Politicising defence cuts

Having made an issue of cuts to one massively overfunded, corrupt, repressive and inefficient institution – the police – many opposition (specifically Labour) politicians are now making a political issue of cuts to the defence budget. These are two absurd populist dead-ends.

The British military is ridiculously inflated. Our procurement procedures are a complete disaster, but that’s only part of it. We have one of the largest standing armies in the world at 175,000 (plus 200,000 reserves). For the size of our territory that is a vast number – we could stand a soldier every fifty yards around the 11,000 miles of mainland coast in case of invasion!

Is that really what we are worried about, though? Our fellow big spenders give a clue to our real aspirations. We currently spend 2.7% of GDP on defence (thankfully down from 4% in 1990), right in line with Turkey, Iran, India, Pakistan and South Korea, and behind only a few comparable countries – Israel (6.9%), the USA (4.7%), Colombia (4.1%) and Greece (4%).* Militarized superpower China lags behind at a pedestrian 2%.

Jim Murphy MP incredulously asked us to imagine, on the Today programme this morning, an island nation without an aircraft carrier! Can you imagine?! How many aircraft carriers does Iceland have? Or Ireland? Or Madagascar? Or New Zealand? None, obviously.

Other social democracies manage to get by on far less, often around half of UK spend: Spain: 1.3% ; Germany: 1.4% ; Brazil: 1.6% ; Norway: 1.5% ; Belgium: 1.4% ; Sweden 1.3%  ; the Netherlands: 1.5% ; Australia: 1.9% ; Canada: 1.4% ; Italy: 1.7%.

And those plucky, bristling island fortresses: Ireland: 0.6% ; New Zealand: 1.1% ; Japan: 1% ; Iceland 0.1%.

We are told, of course, that we ‘punch above our weight’ in global military terms, as if this is something to aspire to. The mawkish scenes at Wootton Bassett, thankfully now ended, are part of this, as are the deeply hypocritical tabloid campaigns on behalf of our ‘heroes’. It’s actually insulting to those who do something really heroic to have such terms bandied around so universally and loosely. Not least when you’re hacking their relatives’ phones.

Those other global big spenders are either overt colonialists, though, or in a state of permanent war. Israel also punches above its weight, likewise North Korea. India and Pakistan punch one another. Only France, among our neighbours, has similar post-colonial (or rather neo-colonial) attitudes, spending 2.4% of GDP and, with a key role in the Libyan conflict, distracting voters at home from Sarkozy’s many failings with hints at a supposedly glorious geopolitical past.

It’s puffed-up, pompous nonsense in France, as it is here in Britain. Expensive and anti-democratic nonsense too, since in both countries – as in the United States – what Eisenhower referred to as the “huge industrial and military machinery of defense” has a choking grip on public subsidy. The arms trade generates painfully easy money for capital and is something the British have traditionally excelled at. Misery money.

We should be looking to cut at least 40% of our spending on the military, putting us in line with other social democracies. So while I am opposed to all the cuts implemented on austerity grounds, I have little sympathy with our bloated and deeply inefficient military, and even less for the unscrupulous suppliers. Even in boom times there would be much to be trimmed there.

*2009-2010 figures

Published in: on September 1, 2011 at 7:45 am  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. That there is a racialised element to the cuts – falling disproportionately on the already-exploited Gurkhas – should be no surprise either.

  2. I think the other thing to bear in mind, re this:

    > Those other global big spenders are either overt colonialists, though, or in a state of permanent war.

    is that this level of spending is also probably a relic of the 30 years of permanent war in NI. Which is not an excuse, but a reason things need to be reviewed and scaled down, as that particular war is (touch wood) over.

    • I’m sure that’s absolutely right. That might account for some of the drop since the early 1990s actually, but yes, I imagine there is still scope for a reduction.

      Interestingly (foolishly?!) I didn’t include the NI coastline in my glib aside about standing soldiers around on ‘home turf’ when that’s the one part of the UK where it happened….

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