Considering that they have rejoiced so often in wrapping themselves in the Union Jack, Tory governments have an inglorious record on defence. Churchill's notorious entry in the index to The Gathering Storm ('Baldwin, Stanley ... confesses putting party before country') may not have survived as an objective historical judgment, but even fifty years on, Britain's preparations for the Second World War hardly look inspiring. The next long spell of Tory government in the Fifties saw Britain's conventional forces run down without revealing how her nuclear capability, which was supposed to justify this, could be made plausible. It was Macmillan's lot to discover that, when he could no longer rely on British technology, the American weapons on which the 'independent' deterrent had become dependent were equally liable to end up on the junk heap. The Thatcher Government proved incompetent to defend even the Falkland Islands, though its gambler's throw in belated overcompensation for its negligence hit the political jackpot on the rebound. And yet Tory prime ministers from Balfour to Home have found an excuse for clinging to office in the contention that the defence of the homeland simply could not be entrusted to their political opponents.
LRB 12 October 1989 | PDF Download