task to our friends.

As reported by the BBC, an economist for the Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that the announcement equated to an increase of £7 billion in defence spending by 2024/25, compared to earlier spending plans.

However, Labour’s leader, Kier Starmer, said in response to the statement that the funding was “a spending announcement without a strategy”. He also raised questions about how the increased spending would be paid for and whether it would come from additional borrowing, tax increases or other departmental budgets.

On 14 January 2021, in response to a written question, Jeremy Quin, Minister of State at the Ministry of Defence, commented on how the additional funding would be allocated:

While the additional funding will help address existing pressures, we will still need to make changes and take difficult decisions to ensure financial sustainability and adapt to current and future conflict. We will decide on the allocation of the settlement funding as part of our normal departmental financial planning and budgeting process.

Speaking after the Government’s announcement in November 2020, Tobias Ellwood, chair of the House of Commons Defence Committee, welcomed the additional defence spending. However, he added that the “cash injection will fail to deliver without a coherent and considered strategy” and called for more detail on how the Government would work with allies such as the US to “address the growing threat from Russia and China”.

What has been the reaction from commentators?

Malcolm Chalmers, deputy director-general of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) has considered the potential impact of the defence spending announcement on the integrated review. He explained in a report published in January 2021 that the defence spending allocated in 2020 is split into capital spending (CDEL), which is due to grow by 43% in the next five years, and day-to-day running expenses (RDEL), which is set to fall by around 2% over the same time frame.

Mr Chalmers said that the spending allocation “is much more generous than in the past in its allocation for capital investment while, simultaneously, squeezing recurrent spending more tightly than in recent years”. He went on to argue that until the findings of the integrated review are announced, it is unclear whether “the curse of budgetary overcommitment, which has overshadowed UK defence planning for the last decade and more, will remain alive and well”.

Robin Niblett, director and chief executive of Chatham House, has said the additional funding commitment had been made at least in part in recognition that a “positive image of Global Britain must be earned, not declared”. However, he cautioned that the committed sum would “at best plug the shortfall for existing commitments to major platforms, such as making two aircraft carriers operational and modernising the country’s nuclear deterrent”. Dr Niblett added that increased spending on British diplomacy was a “missing piece of the puzzle” in the Government realising its ambitions in this area.

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Cover image by Roberto Catarinicchia on unsplash.