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6 September 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 3:10pm

How Boris Johnson’s government could lead the UK into war with Iran

By Paul Mason

Since 2015, when the Conservatives inserted the phrase into that year’s defence review, Britain’s security strategy has been to achieve “global reach”. Confused and hubristic at the conceptual level, the strategy has been made to look entirely hollow by the current tanker stand-off with Iran.

As defence minister Tobias Ellwood admitted, the Royal Navy is “too small to manage our interests across the globe”. In fact, having opened a naval base paid for by the clerical dictatorship of Bahrain, the UK cannot keep more than one of its 13 frigates on station in the Gulf on a sustained basis without straining its commitments everywhere else.

That’s why Jeremy Hunt, in perhaps his last days as Foreign Secretary, had to go cap in hand to Donald Trump, who told him that Britain should protect its own ships, and then to the EU, whose mythological “European army” the Tories have spent two decades deriding as a threat to our sovereignty.

Hunt, during his Conservative leadership campaign, called for defence spending to be doubled. Former defence secretary Gavin Williamson, no doubt soon to return to government under Boris Johnson, threatened to send HMS Queen Elizabeth into the South China Sea. But the whole global reach strategy is a fantasy and – given the real and serious threats to the UK’s national security much closer to home – a dangerous one.

Let’s start with energy. According to the Office for National Statistics, 50 per cent of our crude oil imports and 60 per cent of our natural gas comes from Norway. We’re reliant on Russia, Sweden and the Netherlands for petrol. Coal comes from Russia, Colombia and the US. The electricity we import comes from France and the Netherlands. 

Britain’s energy security, then, relies primarily on a stable and peaceful Europe. Only in liquefied natural gas – with around 30 per cent of UK imports originating from Qatar – can Britain be said to have any kind of primary interest in securing the Strait of Hormuz.

But as the war of sabotage and drone shoot-downs (and fake information) shows: not even the US can secure merchant shipping through the Gulf without the consent of Iran. The safety of UK oil supplies, tanker crews and British-flagged ships will never primarily be secured by the navy: it has to be secured by diplomacy.

Now let’s turn to the real threats to UK national security: they are, on the face of it, terrorism and the new, hybrid warfare being pursued by Russia against Western democracies. The UK has been repeatedly hit by jihadist terror attacks, and the security world has now recognised that right-wing extremism is a real and growing threat. 

At the same time, since the Georgian war of 2008, Putin’s Russia has practised asymmetric warfare against the UK: the methods range from assassinations, propaganda outlets, disinformation, cyber-attacks and meddling in the Brexit referendum to the more conventional methods of dry run attacks towards Scotland with nuclear bombers. To cope with these risks, and the new ones that will emerge as climate change disorders the world, what you need is not “global reach” but a global system.

And therein lies the deeper threat. Not only do large parts of the population fail to realise the seriousness of the hybrid warfare being waged against UK civil society. Many are willing to disparage every aspect of the global system that protects us from it. From the EU to the UN Convention on Human Rights, the default attitude of the plebeian right is hostility. 

Meanwhile, the few politicians tasked with thinking about defence – who for some reason are always the ones with the least brainpower – are stuck in a world of frigates, task forces and strike brigades. And large parts of the military establishment are happy to keep them there.

That makes the arrival in power of Boris Johnson a dangerous moment. The incoming government will be cobbled together from all the Conservative failures and miscreants of the past nine years. From Williamson to Michael Gove to Priti Patel, they are inveterate amateur warmongers.

While Hunt and his faction were prepared to choose Europe and the Iran nuclear deal over Trump and US isolationism, there is no guarantee that a Johnson administration will do so. Meanwhile, in its threat to collapse the British economy in order to achieve a no-deal Brexit, the incoming government is already committed to reckless risk-taking on a colossal scale.

The left’s immediate response to the tanker stand-off should be obvious: reject participation in US aggression against Iran; resolve the issue of mutual tanker-seizures through international law and diplomacy; and – even on human rights grounds, let alone for reasons of strategy – end UK military co-operation with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the other Gulf monarchies.

Beyond that, however, the left needs a strategy to fill the vacuum that will open up as the conceit of “global reach” evaporates. The essence of it should be, as I have argued before, to reform NATO into purely defensive alliance focused on Europe; to embed the UK’s armed forces deeply into the civil society they are supposed to defend, through bigger reserves and the modernisation of armed forces culture. 

And, above all, to adopt an overtly regional and defensive security strategy, focused on the actual and potential threats the UK faces. Putin’s aim is not simply to break up Europe into a multipolar and chaotic space, it is to break up Western democracy. Like the old KGB, modern Russian strategists looks at a society like Britain through the eyes of what security wonks call “the evil doctor”. Whereas a benign doctor looks at all your ailments and asks “how do I make them better”, an evil one asks “how do I make them worse?”

Britain’s most obvious ailments are deep poverty and inequality, an elite whose culture is detached from the everyday lives of most people, a settlement in Northern Ireland that has lasted a century but is quite obviously coming to an end, and a Scotland whose rising generation wants nothing to do with a neo-imperialist, right-wing England. Add to that the de facto racial segregation of some northern towns and cities, despite the huge efforts of local politicians and civil society groups, and the widening cultural gap between cosmopolitan cities and insular small towns – and the evil doctor has a lot to go on.

Add into the mix a brand new government of the disgraced and the dysfunctional, obsessed with sending isolated warships into places they cannot control, and it’s almost like we don’t need adversaries. Into this situation, a Labour opposition that really cared about security and defence would go beyond the negative – important though it is to stop any further adventurism towards Iran. It would spell out an alternative strategy, defence doctrine and procurement priorities that meet the needs of what the most advanced thinkers inside the military really want.

Last November, Nick Carter, the chief of defence staff, warned politicians and civil servants that, if we go on trying to maintain conventional defence spending at 2 per cent of GDP we are “on the road to extinction”. I am told Carter called for a rethink of defence economics, reframing defence spending as an investment, not a cost. He asked – if we did, in times of crisis have to double defence spending – where the industrial capacity would come from to absorb such spending.

And he urged policymakers to think in terms of culture, not scale, studying the way British civil society mobilised for the Second World War, how Norway did during the Cold War, and how the modern reserve systems of Finland and Israel work today. All this should be a huge opportunity for the left – not just because we are the only consistent advocates of the borrowing, planning and spending needed to make this step change. 

The left, as understood broadly, is also the only force that could mobilise UK civil society in a way that deepens and democratises the military. And we’re the only political force with the courage to blast through the nostalgic mist and state clearly: we don’t want Britain to be a “global power” – we want it to be a stable, resilient democracy, a major diplomatic power focused on Europe but trading with the world, and part of a multilateral system governed by the rule of law.

But we have to want to govern Britain, not just fill some different corridors at Westminster with well-meaning people, or fill Parliament Square with placards. The left has to show – over climate change, migration and cyberspace as over defence – that it can think strategically; that it has an alternative vision for Britain’s role in the world, not just a set of objections to the failures of the right.

There’s a lot to worry about with Johnson: his addiction to lying, his flippant racism, his laziness and tendency to commission large-scale spending projects from acquaintances in defiance of normal procurement rules. But the biggest worry has to be the neo-imperial fantasy that underpins the whole project of hard Brexit. It looks ludicrous to professionals in the security space, but to an electorate fed on tabloid fantasies of British greatness, and the perpetual celebration of past wars, it will sound plausible. 

Essentially, that section of the electorate who are dumb enough to countenance a chaotic exit from the EU are also dumb enough to think Britain’s navy, with its 19 surface combat ships, can still “rule the waves”.

Egged on by the tabloids and by Trump, Johnson and his cronies are quite capable of celebrating the revival of their careers by pitching the UK into a hot war in the Persian Gulf as the hors d’oeuvre for a trade deal with the US. 

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