I wrote this article for Left Foot Forward, who published it on their website this morning.
Throughout her leadership campaign, Liz Truss said she didn’t believe in handouts. She also promised to throw billions of pounds into raising military spending.
Truss has pledged to increase “defence” spending – as it’s euphemistically known – to 3% of national income by 2030. This represents a 60% increase on current levels. It will cost £157bn – and Truss won’t say where the money will come from.
These figures are are provided by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a thoroughly pro-military thinktank. RUSI’s report last week suggested that the cost of £157bn is equivalent to an extra five pence on Income Tax. RUSI’s Malcolm Chalmers encouraged Truss to prepare the public for either tax rises or cuts to other areas of public spending to fund “defence”.
This is despite the reality that the UK already has the fourth highest military spending in the world.
Truss’ massive handout for generals and arms dealers contrasts with her vague words about tackling the cost-of-living crisis.
At the heart of the issue is the meaning of words such as “security” and “defence”.
Speaking as someone who grew up under Thatcher with my father on the dole, I know how poverty and safety are incompatible. There is no security if you are never sure how you will pay the next bill. Poverty, inequality, unemployment, homelessness and all the horrors they bring in their wake – these are what we need to defend ourselves from. We also need defence against global threats such as pandemics and climate disaster. For many people in the world, military aggression is a very real threat. It is an insult to these people to pretend that invasion is a likely threat faced by people in Britain.
Differences over security are more than a philosophical debate. They are a matter of life and death.
There are three very down-to-earth reasons for resisting Truss’ military spending plans.
Firstly, as RUSI’s reports makes clear, the enormous sums of money involved will mean cuts elsewhere, especially if Truss sticks to her policy of not raising taxes. This would be disastrous given the challenges that we face, with poverty spiralling and the NHS struggling to cope.
Secondly, higher military spending makes war more likely. Militarist politicians and commentators speak constantly about Ukraine because the British public rightly sympathise with the Ukrainian people in the horrendous suffering they face. The militarist lobby seem less keen to speak, for example, about the military training that British armed forces provide to the Saudi forces who are attacking civilians in Yemen in much the same way that Putin’s forces attack civilians in Ukraine.
I doubt the war in Ukraine will end other than through international negotiations and grassroots peacebuilding. However, only a relatively small percentage of UK military spending has anything to do with Ukraine. Far from “deterring” Russia or China, higher military spending only fuels arms races, with Russia and the West repeatedly using each other’s militarism to justify their own.
Thirdly, Truss’ policy represents a dangerous victory for the militarist lobby. In the 2010s, there was a steady stream of media stories about the UK’s supposedly low levels of “defence” spending. In reality, the UK had the seventh or eighth highest military spending in the world at the time. In 2020, as Covid brought a deadly reminder that weapons cannot make us safe, Boris Johnson announced the biggest increase in UK military spending since the Cold War. This was not enough for militarists, whose appetite grows by what it feeds on. Stories about supposedly inadequate “defence” spending soon reappeared, and Truss – who has a record of enthusiastic militarism – was ready to pay for the militarist lobby’s support.
The last two months have seen a string of revelations about military abuse. They include the shocking statistic that more than one in ten young women who joined the British army last year had reported being sexually assaulted within a year. This was followed by the accusation that former Chief of the General Staff Mark Carleton-Smith helped to cover up the murder of civilians in Afghanistan. None of this has deterred Truss from offering her £157bn handout to the organisations responsible.
Sadly, Keir Starmer seems terrified of appearing hostile to militarism. He welcomed Johnson’s increase in military spending in 2020, criticising only a part of the plan that involved a slight reduction in army personnel.
We need to be much bolder. Military spending is integral to Truss’ plans and we cannot resist her government without challenging militarism. We need to say clearly that Truss’ policies will make the world more dangerous and will offer no security to people struggling to make ends meet. The only thing that high military spending will make safe is the profits of arms dealers.