The United Kingdom has long been famed for its fortitude in the face of adversity. One hundred years ago our soldiers were fighting with breath-taking bravery in the mud and blood of Passchendaele for freedom in the Great War. In the Second World War, our nation, inspired by Churchill’s bulldog spirit, stood against Nazi tyranny and, alongside our allies, won victory in Europe.
Thirty-five years ago, another iron leader, the Iron Lady, ensured that the Falkland Islanders regained their liberty – with British troops sailing 8,000 miles, then yomping to Port Stanley, in the face of bombs and bullets, to raise the Union Flag once more. That year Margaret Thatcher also visited the Berlin Wall, declaring it a “grim monument to a cruel and desolate creed... an ever present reminder that those who repress the liberties of our Eastern neighbours seek also to extinguish our own”.
Today it will be those words that I will remember as I speak at the Centre for Policy Studies’ Margaret Thatcher conference on security in London.
The remnants of the Berlin Wall are now a tourist attraction but no shortage of desolate and deathly creeds have sprung up to take its place. In the past few months, we have been confronted with the horrific spectacle of terrorism at home – in Manchester, at London Bridge, at Westminster and Finsbury Park. We have seen the resurgence of Russian aggression abroad – flouting international norms, allowing indiscriminate attacks on civilians, and undermining democracy wherever it can. In recent days, our Parliament has been subject to a sustained cyber-attack, weeks after the WannaCry virus disrupted operations in the NHS, and affected hundreds of thousands of people round the globe.
In an age of confrontation, when we face multiple and simultaneous threats, today’s conference asks whether the West is now in terminal decline. Far from accepting decline, we must follow the Iron Lady’s lead by acting decisively to defend our country and all that it represents.
First, we should once more speak up for our values and make the case for the West. Ours is the great story of democracy, freedom under the law, and free trade that banished the oppressive nightmare for millions behind the Iron Curtain and gave millions more in the developing world hope of a better life. We are attacked not because we’ve failed, but because of the success of our values. We shouldn’t downplay what we can offer. Like Mrs Thatcher, we too are engaged in a battle of ideas. It’s a battle we must win – making it clear, in word and deed, that our values are not tradable.
Secondly, we must properly call out our adversaries. The parliamentary vote in 2015 marked a turning point, as MPs voted overwhelmingly to extend the campaign against Daesh into Syria. This was a message to the death cult that its vicious anti-values will not win. Our air strikes and army training efforts, as part of the Coalition, have pushed the terrorists, once barely a mile from the gates of Baghdad, to the edge of Iraq. And we’re not mincing our words when it comes to Russia. We will continue to condemn its transgressions in Syria, Ukraine and elsewhere in Europe. This is not business as usual. While the door to dialogue remains open, it must prove it is a partner for peace.
Thirdly, it isn’t enough to just speak out. We must match rhetoric with spending. This new government is committed to increasing the defence budget year-on-year by 0.5 per cent ahead of inflation. Last year the defence budget was £35 billion, this year it is £36 billion, next year it will be £37 billion. This means we can invest £178 billion over the next decade on fifth-generation F-35 fast jets, armoured vehicles, new submarines and two aircraft carriers – the first of which, HMS Queen Elizabeth, set sail on Monday.
And we should use our military power to make the world more secure for this and future generations. British forces are fighting terror in the Middle East, helping to bring security and stability to Afghanistan, and supporting UN peacekeeping in Africa. We are also strengthening Nato – the cornerstone of our defence – in our European backyard. Our brave men and women are deployed in Estonia, testing out the Alliance’s Very High Readiness Force in Romania, and policing Black Sea skies.
These are dangerous times, but the values and institutions that have delivered peace and security are not in decline. They have shaped the world we live in today for the better and they will continue to do so – with the right support – across the 21st century.
As Britain leaves the EU, we will remain proud defenders of the West, stepping up our commitment to tackle the challenges of tomorrow. The Iron Lady began her premiership after a winter of discontent, in the grip of the Cold War and with terrorism rising in the UK. She left with the tide turning, the Cold War thawing and peace breaking out along the frontiers of Eastern Europe. The United Kingdom of Churchill and Thatcher knew dark times before. We also know the darker hours are just before the dawn.
This piece was originally published by the Telegraph.