I wrote this article for the ‘i‘ newspaper, who published it online today, Sunday 26th February.
Over the last month, a string of army generals and politicians have warned that British “defence” spending is too low. You don’t need to be a conspiracy theorist to notice these warnings are appearing in the run-up to the Budget on 15 March.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace claimed on Thursday that Britain is likely to be involved in a major war by 2030. Head of the British Army Patrick Sanders wants more tanks to replace the ones sent to Ukraine. And Keir Starmer has called for a larger army.
From the tone of these discussions, you would never guess that the UK had the fourth highest military expenditure in the world in 2021 and that in November 2020, as Britain and the world wrestled with the Covid pandemic, Boris Johnson announced the biggest increase in British military spending since the Cold War.
Looking at Putin’s atrocities in Ukraine, many people in the UK naturally worry about the need to resist aggression, but we must not allow the militarist lobby to exploit this instinct and push for ever more military spending without even bothering to explain how it can help. Nato governments have been sending more weapons and troops into eastern Europe for several years, but this failed to prevent Putin’s vile attack on Ukraine. As a strategy for deterring aggression, high military spending has already failed.
Tory MP and chair of the defence committee Tobias Ellwood claimed that a bigger British Army is needed in case of a war with Russia. But instead of worrying about winning a war, we should be putting all our efforts into preventing one – especially between nuclear-armed states. A build-up of weapons on all sides only makes it more likely that the war in Ukraine could spill over into a global conflict.
Meanwhile, the UK Government and other nuclear-armed powers are refusing to sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Nobody could “win” a nuclear war, in which the number of soldiers on each side would be largely irrelevant.
The backdrop to all this is that people are dying in the UK because of poverty, heating costs and an underfunded NHS. These are real deaths happening now. To increase military spending while doing little to tackle the cost of living crisis would mean prioritising hypothetical threats to life in the future over real threats to life in the present.
Equating security with preparations for war is misguided. For many people, “security” means enough to eat, a warm and safe home, the love of family and friends, a reliable health service and not having to worry about whether they can afford the bills.
The UK Government’s own defence reviews in 2010, 2015 and 2018 identified security threats including natural disasters, climate change, epidemics, pandemics and terrorism. The prospect of war or invasion appeared as one possible threat among others. But when the Covid pandemic came, it was ventilators, not missiles, that were in short supply.
Poverty, pandemics and climate change continue to be global threats, yet calculations by Scientists for Global Responsibility reveal that the British Government already spends £7.45 on preparations for war for every pound spent on cutting carbon emissions.
This is not about being isolationist or neglecting the needs of people in Ukraine. General Mark Milley, chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week that the war in Ukraine will likely end through negotiation and that it is unrealistic to think that either side can achieve a military victory. It’s a naivety that both Conservative and Labour politicians in Britain seem happy to encourage. History will not judge them kindly if thousands or millions more people in Ukraine are killed, wounded, bereaved or traumatised by the time a settlement is negotiated.
It would be hypocritical to give even more billions to the armed forces on the grounds of defending democracy or human rights. The Ministry of Defence admitted in 2020 that British armed forces are providing training to regimes with appalling human rights records, including Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Thus while ministers rightly condemn the Russian killing of civilians in Ukraine, UK troops train Saudi forces who are bombing civilians in Yemen.
Despite the euphemistic name, “defence” spending doesn’t make us safer. There are still people who like to say, “If you want peace, prepare for war”. History has shown time and again that if you prepare for war, you are likely to get what you have prepared for.