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Sunday, 26 November 2017

The Prime Duty of the State

It has been a primary axiom of government for millennia that the first duty of a government is to defend itself and its people from enemies who would wish to despoil either the public or the personal assets of the members of the community. This requires maintaining a sufficient police system to keep private individuals safe and secure, and sufficient armed forces, sufficiently well equipped, to secure the position of the nation in the world.

Some states are democratic in nature, some are autocratic; and these differences mean that the means by which governments fulfill their primary duty vary enormously. In Britain, we have been lucky to have a generally democratic and fair system; with a reasonable status among nations: though we now know that these are significantly in danger.

People are decreasingly confident that the system is fair, and that the state has added to the duties of defence and law-and-order the obligations to educate the nation in a fair and sufficient system of schools and higher institutions and the obligation to maintain systems of health provision and social care that meet the recognised needs of an ever-changing population. This past week's budget has again shown the utter failure of a regime of Osbornian austerity to correct the disastrous mistakes of the Thatcherites or the idle complacency of the Blair-Brown era. The promise to patch and mend the schools and the health service, and to ignore [for the time being] the increasingly urgent needs of social care and the police and the military, are generally recognised to be not good enough.

As if to epitomise this situation, the Queen's Guard at Buckingham Palace today will be provided by the Royal Navy. Some beancounters in the Admiralty and the Army have recognised that so many of the navy's submarines and surface ships are stuck in harbour because of poor maintenance and a shortage of sailors and of supplies that some seventy sailors can be scraped together to relieve the pressure on the diminished Household Division.

This is not a vainglorious bleat about Britain's lost glory. It is not even a hint that we should try to restore the Empire. But it is recognition - shared with a significant cohort of Tory MPs - that the cuts in defence are dangerous. The more the police is diminished, set against the terrorist threat, the more the army and the navy may be needed to "come to the aid of the civil power" as substitute police and firefighters. If those troops are not there, the nation is in danger.

Against this argument, the government is bleating that the UK has the biggest defence budget in Europe. So, when did Russia cease to be in Europe? Putin has almost completely rebuilt the front-line Russian forces, replacing the decrepit rabble that Yeltsin left behind and raising national morale hugely. France spends less through the formal military budget than the UK; but by other means it maintains the capability to  design and build now warplanes, warships, tanks and guns. Yet again, the excuses that civil servants are supplying to minister to defend the indefensible has become embarrassing. In the twenty-first century, Britain cannot aspire to rule the waves: but we must avoid sinking beneath them.

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