Sunday, 1 May 2016

Might the word be mightier than the nuclear missile?

It’s a commonplace of British foreign policy that the country needs to “punch above its weight.”

With constant repetition, the idea has seeped into received wisdom, becoming one of those obvious truths we all accept without question. But questioning it badly needs.

To start with, the expression comes from boxing. In most sports, injuring an opponent can lead to a sanction by the referee; indeed, if the injury is deemed to be deliberate, the sanction may be serious, even career-limiting. The aim of boxing, on the other hand, is to cause deliberate injury to the adversary, as quickly as possible, and decisively. It’s hard to see how that can even be classified as a sport. And doesn’t a national goal become suspect precisely for being drawn from a metaphor drawn from it?

In any case, a boxer who kept boxing above his weight would be bound, ultimately, to come up against an opponent who would be undeterred by any cleverness or technical proficiency the fighter showed and would simply use his superior weight to crush him.

As it happens, that isn’t a bad parallel for British defence policy. When British politicians talk about the British punch, they’re mostly talking about the country’s nuclear weapons. They’re impressive when it comes to potential to do incalculable damage to the world. But compared to the arsenals of the United States or Russia, they’re trivial. If we fell out seriously with Russia, we’d soon discover that punching above our weight was a terminal occupation. As our (relatively) puny force was met by their overwhelming might, we’d just have to time to ponder the error of our ways before oblivion.

This last week I was in Madrid and at one point wandered past the British Council headquarters. A fine, even palatial building. It’s the centre from which the Council runs a series of mostly educational initiatives: teaching English, making books available, laying on shows or lectures, all with a British theme.

We don’t do anything like as much of that as we ought. To pick a sporting metaphor from outside the boxing ring, we’re not playing to our full strength. Britain can make cultural contributions to the world that are impressive. Making an impression, that is, in a much more pleasing way than a Trident missile could.

A Trident missile, and the British Council building in Madrid
Which really projects power most effectively?
Curiously, according to their accounts, the income of the British Council globally was £972m in 2014/15. Within this total, just £154.9m came from the British public, down by 5% on the year before, in line with stated government policy to keep reducing its investment in the cultural body.

At that rate, it would take Britain around 645 years to spend the amount the government plans to spend on Trident over just ten years. But if the government estimate of £100bn for Trident is an underestimate, and the true figure is closer to £167bn as has been claimed, it would take rather over a millennium to spend as much on the British Council as on those weapons of mass destruction.

Whose use would spell our own destruction.

Whereas the work of the British Council might extend and deepen international affection for its home country.

Strikes me that even simple financial expediency should favour the intelligence over the Council over the punch, however weighty, of the Trident system…

1 comment:

Mark said...

Yes, perfectly correct from a humane perspective.
The arms industry however is a very secret actvity, wereby missiles budget allocated to.
So, conveniently, nobody else the than Military & Co has detailed access to the effective accounted use of the money, and/or the real cost of nuts and bolts involved.
The object is, of course, not to produce arms in view of using them, but to allocate public ressources to some privileged sectors of the economy. This is what Lordship is about, I presume.
So, vast amounts of money serve an industry which,if had to share with the idea of a united European army, would lose most its prerogatives.
Brexit would, on the other hand, obviously reinforce it.
It seems UK needs to be militiraly autonomous. Because the Germans and foreigners etc...