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This may be the last election before the next world war

At a time when the world has not been so dangerous since the height of the Cold War, it is vital that defence, and the imperative of equipping our military and security forces for the challenges that lie ahead, takes centre stage in the forthcoming general election.

The world has arguably not found itself in such a perilous predicament since the early 1960s, when the Cuban missile crisis raised the very real prospect of nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union.

The September 11 attacks against the US in 2001, which took place shortly after Tony Blair had won a second landslide victory the previous June, undoubtedly had a dramatic impact on the global security landscape, even if the main focus afterwards was on mounting counter-terrorism operations against jihadi groups such as al-Qaeda.

Britain’s participation in the invasion of Iraq generated a great deal of political controversy, especially over the Blair government’s justification for overthrowing Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. But it did not prevent Blair from winning another majority in the 2005 poll.

The Soviet Union may no longer exist and the danger posed by Islamist terrorists has subsided, but the emergence of new global threats means that Britain and its allies today find themselves facing a multitude of challenges that could ultimately result in full-scale war.

While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 began the biggest conflict Europe has seen since the Second World War, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s desire to realise Moscow’s imperial ambitions raises the very real prospect of a conflict between the nuclear-armed powers of Russia and the Nato alliance.

Russia’s emerging alliance with other authoritarian regimes, such as China, Iran and North Korea, means that the West’s long-standing pre‑eminence in world affairs faces its most significant challenge since the Cold War era. At the same time, China’s bid to rival the US as the world’s undisputed superpower is likely to result in an upsurge of territorial disputes in the Pacific region, especially over Taiwan, while Iran’s determination to extend its influence in the Middle East is another potential source of conflict.

All of these developments present direct challenges for the UK’s military and intelligence services. Maintaining British military support for Ukraine is vital if Kyiv is to prevail in its war against Russia, while Iranian-inspired aggression in the Middle East has already seen British warplanes in action defending Israel and attacking Houthi rebels in Yemen. Any move by China to invade Taiwan would most likely result in Britain supporting any military response undertaken by the US.

These are all compelling reasons why the major political parties need to make defence, and how they intend to keep the country safe from future challenges, a key feature in their election manifestos.

Rishi Sunak certainly appeared to grasp the significance of the issue when announcing the election yesterday, making specific reference to the Government’s pledge to raise defence spending to 2.5 per cent of GDP by the end of the decade, a move that should provide the military with an extra £75 billion.

The Conservatives’ new-found enthusiasm for increasing defence expenditure does, of course, need to be measured against their record during the past 14 years, when successive spending cuts have resulted in a hollowing out of all three Services.

Even so, Sunak’s commitment to increase spending gives his party a distinct advantage over Labour, which, despite recent efforts by shadow defence secretary John Healey to boost his party’s national security credentials, remains ambiguous on the issue. While Labour says that it would support a budget of 2.5 per cent of GDP, it also says that it wants to see a fully funded plan to reach the target.

As with the Conservatives, Labour’s track record on past defence spending does not inspire confidence, even though Healey is constantly reminding voters that the last time the defence budget reached the 2.5 per cent of GDP level was back in 2010 when Labour was in power.

That may well be the case, but Gordon Brown’s parsimony when it came to supporting Blair’s penchant for launching military interventions meant that, by the time the Conservatives entered office, they inherited a staggering £38 billion black hole in the Ministry of Defence’s finances, a shortfall that was a significant factor in the subsequent decision to make drastic cuts.

As for the other contenders, the Liberal Democrats’ visceral opposition to any British military interventions abroad would make them a liability when it comes to tackling autocratic regimes such as Russia, while the SNP’s long-standing campaign to scrap the UK’s nuclear deterrent would severely compromise Britain’s ability to defend itself against a hostile state like Russia.

In the forthcoming election, therefore, it is vital that the defence policies of all the main parties are subjected to the same level of scrutiny as other key issues, such as health and education. If the defence of the realm is the primary duty of any government, then it must be a top priority in the next election.