What does Boris Johnson mean when he says the UK is ending “an era of retreat”?

Electoral strategy may be a more important factor than defence in the Prime Minister's latest announcements. 

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Boris Johnson used a striking phrase this morning in announcing a boost to defence spending (it will mean that by the time of the next election, defence spending will be £7bn higher than planned): that the United Kingdom’s “era of retreat” was over.

The phrase is striking for two reasons. The first is that in the past ten years the United Kingdom has actively joined two wars, while having not fully disengaged with two of the wars it started in the previous decade. In the decade before that, it participated in a further three, alongside a series of other smaller military operations. The United Kingdom has been more militarily active in the last 30 years than it was in the final three decades of the Cold War. There are a number of different opinions to be had about the military operations in Iraq, Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Iraq again, Libya, Iraq a third time, and Syria, but the one thing I don’t think you can reasonably say about this period is that it was an era of retreat.

The second reason the phrase is striking is that Johnson himself opposed many of those operations. As editor of the Spectator, he opposed Tony Blair’s intervention in Serbia to stop ethnic cleansing. As Mayor of London he held back from giving David Cameron his full-throated support for intervening in Syria in 2013, and warned against arming the Syrian rebels. He voted for the Iraq war but, like many supporters of that conflict, he has long since recanted and has been sharply critical of the war. He criticised the United Kingdom’s intervention in Libya, saying that the government had been “over-optimistic” in its approach to the conflict. If the United Kingdom has been in an “era of retreat” then it has to be said that Johnson has been in tune with the mood of that era.

But the reality – and this is the real reason the phrase is striking – is that the United Kingdom has not been in an era of retreat. The notion that it has, and that “Great Britain is back” may be an electorally popular one and a potent political message, but it is not true. What the United Kingdom has lacked is a thorough and serious strategic plan for its foreign and defence policy objectives. The United Kingdom last had a proper review of its defence capability when New Labour first took office, and the country’s exit from the European Union, the continuing political volatility of the United States and a series of new threats and challenges all mean the time is right for a new one.

The difficulty is that we have had the spending announcements before the review, so it is hard to assess these spending commitments and their effectiveness. But the “age of retreat” branding makes it hard not to feel that the electorally satisfying options of big, shiny equipment are likely to win out over a genuinely well-funded defence and foreign policy strategy.

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Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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