Policy Papers

‘For God’s sake, act like Britain’ Lessons from the 1960s for British defence policy

Edward Longinotti |

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Executive Summary

  • Current British defence policy is grappling with the same problem as in 1968: how to accommodate two major commitments, to Europe and to an ‘east of Suez’ global military strategy, within a modest defence budget that can only fund one.
  • Britain’s December 2014 agreement to open a permanent naval base in Bahrain underlines its gradual re-commitment east of Suez.
  • The cap on the defence budget imposed by the Wilson government in 1964, and not external economic pressures as is commonly thought, led Britain to concentrate its limited defence resources in Europe where diplomatic commitments and threat levels were greatest.
  • Efforts in 2015 to limit Britain’s public spending have created a similar ceiling on defence spending today, despite the 2015 Budget commitment to modestly increase defence spending up to 2020.
  • Britain has been drawn back towards the Middle East by new threats, in particular the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. This partial return to east of Suez recreates the strategic overstretch of 1964-68.
  • Britain needs to identify and prioritise a single strategic posture. Choosing east of Suez would counter an emerging and key threat, recognise the reduced threat faced by continental Europe with the demise of the Cold War, compensate for the United States’ pivot towards Asia-Pacific and empower Britain to lead an important defence policy area in Europe.
  • In this way Britain would use its experience in projecting military force outside its borders, leaving continental Europe to focus on its self-defence. 


Britain’s agreement in December 2014 to open a naval base in Bahrain capable of accommodating the Royal Navy’s future aircraft carriers confirms Britain’s return to a military presence east of Suez. The phrase ‘east of Suez’ in British defence policy is a collective reference to two complementary concepts - the conduct of military operations outside of Europe geographically, and the military forces capable of projecting themselves into, and operating in, the extra-European theatre. Thus, ‘east of Suez’ is a shorthand way of referring to both a global military strategy and the tools needed to implement this. Historically, Britain’s pursuit of a global military strategy was a consequence of the need to underpin the British Empire. With the end of Empire and subsequent decolonisation this need was reduced and in the 1960s the Wilson government presided over the formal end of Britain’s military presence east of Suez. British strategy was then refocused on the threat from the Soviet Union in Europe.

Today, changing strategic circumstances - most notably the sustained rise of Islamic fundamentalism - have drawn Britain back into reengaging with strategic developments east of Suez. Britain has fought a succession of wars in the Middle East and is increasingly emphasising modern ‘force projection’ tools. Most notably this includes constructing two new large aircraft carriers, but can also be seen in the acquisition of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and expansion of the special forces units that can be rapidly deployed as ‘boots on the ground’ where necessary.

However, at the same time, Britain remains committed to European security. With a limited budget, British defence policy is strategically overstretched and, as in the 1960s, a decision is required to prioritize either Europe or the Middle East.

The 1964 cap on defence spending and Europe

Britain’s withdrawal from east of Suez was announced in 1968 by the Labour government ostensibly in response to economic pressures beyond its control, including weak growth, currency crises and spiralling defence equipment costs. However, claims that those factors required a reduction in defence spending are undermined by the increase in total public spending under that government of almost one third in real terms from £213.7 billion in 1964 to £278.4 billion in 1970 (2013 prices).

In fact, in 1964 the Labour government decided to cap defence spending at £33 billion (2013 prices) as part of their policy to expand the welfare state, which is comparable with current defence spending of £36 billion in 2013. There is no formal budget ceiling today but the British government announced in July 2015 that it will maintain the non-binding NATO recommendation that members of the alliance spend a minimum of 2% of GDP on defence, which is estimated will give a defence budget of £47.7 billion by 2020. The overall effect of efforts to limit public spending for the decade from 2010 has been to effectively cap defence spending and create a similar financial environment for defence policy making to the 1960’s. Indeed, defence spending of £36 billion in 2013 would need to increase to £43 billion by 2020 simply to keep pace with inflation. Thus, even with the commitment to maintain the NATO defence spending target until 2020, British defence spending will have been held almost constant for a decade, an effective, if perhaps not explicit, budget cap.

The Labour government’s defence budget cap of 1964 forced a reappraisal of Britain’s main strategic positions – Europe, east of Suez, and a nuclear deterrent - in addition to its commitment to sustaining a British defence industry. The government eventually chose to refocus British defence policy on the two areas it deemed most important strategically - Europe and the nuclear deterrent. In 2015, a flat defence budget again raises the need for Britain to reassess its strategic priorities: how to reconcile its obligations to Europe and the nuclear deterrent with the need to engage with an emerging challenge to its security in the Middle East.

In 1964-68 and 2015 the attempts to sustain both Europe and east of Suez, with an insufficient defence budget, caused internal tensions. In 1966 the Parliamentary Undersecretary of State for Defence Christopher Mayhew resigned in protest at the failure of the Wilson government to make a decisive political choice between the two. In December 2013, the Chief of the Defence Staff Nick Houghton warned that attempts to preserve the core capabilities of all current policy commitments risks ‘a strategically incoherent force structure’, which may undermine Britain’s overall defence posture. In both the 1960s and 2015, there was concern that attempting to preserve the military forces capable of meeting all commitments had resulted in a policy of ‘salami slicing’ which ultimately undermined the ability to meet any commitments. Salami slicing is the policy of consistent incremental budget reductions across the entire range of military expenditure without reducing commitments. This can result in forces not truly capable in any area. As an alternative, it was argued it would be better to prioritise certain military functions and remove others completely. This policy could deliver forces that retain a higher level of capability over a smaller range of tasks, accepting that this might require reducing other commitments.

The defence industry

The Wilson government decided that sustaining a British defence industry independently capable of producing the full spectrum of weapons systems was the least important aspect of British defence policy. Thus, in late 1964 British development of advanced combat aircraft, which accounted for the majority of defence industry spending, was abandoned. Consequently, the next generation of British aircraft was cancelled and replaced by a combination of ‘off the shelf’ purchases of American equipment and collaborative European production. This approach continues today with the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) envisaging the RAF of the future equipped with the pan-European Eurofighter Typhoon and the American F35B Lightning II (the ‘Joint Strike Fighter’). The remaining  British defence industry is focused on areas where it is deemed militarily important to retain a national production capability, such as large warships and nuclear submarines, or in those areas without large design and production costs, such as small arms and some armoured vehicles. Thus, current British defence policy seeks to support a minimal defence industrial base, sharing the conclusion of the Wilson government that this enables spending to be concentrated on the more visible areas of defence such as frontline troop numbers.

Nuclear deterrence

In 2015, as in 1964, the nuclear deterrent is nearing the end of its lifespan and requires replacement. In opposition, the Wilson government gave the impression that it would renounce Britain’s nuclear capability but when in office it quickly committed to building Resolution class nuclear powered submarines to carry the Polaris ballistic missile system. This change of policy was driven not only by the presence of a similar nuclear capability in the USSR but also the recognition that at a cost of around 5% of the defence budget very little could be saved from its abandonment, especially in relation to the capability that it offered. Despite the immediate absence of a clear nuclear threat today, the 2010 SDSR committed Britain to maintaining a nuclear deterrent by planning to replace the Vanguard class nuclear powered submarines and refurbish the Trident ballistic missile system, which is also estimated to cost around 5% of the annual defence budget.

In the debates about current British defence policy there has been pressure to reduce or renounce the nuclear deterrent and to consider less capable and supposedly less expensive alternatives. The main suggestion is to replace the ballistic missile system and associated dedicated submarines with cruise missiles released from either aircraft or dual-purpose submarines. Such proposals are countered by the same argument which persuaded Wilson to change his mind in early 1965 - the relatively modest cost of perpetuating the nuclear deterrent in its existing form. The lesson from the 1960s for today is clear: cancelling the nuclear deterrent would not save funds sufficient to support two major strategic positions and therefore the decision over the Middle East or Europe remains to be taken.

The 1968 choice for Europe

The Wilson government professed its commitment to east of Suez early in its defence policy-making process.  The Prime Minister stated in December 1964 that Britain ‘cannot afford to relinquish our world role’ but by October 1966 the Defence Secretary Dennis Healey recognised ‘the theatre which we should leave [is]... the Far East’. Britain withdrew from east of Suez instead of Europe in 1968 for three main reasons.

First, Britain was less politically and diplomatically committed to east of Suez than to Europe. Britain was bound through the 1954 Brussels Treaty to provide a specific minimum force level in continental Europe. In contrast, there was no such requirement east of Suez.

Second, the balance of power in Europe was clearly threatened by a hegemonic power, the USSR.  Defence spending outside Europe was thus a lower strategic priority. Although there were concerns about the need to stabilise oil-producing regions and contain communism in the developing world these were understandably subordinate to the challenge presented by the USSR on the ‘central front’ in West Germany.

Third was the obsolescence of the nuclear tripwire strategy. Under this strategy, NATO planned to deliver a massive nuclear response to even a conventional attack by the USSR. This form of defence, which minimised the numbers of conventional forces required by NATO, ultimately lost credibility as the USSR developed its own nuclear arsenal. This reinforced the need for NATO, and thus Britain, to maintain highly capable, and expensive, conventional forces in Europe.

These factors persuaded the Wilson government to gradually slim down the commitment to east of Suez. The 1966 Defence Review attempted to maintain a limited role east of Suez but planned to eliminate British fixed-wing carrier airpower, arguing that this could be compensated by long range, land based strike aircraft and the rapid deployment of troops using air transport.  The decision to phase out aircraft carriers reduced the ability to project force at long range that is required to pursue a global military presence. A 1967 supplementary defence review further reduced Britain’s east of Suez presence in a final attempt to fund it within the budget cap. However, the position east of Suez was increasingly unsustainable and a complete withdrawal was announced in 1968.  

In contrast, the 2010 SDSR committed Britain to completing the purchase of aircraft carriers capable of operating conventional fixed-wing naval aircraft for the first time since the 1966 Defence Review. The aircraft carrier ‘litmus test’ reveals the different direction of defence policy in 2010 compared with 1966.

The ongoing commitment to Europe

In the post-Cold War era, Western Europe is no longer directly threatened by a hostile military superpower. However, post-Soviet Russia is increasingly assertive, engaging in a sequence of ever more ambitious operations to reintegrate former Soviet territories. Thus the factors which drove the decision by the Wilson government to commit to Europe in 1968, while modified, remain and may grow in the future.

As in 1968, Britain retains an unparalleled commitment to the European continent through the NATO alliance. NATO members in Western Europe are no longer directly threatened and so, unlike in 1968, those countries do not need to hold Britain to a minimum force level on the continent. This has enabled Britain to plan the withdrawal of its remaining 20,000 troops from Germany. However, NATO has expanded since the Cold War to include members such as the Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, which British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon has identified as vulnerable to further Russian expansion. Furthermore, NATO accords these members the same absolute commitment to their security as the Western European states received in the Cold War. The combination of NATO expansion and aggressive Russian foreign policy prevents Britain from withdrawing completely from continental Europe. As such, Britain continues to maintain fast jets on the continent and has contributed around a quarter of the forces to a new NATO rapid reaction force - this is an advance force of 5000 troops that can be deployed in just 48 hours, ahead of the main NATO reaction force of 30,000 troops.

This British commitment to Europe is reinforced by the continuing primacy of conventional forces. It is even less viable and credible today than in 1968 to deter aggression against NATO members with the threat of strategic nuclear attack. A nuclear tripwire could not be used to defend NATO’s current eastern members in response to a conventional incursion, which is likely to be sophisticated, disguised and ambiguous, as the conflict in Ukraine demonstrates.

Thus, the commitment to protect Europe from a direct security threat and Russia’s aggressive expansionism has created uncertainty over the force levels required in Western Europe to protect all NATO members, particularly those on the eastern fringes. An added strategic threat for European nations is the rise of Islamic fundamentalism on its borders. As this paper has demonstrated, Britain cannot afford two major military positions and the historical resolution of this problem, to rely on the US to face down the extra European threat, may no longer be available.

East of Suez and the changing position of the United States

When Wilson decided in favour of Europe, there was no immediate security threat east of Suez. However, Wilson’s decision to withdraw from east of Suez was strongly opposed by the US. Days before the announcement US President Johnson expressed his ‘deep dismay’ to the Prime Minister. US Secretary of State Dean Rusk was less diplomatic and castigated the Foreign Secretary George Brown:  with the words, ‘for God’s sake, act like Britain’.

Despite British fears of irreparable damage to the special relationship, the US reconciled itself to the British withdrawal. Although the US valued a British presence in South East Asia to help maintain stability and contain communism, the former was ensured by rapid industrialisation from the 1960s onwards and the latter significantly aided by Nixon’s 1972 diplomatic breakthrough with China, which prevented alignment with the USSR.

In the Gulf region Britain’s withdrawal was also strongly opposed, notably by those states that would lose the shelter of the British military umbrella. The Foreign Office summarised the spectrum of responses as ranging from ‘apprehension to shock and panic’. British withdrawal was compensated by increased American diplomatic engagement and the absence of an actor immediately capable of challenging America as the main guardian of Western interests.

However, the factors that generated security east of Suez have in the post-Cold War era produced unforeseen consequences which increasingly dent American ability to maintain security in the region alone. The most significant such development is China’s emergence as a new power capable of challenging the US. American foreign policy traditionally seeks to prevent the domination of either Europe or Asia by potentially hostile powers. As the Soviet threat has declined, so too has the perceived American self interest in continuing to guarantee the security of Europe. The US does not perceive Russia as sufficiently powerful to justify Europe as the focus of its defence policy. With Soviet decline and the rise of China, the US sees the primary threat to its security in Asia. Whereas in the late Cold War years the US permanently maintained 140 A10 ground attack aircraft in Europe, now there are none. Even the Ukraine conflict only elicited a six-month deployment of 12 aircraft, as a token show of force from February 2015. The difference is now for Europe to make up.

Another development is the emergence of actors in the Gulf capable of challenging the US. The Iranian Revolution in 1979 was a clear affront to American attempts to quietly manage Western interests in the Gulf and an indicator of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. This rise was further accelerated by the Soviet-Afghan war of 1979-1989, in which Western haste to ensure the defeat of the Soviet enemy gave Islamic fundamentalists a victory that could be ascribed, and hence lend legitimacy to, their beliefs. Both the US and Britain have attempted to tackle this new security threat, which did not exist pre-1968, in successive interventions: the First Gulf War in 1991, the Western invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 (joined by Europe through NATO in 2003) and the Second Gulf War in 2003.

At the same time, the US has reduced its reliance on and therefore vital interest in the Gulf region, through exploiting new oil and gas production techniques at home. By late 2014 the US had overtaken Russia and Saudi Arabia to become the world’s largest oil producer, with complete American energy independence estimated by 2035. In contrast, Britain is still overwhelmingly energy dependent on the Gulf, in particular Qatar, which provides a majority of British gas. Europe has also failed to exploit new energy production techniques and as a result is dependent on Russia for around a third of its gas supply. This limits European responses to Russia’s aggressive foreign policy.

This combination of energy dependence and proximity to instability in the Gulf region has led Britain to re-engage east of Suez, albeit limited to the Gulf rather than South East Asia. When coupled with the inability to shed the commitment to Europe, Britain is effectively replicating the unsuccessful 1964-68 experiment in maintaining two major military positions.

The clearest evidence of the strain of these commitments are the contradictory decisions over the future of aircraft carriers in the Royal Navy. The 2010 SDSR resulted in the immediate retirement of Britain’s carrier-borne aircraft and the retirement or conversion to other roles of Britain’s existing aircraft carriers, largely on grounds of cost. As a result, Britain will not operate aircraft carriers for at least a decade, despite the east of Suez commitment that requires the ability to project force over long range, which in the absence of fixed bases overseas requires aircraft carriers.  However, in the long term this ability is considered sufficiently important to continue with the procurement of the two largest aircraft carriers ever constructed for the Royal Navy, the first planned to enter service in 2020.


The Wilson government that increased total public spending by a third in the 1960s and the Coalition government that reduced it by 2.5% in the 2010s face the same strategic choice of Europe or east of Suez because their defence policies limit defence spending.

One response could be to significantly increase the defence budget, to around 2.6% of GDP.  However, with the recent announcement that Britain will maintain defence spending at around 2% of GDP, this is unrealistic.

A viable alternative could be for Britain, and most importantly Europe, to recognise that Britain’s commitment to Europe was only justified by the exceptional circumstances of the Cold War. NATO’s Deputy Supreme Commander until 2014, British General Sir Richard Shirreff, said in 2015 that ‘Europe has effectively disarmed itself'.  Europe could divide responsibility for tackling the threats it faces between its member states taking account of their history and capabilities. This will require the major continental European countries to maintain defence budgets adequate to guarantee the security of the European mainland.

A Europe prepared to guarantee its own territorial integrity would enable Britain to engage with a threat that Europe is even more reluctant to deal with - the accelerating rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the Gulf region. Of all the European nations, Britain is arguably most suited to working with the key Gulf states because of its history in the region and its military capabilities.

A Britain and Europe that cooperated to prioritise responsibility for defence between the European and Gulf regions would provide Britain with a clear area of leadership within Europe. It could also reassure Britain that being fully committed to Europe does not have to mean leaving the rest of the world and would strengthen the political case for Britain remaining in the EU.

The current ceiling on the defence budget requires Britain, as in 1968, to make a choice between Europe and east of Suez. The US is increasingly disengaged from both. Unlike 1968, instability in the Middle East represents an important challenge to the security of all European nations. The solution is for Britain to complete a limited return to east of Suez, focused on the Gulf region, which can only be fully achieved when the rest of Europe takes complete responsibility for its own defence.

This policy direction should not be dismissed as either British delusions of imperial grandeur or a predilection for ‘wars of choice’. Rather it is the application of the lesson from 1968 that Britain's relatively modest defence resources should be concentrated in a single theatre against the preeminent strategic threat.

Further Reading

Saki Dockrill, (2002) Britain’s Retreat from East of Suez: The Choice between Europe and the World? Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Edward Longinotti, ‘Britain’s Withdrawal from East of Suez: From Economic Determinism to Political Choice’, Contemporary British History, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13619462.2014.974567#.VSZFgPnF-2E

Saul Kelly and Garry Stansfield, ‘A Return to East of Suez? UK Military Deployment to the Gulf’, RUSI Briefing Paper, http://www.rusi.org/downloads/assets/East_of_Suez_Return_042013.pdf

Doug Stokes and Paul Newton (2014) ‘Bridging the Gulf? America’s Rebalance and the Middle East Challenge for the UK’s 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review’, The RUSI Journal, Vol.159, No.1 (February/March), pp.16-22. 


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