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Britain goes for its guns

The British government needs to slash its budget deficit. Yet it seems unable to carry through big cuts in defence spending. Helen Simons examines some links between militarism and the slump

At first sight, cutting military spending seems to make sense for the British government. During the slump public spending on dole payments and aid to flagging industry has soared, while government tax receipts have plummeted as companies go bankrupt. The government is now borrowing an estimated £1 billion a week simply to meet its running costs. Next year the budget deficit will be close to 10 per cent of Britain's gross domestic product - a figure usually associated with third world 'banana republics'.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) appears to be a prime target for treasury cuts. Last year military spending was about 10 per cent of all public expenditure. And, unlike other high-spending departments, MoD spending does not seem to be shaped by the recession itself. The Department of Social Security, for example, has seen costs escalate as the dole queues lengthen. By contrast, military expenditure appears to be more discretionary. In the middle of a debt crisis, a massive military machine looks like a luxury that Britain can no longer afford.

Relegation fear

The government has set about curbing military spending since 1990, when it adopted the 'Options for Change' plan which sought a reduction in military personnel of 18 per cent by 1995. Last November's public spending white paper singled out the military for a further 10.5 per cent cut over the next three years. Having already pared down personnel, most of this saving is expected to come from cutting current military hardware spending (figures quoted in Financial Times, 13 November 1992).

These cuts have pushed Britain down the world league table of military powers. It now ranks below France as a military spender. At times even Tory government ministers have seemed prepared to countenance a more modest role for Britain's war machine. Defence minister Malcolm Rifkind has conceded that Britain might have to re-examine its military role in the world in the harsh light of economic reality. He recently admitted that Britain's problem was 'trying to do too much. If you could reduce commitments you could reduce resources' (Independent, 9 October 1992).

So is economic necessity about to create a more demilitarised Britain, on a par with say Sweden or Norway? After all, the critics argue, there is something faintly absurd about British troops strutting around the globe as though Britannia still ruled the waves, when back home Britain is bankrupt and forced to beg from the world's money markets to make ends meet.

In fact, rather than the economic crisis delivering some kind of peace dividend to British society, Britain is likely to become if anything more militarised as a consequence of the slump. Major's government is already learning that it is one thing to announce cuts in military expenditure, but another thing to implement them.

Shot in the arm

Trying to implement policies of even partial demilitarisation poses both economic and political problems for the British government during the depression.

Even in simple economic terms, cutting military expenditure is not as straightforward as it first appears. Rather than alleviating Britain's economic ills, cuts in the military budget are likely to worsen things for British industry.

For years military spending has been a key component of every British government's industrial policy. By handing out major defence contracts to British manufacturers, successive governments have managed to prop up Britain's few remaining industrial giants. Capitalism in Britain, as in the USA, has depended upon the shot in the arm provided by defence spending. This has been especially marked under the supposedly 'free market' regimes of Margaret Thatcher and John Major. Last year, for example, 37 per cent of the total defence budget of £24 billion was handed over to British manufacturing firms. What is more, as a glance at any of the signatories to such contracts would demonstrate, the firms involved are the leading lights of British industry.

Take the £20 billion European Fighter Aircraft (EFA) project. Today there are 9400 British manufacturing jobs tied up in this contract. Rolls-Royce has been commissioned to design and make the engines, GEC Ferranti are making the radars, while British Aerospace will assemble the planes at its Warton plant in Lancashire. In fact by the time the plane is finished no fewer than 27 000 manufacturing jobs will depend upon this project alone.

British industry treats military contracts as a vital lifeline, especially in time of recession. British Aerospace, for example, is the biggest manufacturing employer in the country. Yet it has already had to announce thousands of redundancies, and most experts concede that British Aerospace could easily go under without the EFA contract. Indeed, without the guarantee of defence contracts the remains of Britain's heavy engineering and shipbuilding industries would all but disappear in the face of more efficient foreign competition.

It is for this reason that, despite all the announcements of cuts and savings in the Ministry of Defence's equipment budget, many commentators find it hard to see where the substantial savings will come from. Project after project has been 'ring-fenced' by the government, making them immune from treasury cuts. As a result, all of the military programmes that really matter are going ahead.

More Tridents

Work has started on the fourth Trident submarine, which many politicians thought would become redundant at the end of the Cold War. The Trident programme will cost £10.5 billion in total and 14 500 jobs hang directly on this contract. With a further 11 500 jobs indirectly dependent on the project, it is hardly surprising that the government has had to think twice about wielding the axe. Still more striking is the fact that the European Fighter Aircraft programme is going ahead, even though its leading paymasters in Germany have got cold feet about the project.

While the military budget will be trimmed here and there, a major curtailment of military contracts will be difficult to carry through. Unless the government is prepared to pull the plug on Britain's leading manufacturers, it seems unlikely that it can contemplate a significant saving in this department. No doubt there will be further shake-outs of thousands of jobs as the authorities seek to maximise the efficiency of military spending. But the militarisation of Britain's manufacturing sector means that defence contracts are likely to come before, say, the coal industry when the government is deciding where its money goes.

The need to prop up British industry is not the only consideration holding back significant demilitarisation measures in Britain during the slump. The political situation at home and abroad makes it even more difficult. Lacking any economic answers to the crisis facing the country, politicians and commentators are increasingly turning to more militaristic solutions to the problems confronting British society. This can be seen both in the arena of international relations and here at home in current responses to domestic problems.

In the international arena, Britain is losing out fast. Britain's economic slowdown has been worse than that of any other European nation. British capitalism is feeling the squeeze from all of its major competitors. The British establishment no longer has the productive manufacturing base necessary to keep up with more potent economic powers such as Germany. With no economic solutions to its crisis available, the British government has looked for other ways to bolster its fading position in world affairs.

A 'wider role'

The one card remaining to the British authorities has been to use their military might. Only by parading what is left of its armed strength on the world stage can the British government justify its position at the top table of international relations.

The need to demonstrate that Britain is still a major player in world affairs explains why, despite the end of the Cold War and all of the economic constraints which the slump has imposed on military spending, defence minster Rifkind has promised a 'wider role' for Britain's armed forces in the world. As well as supporting UN initiatives, British forces can expect to be 'involved in joint actions, possibly involving military deployment against terrorism and proliferation and in humanitarian emergencies as well as crises requiring the evacuation of British nationals' (Guardian, 8 July 1992).

The results of this government strategy of finding a 'wider role' for Britain's military forces can be seen everywhere from the Gulf to the former Yugoslavia. Worried about the prospect of being totally marginalised in world politics, the British government has often been the first to commit its troops to Western overseas missions.

No dropping out

Even in the face of recession, Britain spent £2.4 billion on the Gulf War of 1991. Despite the fact that it got other nations to foot much of the bill for this expedition, the cost to Whitehall was still £615m more than budgeted spending. Although the British government could not afford such an adventure, it had no choice but to follow America's lead in declaring war on Iraq. Whatever the economic cost to the treasury, in strategic terms the British authorities simply could not afford to drop out of the Western military alliance without seriously damaging their standing in all of the world's institutions and markets.

Some of the benefits which Britain has gained from its continued military involvement in the Gulf were illustrated in January, when the government's securing of a £4 billion contract to supply Saudi Arabia with aircraft and other military hardware was just about the only good news for British industry.

Wars of prestige

In the former Yugoslavia today, we see the same tensions between cost and strategic interests being played out. The British government has no wish to be sucked further into an expensive and damaging military conflict. Yet it has to keep pace with the Americans and the French, or risk a serious loss of international prestige and influence. So British forces have been sent in. With Britain's economic weakness exposed by the impact of the slump, such exercises in military one-upmanship are pretty much the only option left for the British government in world affairs.

Whatever cuts in defence spending are promised, the demands of foreign policy will ensure that the British war machine is kept well-oiled by government money. Already the current defence commitments have forced Rifkind to alter the Options for Change plans. In February the government announced a revised scheme which reduced the numbers of military personnel to be cut and reversed the decision to do away with some historic British regiments. Rifkind cited Her Majesty's extensive military commitments abroad as the reason for the reprieve. As Britain seeks to maintain its toe-hold in world affairs, further overseas military engagement is a certainty. So any further cuts in military personnel will be equally difficult to see through.

In the domestic arena too, it is now clear that militarism will dominate the political response to the slump. In the face of mounting problems at home the government and the pundits have nothing to offer but the increased militarisation of society. This does not mean that we are about to see troops patrolling the streets of our inner cities. It means that British society will be organised along more regimented lines. The police will get yet more powers and technology, while politics will be dominated by issues of law and order and reactionary morality.


Even an apparently straightforward economic matter like unemployment is no longer discussed in economic terms. This is not surprising, since the government clearly has no economic solution to unemployment. Instead of even discussing such matters, John Major has floated the idea of 'workfare' as a way to discipline the unemployed and regiment society. Labour spokesmen reflect the same outlook. In fact Labour front bencher David Blunkett has gone further than Major's workfare plan, and called for a kind of national service for the young unemployed.

The same sentiment can be seen in the current preoccupation with crime. Crime has now become the number one issue of public discussion. Every ill of society is explained as an increase in criminal behaviour. And every solution is posed in terms of punishment and retribution. The fact that such a militaristic outlook pervades all discussion points towards only one answer. Everyone from feminists to social workers today calls out for greater police powers. And as the law and order panic grips the nation, the demand for a greater role for the police grows louder. It is a call to which the government will be happy to respond.

In a climate where all of the problems of society are explained in terms of a lack of discipline or authority, no politician will seriously consider curbing state powers whatever the economic constraints. Maintaining military spending will be fraught with tension as the financial state of Britain gets worse, and the government will do whatever it can to make as many savings as possible. But militarised British society is not about to turn into a Norway or a Sweden.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 54, April 1993

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