As the race with the Conservative Party to select and new leader and UK prime minister continues, we have seen a number of pledges to dramatically increase UK military spending. Below GCOMS-UK assess what the impact of the delivering each of the candidates pledges would mean for the UK economy and public service provision.

Current UK Military Spending

Current UK Economic Outlook

The current cost of living crisis is predicted to worsen significantly in the short term.

  • While downgraded, the OECD still predicts 3.6% UK economic growth in 2022, against a 0.0% growth prediction for 2023. 6
  • UK Inflation reached 9.1% in May, the highest in over 40 years and widely predicted to reach double figures before the end of the year.
  • Successive pay freezes have made public sector workers particularly vulnerable. Doctors had already seen wages shrink by 10% compared to a decade ago, the figure is 7-8% for nurses and midwives. 7 In the context of the huge debt owned to key workers and the current crisis in NHS recruitment, further calls for ‘pay restraint’ are not only unjust, they are untenable.

Cost of living crisis spending vs. proposed military spending increases

The full cost of emergency measures to tackle the cost of living crisis (including income & council tax breaks and one off payments) have been calculated to cost 0.4% of GDP. 8 Current pledges (by more than one candidate) to up military spending to 3% of GDP, will cost the public purse more than double these current emergency measures. Every single year.

What Are the Candidate’s Positions on Military Spending?

Rishi Sunak

As Chancellor of the exchequer Sunak oversaw the largest percentage increase in UK military spending in almost 70 years, representing £24bn in additional funding this parliament. More recently he has been involved in a public row with the Defence Secretary for not increasing the budget further in response to the invasion of Ukraine.

He has stated that he sees the NATO 2% of GDP target ‘as a floor, not a ceiling’, though when asked to confirm support for Johnson’s 2.5% by 2030 pledge he responded that defence spending should not be determined by ‘arbitrary targets’.

Liz Truss

Vocal on military spending in her role as Foreign Secretary, particularly in calling out NATO allies. “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.”

She has pledged to increase military spending to 3% of GDP by 2030 and take a more ‘proactive’ stance not just against Russia but also China.

Tom Tugendhat (Update: eliminated 18th July)

Wrote last week in The Sun that he would increase military spending “on day one as Prime Minister” and that he “will commit to spending 3 per cent of GDP“, meaning “up to an extra £18bn per year.”

The army reservist has made much of his service record, but has been less keen to discuss where the money would come from, given he has also promised a significant reduction in taxation.

Kemi Badenoch (Update: eliminated 19th July)

Has been critical of MoD procurement practices and while she favours increased military spending, says these would need to be met by cuts in government domestic expenditure – “no stronger defence without a slimmer state.”

Penny Mordaunt (Update: eliminated 20th July)

Former (short-lived) defence secretary has pledge to continue with Johnson’s NATO commitment of increasing UK military spending to 2.5% of GDP by 2030. She has also pledged to enforece manifesto commitment to increase spending by at least 0.5% above inflation annually.

She has been vocal that she believes the UK is under-spending on the military and made this a major attack issue on Sunak during the campaign.

NATO as an engine of spiralling military spending

30 Countries are part of the NATO military alliance in 2022, while that is just 15% of world nations, NATO countries represent the majority of military spending worldwide. In 2014 NATO member states agreed to work toward a target of 2% of GDP for the military by 2024, under significant pressure from the US. 9 countries were judged to have reached this target in 20229. All NATO member states (with the exception of the US) have increased their military burden to work toward the NATO target.

As the second largest spender in NATO the UK has played a role of supporting US pressure on other members, particularly under the leadership of Johnson and Truss. Alongside NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the Madrid summit last month, they pushed a common line for increased spending beyond the 2% two years ahead of deadline, calling on members to ‘dig deep’.

So what level of spending is sustainable?

At the 2018 NATO summit, Donald Trump famously called on all NATO members to increase their military burden to 4% of GDP in line with his aspirations for US DoD spending. But fundamentally the US is an outlier in terms of military spending, for context the average military burden in south and central America is 1.05% despite their having far lower GDPs and in many cases more significant security concerns. Even the world’s second biggest military spender, China, has a military burden (at 1.23% of GDP) around one third that of the US. Do the MPs and journalists calling for the UK to aim for US level spending think China should do the same?

As NATO spending increases so will that of our ‘adversaries’, even if we are lucky enough to avoid a full scale conflict, the losers will be the domestic populations of all parties, trapped in a cycle of runaway militarism.

Source: GCOMS-UK – the British branch of the Global Campaign on Military Spending

18 Jul 2022 by Matt Fawcett

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