Increasing defence spending as a share of our economy would be a mistake

Pressure for higher military spending is being ratcheted up following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It represents part of a huge ideological challenge in favour of greater military spending in western countries.

Britain spends two per cent of its GDP on defence, the agreed amount for Nato countries, but there is now a sustained campaign to increase it still further.  Voices for a build-up are to be found within the Conservative party and amongst sections of the military establishment – but it also manifests itself in Labour.

The Tory chair of the defence select committee, Tobias Ellwood, has pushed for a rise to three per cent of GDP.

Jeremy Hunt goes further. He is reportedly “calling for the UK to boost defence spending to the same level as the US – 3.7 per cent of GDP.”

Without committing to them, Liz Truss has flagged still higher potential levels: “Many countries still aren’t meeting their target of spending 2 per cent of GDP on defence. And let’s be clear – that is a minimum. In the Cold War we were spending far more – upwards of 5 per cent. We should be ready to do whatever it takes to respond to the challenges of today and tomorrow.”

But arguments for allocating more expenditure to defence are not limited to the Conservative party and the right.

Prior to the chancellor’s spring statement the Times reported Keir Starmer as wanting growth in the defence budget.

“Starmer says that Rishi Sunak should use the spring statement this month — not usually a major fiscal event — to dramatically increase defence spending. ‘I do think that the government needs to use the [statement] now in two weeks’ time as an opportunity to look at our defence spending,” he says, adding: ‘I think a lot of his own side will be looking at him to do that.’”

Labour’s position is now to call for an urgent new defence white paper, to include a review of defence spending:

“Ministers must respond to new threats to UK and European security, just as Labour in government did after the 9/11 terror attacks with the largest sustained increase in defence spending for two decades,” John Healey argues.

Labour has not yet put a figure on how far upwards the defence budget should go.

Labour’s emphasis on 9/11 is a very poor move. The post 9/11 expansion of defence was deployed in bloody and damaging wars.

9/11’s aftermath was characterised by discussion of new systemic conflicts which in turn became a theoretical or ideological justification for disastrous decisions.

Paul Mason also intervenes into the labour movement for an increase in defence spending. It is an intervention in the sense that it consciously seeks to persuade different strands of opinion within the Labour party of the case for higher military spending and argues that it will need to be sold to a sceptical electoral base “deeply suspicious of war and militarism.”

Paul Mason has described Labour’s demand for a defence white paper, including the review of defence spending, as “light on detail” but “a step in the right direction.”

He places his support for raising the share of the economy dedicated to defence spending within a wider systemic battle – he writes of “a global conflict between systems: democracy, science and the rule of law versus dictatorship, disinformation and armed anarchy.” Or, again, last week: “it’s not up for debate any longer. We’re in a systemic conflict vs totalitarianism.”

At a time of a severe crisis such as Ukraine it would be easy to get sucked into arguments for higher defence spending. Easy and wrong.

We should be absolutely clear of what the demand involves.

In “The Labour left needs to get serious on defence” for the New Statesman, Paul Mason declares “We’re going to need a much bigger defence sector”, and argues: “Whatever the mixture of forces required to deter Putin across land, sea, air, space and cyberspace, we know they’ll have to be bigger, and we’ll need to spend more on them.” His demands also include a larger reserve army.

If this does not fully convey the scale, then the magnitude of the envisaged expansion is set out in Paul Mason’s February 2022 essay  “For a new political economy of defence.” Here, he cites an unpublished 2018 speech – The Defence Purpose – by then-Chief of Defence Staff Nick Carter, in which Britain, said Carter, needs “the ability to cope effectively with a sudden and drastic change in the defence budget – e.g. going from 2% to 5% of GDP if faced with a sudden, unforeseen threat – and to expand both our capabilities and capacity in a wide range of areas (forms of power), not just in classic military ‘hard power’.”

Though Carter’s arguments were not acted on, Paul Mason finds in them an opportunity for Labour: “if you turn Carter’s challenge into a series of proposals, their obvious congruence with Labour’s industrial, fiscal and social objectives becomes clear.” Indeed, they should be regarded as square one:

“Taking Carter’s 5% of GDP scenario as the starting point, Labour should commission research showing where Britain needs to build new defence industrial capacity – both actual and latent – and how a mixture of state funding and private-sector investment can be mobilised to create it.”

Constructing a programme for spending in which defence is able to move from two per cent to five per cent of GDP means eye-watering amounts for the defence sector. For clarity, Paul Mason speculates on the consequences for economic growth if Britain rapidly re-armed, “raising its defence spending from the £50bn planned for 2024 to (say) £125bn”.

What does these visions of arms build-up mean for our society? For one, the military would extend its reach further into much wider aspects of our society

As Paul Mason argues, it would mean a bigger reserve army on top of the army itself.

Much more than that, Paul Mason says in his essay, to put the UK in a position to more than double its defence spending in a crisis “would need government-fostered clusters in science, engineering, materials, space, cyber and defence leadership – linking universities with manufacturers and technology companies in a wholly new and intensive collaboration, in part funded by the state.”

It is a dystopian vision for our education system – in which higher education institutions, students and staff are corralled for military research for arms manufacturers and defence contractors on a new and intensive level. Any attempt to shift towards such a dystopian future for the universities would lead to a revolt of students, academics, intellectuals – with whom the left of the Labour party would naturally form an alliance. Young people, who stand to lose most from looming militarism, have traditionally formed the core of such movements.

Consider the progress that could be made if the degree of state support for this military-education model was instead directed into green technology alternatives to catastrophic climate change.

In reality a serious fight is underway to win hegemony for military expansionist positions, in which arguments from the labour movement’s own side are far from unhelpful to the main actors. Building up the defence sector budget is one very important goal of this fight. Yesterday the Today programme carried a substantial item, which discussed whether the public ought to be “mentally ready” for a wider war including directly with Russia – which of course risks nuclear war.  It included academic arguments comparing the present situation to Czechoslovakia in 1938 and military arguments in favour of increased defence spending as a proportion of the economy.  “Do we need to accept,” asked Nick Robinson, “that despite repeated declarations from the leaders of the west, from Joe Biden, or Boris Johnson, or Emmanuel Macron, that this is not and will not become a war between Nato and Russia – it might yet become one?”

The Today programme considered the comments of retired General Sir Richard Shirreff who has argued: “Until Nato is ready for the worst case it can really make no decisions about any form of intervention, escalation or the like. And as I say the worst case means…ensuring that our people, our populations, our states, are mentally ready and physically ready for the worst case, which is war with Russia.”

The invasion of Ukraine has of course precipitated a new surge for military spending by other states. Germany’s new government is re-arming, pushing German spending up to the Nato target of two per cent of GDP. (This will mean total German spending will edge higher than Britain’s). President Biden is adding $17bn for US defence above the total of $796bn expected this year.

And the forthcoming Nato summit is now the focus of thinking about new steps, even including policies such as conscription, as the New Statesman’s Jeremy Cliffe reported on 30th March:

“The one big, fixed event on the horizon is the Madrid summit in June, which is shaping up to be the most consequential Nato gathering since the end of the Cold War. ‘Madrid is the critical moment,’ says [Estonian politician] Marko Mihkelson.

“That gives the West limited time to answer several big questions. On what will the increased defence budgets be spent and how will that be coordinated? Which countries will contribute to and lead the new EFPs? [Enhanced Forward Presence battlegroups]. What improvements need to be made to Nato’s missile defence? Should member states reintroduce Cold War-era conscription policies?”

In truth, the western military alliance already completely dominates military spending. Within the gargantuan amounts allocated to military and defence in the Nato alliance, UK defence spending is already at very high levels. Britain’s commitment to the Nato two per cent of GDP alone stands at £45bn. The UK is still one of five highest spending countries in total. Pressure to keep pushing military spending higher in this context – in which the Nato countries hold such crushing levels of military spending power – is a wildly misguided use of resources, even before any of its most dystopian consequences are considered.

Nato countries crushingly outstrip defence spending of any other state. In fact, even without Nato, the United States is the globally dominant military power by far. The US accounts for just over four per cent of the world’s population but as the Economist noted this month, “America’s defence budget accounts for a whopping forty per cent of global military expenditures.” CND argues that the US spends more on its military than the next twelve highest spenders combined. The Financial Times lists the US as spending $754bn on defence, with – as comparisons – China on $207.3bn, Russia on $45.8bn, Britain on $71.6bn, France at $59.3bn, Germany at $56.1bn.

Not only is defence spending very high, but arguments to build it up are a threat to other expenditure.

It is simply not the case that there is no downside to the case for building up defence spending, although Paul Mason argues in his defence essay that if Britain rapidly re-armed, “that need not be a zero-sum deduction from other expenditure, and would – if done right – boost GDP by a similar or larger amount, because of the multiplier effects.”

But an incoming Labour government would face very serious decisions about spending and taxation there and then. It will choose immediately on education, health, foreign aid, public sector pay, transport infrastructure, green jobs and so on, as well as defence. A programme for raising Britain’s defence spending as a share of the economy risks – in concrete terms – becoming a decision to deny some other element of expenditure elsewhere.

Importantly, Britain has Tory government, not a Labour one, and the debate is happening now. Tories who want higher defence spending will not be afraid to use available left voices for higher defence spending as a useful tool for their own case.

Should the left collapse into an advance guard for wrong public spending priorities under a Tory government it would kick the chair from under itself.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will dominate the dynamics of Labour’s defence debate for some time, including into and out of this year’s annual conference and through into the process of drawing up a manifesto for the general election. German re-armament and increased defence spending in the USA will reverberate through social democratic discourse in the west, including in the Labour party in Britain. Preparing for the debate about defence spending, including mobilising all the arguments about why building up defence spending as a share of the economy would be a mistake, will inevitably become a larger part of the left’s discussion, strategy and political activity.

As a programmatic offer, raising Britain’s defence budget up from two per cent of GDP is a cul-de-sec for Labour. It is a folly that means being seen to favour shovelling money into defence when the entire country is facing a cost of living crisis.

When there is such a dangerous dynamic developing at pace, it requires a left that is able to face it critically and demonstrate that it stands for better alternatives.

25 Apr 2022 by Simon Fletcher

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