WE can expect to be at war with China within the next five years, apparently. As if that prospect isn’t troubling enough in itself, you can also add Russia, Iran and North Korea to the mix.

The UK being engaged in full-scale conflict with some or indeed all of these nations within the next half-decade or so is, it would seem, now the official policy position of His Majesty’s Government. How else to explain the speech given last week by Defence Secretary Grant Shapps, who name-checked all the countries listed and went on to say that we are now living in what he called a “pre-war world”?

That is a highly dubious phrase to use for all sorts of reasons. For the people of Ukraine and Gaza, there is nothing “pre-war” about the bombardments they are subjected to daily. As such, one can only assume that Shapps has something far bigger in mind.

His remarks, delivered as part of a speech at Lancaster House in London, must go down as some of the most absurd, dangerous and irresponsible comments from anyone who has ever occupied his office.

Absurd because no-one – not even Shapps himself, one assumes – seriously believes the UK, on its own, is ready to square up to China or any of the others named. Not when UK defence policy is, to all intents and purposes, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Pentagon, and no-one in Washington – regardless of who occupies the Oval Office – will be directed into battle by Grant Shapps.

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But his remarks are, for all their absurdity, also dangerous and irresponsible because they go well beyond what might be regarded as the usual sabre-rattling from within the MoD. It is typical for those who occupy the Defence Secretary’s chair to make the case for more military spending – that is in the nature of the perennial bunfight that all Whitehall departments have with the Treasury over how big a slice of the cake they each get.

So it is not altogether unprecedented or unusual for the person in the hot seat at the MoD to ramp up the rhetoric with slightly lurid language about supposed threats as part of that game.

But Shapps’s speech was of a different order altogether. You can agree with him that the countries he name-checked all pose strategic challenges and threats in their own way. Putin’s Russia and its brutal aggression against Ukraine must be contained. North Korea’s regime is a faintly ridiculous but highly unstable one. Iran is increasingly flexing its muscle as a regional power and China, above and beyond all the others, is a military, diplomatic and economic superpower with repression at home and a growing assertiveness beyond its borders.

You can concur on all these things, and that proportionate military contingencies should be in place for whatever situations each in turn might precipitate, without resorting to the language of the apocalypse and warning of – or almost, it would seem, actually willing – total war against all of them.

That is perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Shapps’s remarks – namely the way they sounded less a warning and more of a call to arms.

The National: Defence Secretary Grant Shapps giving a speech at London's Lancaster House, where he announced that Britain will send 20,000 service personnel to one of Nato's largest military exercises since the Cold War, as the alliance practises repelling an

It is, however, entirely in keeping with the tone, tenor and substance of almost all of the UK’s post-Brexit foreign policy under the Tories, where it seems that just about everything is infused with grandiose notions about Britain’s place in the world, underscored by an ever-present atavistic drumbeat of longing for the days of the Blitz and rationing, in which the Grant Shappses of this world are just desperate to re-fight World War Two.

Shapps’s dismissal of critics of his approach as “unpatriotic, Britain-belittling doom-mongers” was an unintentionally comical slice of self-parody which should tell anyone all they need to know about the seriousness or otherwise of his wider remarks.

In a world where we face the existential threat of climate change, and in which we see many millions of UK citizens facing the most extraordinary social and economic pressures, one might have thought that governmental priorities would be more than consumed by such challenges without seemingly willing the catastrophe of global war on top of that.

In one key sense, it doesn’t matter what Shapps or any of his colleagues say anymore. They will be gone from office soon enough. The question is what stance the Labour government that will replace them will take on such issues. It is clear that, under Keir Starmer, Labour foreign policy will be solidly pro-Brexit, and Labour’s history in office as authors of the catastrophic invasion of Iraq under Blair in 2003 should give scant comfort that they can be trusted on matters of war and peace, but it is surely not too much to hope for that they will at least dispense with the Shapps Doctrine.

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Shapps’s speech actually got relatively scant media pick-up given the genuinely apocalyptic tone and message it conveyed. That is probably a good thing and perhaps betrays the fact that no-one takes his hyperbolic language too seriously.

But while it may not have carved out too much in the way of column inches, web hits or time on the airwaves, be in no doubt that his comments will have been seen, read and listened to in Beijing and the capitals of the other countries listed. It will similarly have been noted in Washington, Paris, Berlin and elsewhere among the nations who are Nato allies and whom, presumably, Shapps believes should be corralled into the grim vision of World War Three that he has in mind.

Quite what they make of it is anyone’s guess. Do they see a UK which is genuinely spoiling for a fight with just about anyone the Defence Secretary can point to on a map, or do they just see the pathetic post-imperial fantasies of a party and a government that lost any semblance of common sense or grown-up diplomacy long ago? It is more than likely the latter.

Stuart Nicolson was previously head of communications and senior political spokesperson for the First Minister of Scotland