One of the Tories' strongest suits has been their unqualified support for British militarism. Whereas Labour's record has never been one of principled anti-imperialist internationalism given the nature of the party and its support base, the influence of pacifistic, unilateralist and anti-militarist positions have ebbed and flowed and have tended to be (rightly or wrongly) associated with Labour's "ideological family".
This is not the case with the Tories. Where there has been episodic opposition to particular military adventures, such as Iraq, it has tended to be qualified in terms of pragmatic considerations rather than overarching principles. This is after all the party who last exercised an "independent" foreign policy by taking Britain to war over the Falklands, are most associated with Britain's nuclear deterrent, aggressively prosecuted the Cold War to its conclusion, and enthusiastically joined in America's assault on Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War. And that's just the recent history.
So cuts to the military budget was always going to be a hot potato for the Tory party. This is the context for the leak of defence minister Liam Fox's letter to David Cameron. In the piece, Fox opines that big cuts could threaten front line morale and hit the Tories themselves: "I am concerned that we do not have a narrative that we can communicate clearly", he moans.
He is right to be worried. Since Blair's invasion of Iraq the Tories have opportunistically jumped on every logistical problem for political advantage. Not enough flak jackets to go around? A shortage of helicopters? Inadequate armour on APCs? No matter the issue, the Tories were over them like a rash trying to tap into the latent but widespread support for "Our Boys". So to be seen dismembering the armed forces is very dangerous for the Tories short and medium term electoral prospects.
But the issues Fox highlights are potentially more catastrophic than a set back at the polls. The Tories' obsession with the deficit was bound to cause ructions within capital itself. The financiers and their lackeys in the City were never going to be too concerned. Despite Dave's Big Society rhetoric it remains responsibility-free business as usual. On the other hand, for manufacturing and construction capital the Coalition's subordination of economic policy to deficit reduction was always going to drive parts of this sector, especially that dependent directly or indirectly on public sector spending, into some form of opposition. These cuts however are different. Not only do they threaten to upset British arms companies grown fat on decades of military Keynesianism, but shake up one of the key organic props of Toryism itself: the officers' establishment.
This is akin to New Labour's ill-thought attacks on its core support. By slashing spending here not only are the numbers of officers under threat but so are the cosy careers many can assume upon retirement in the arms industry. Tory MPs from a military background will not be pleased and many beyond their numbers will be subject to the high society pressure of esteemed brigadiers and colonels. While by itself it won't be enough to split the party, it could mobilise a back bench rebellion of sufficient magnitude to scupper Osborne's military spending plans and with it the whole edifice of the cuts programme. Using his own rhetoric against him, will party interest come before national interest?
Not many on the left will lose sleep over this. Despite claiming to be opposed to all cuts I can't see many Trotskyists marching for Trident or demanding the aircraft carrier programme goes ahead. And yes, one can sit back and enjoy the schadenfreude of the Tories fragmenting at the rate of their beloved cluster bombs. But we need to make clear our own positions on what is to be done about "defence": calling for the army's abolition and a workers' militia just won't cut it if we want to exploit the Tories' divisions to the full, let alone effectively tackle the persistent roots of British militarism.
Update: Duncan recommends Eric Joyce's shadow cabinet pitch as a means of thinking about Labour and the labour movement's relationship to "defence".