This is Iain Martin’s weekly newsletter, exclusively for Reaction subscribers.

In 1986 when Margaret Thatcher laid the keel of HMS Vanguard, the first of the new generation of submarines updating Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent, the UK spent 4.8% of its GDP, economic output, on defence.

That was at the height of the Cold War. Yet even in 1992, two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the fourth boat of that class – Vengeance – was approved in the face of Treasury opposition the country was still spending 3.8% of GDP on defence. At the height of the “peace dividend” when Labour came to power in 1997 and the economy was doing well, the number was still at 2.7%.

Today, we’re at 2.3%.

Yet the world is clearly far more dangerous now than it was a quarter of a century ago. The democracies – the US, NATO, and allies including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Korea and Japan – face a formidable quartet of autocracies in Russia, China, Iran and North Korea. The threat is not a blip or a short-term challenge. This is about the next couple of decades and rebuilding our defences to deter aggression and avert further conflict. 

Spending so little on defence, security and national resilience makes little sense in this context, beyond the obvious point that it is difficult for politicians to explain to grumpy voters that we have entered a more difficult, tougher era that will involve pain, sacrifice and less money for other things. Though as the historian Niall Ferguson says, perhaps it is time for politicians to start explaining to their electorates what defeat would look like. I suspect many voters will understand the need to do more now if the gravity of the situation is explained.