Defence Spending: an orphan subject at the election – with a mad uncle

Defence after a few days in the spotlight a couple of weeks ago has settled back to being one of the Cinderella subjects in the General Election campaign. It is maybe fairer to call it an orphan rather than a Cinderella subject: orphan because very few serious politicians pay it anything more than lip service during election campaigns. To continue the orphan analogy it does have an odd, mad uncle who is supportive but that often hurts not helps the issue.

For the left there is frequently a degree of internationalism and distrust of the subjects of militarism and defence spending. Some might call defence spending morally wrong and suggest that there are always more important things to spend money on: those less fortunate in society or for that matter International development.

Furthermore the left have tended to oppose almost all the wars the UK has fought since the Second World War. Usually this has been very laudable and honourable. Suez and the Second Iraq War being the two classic examples and the left’s opposition probably helped ensure our non involvement in arguably the only greater western foreign policy disaster of the post war years: Vietnam.

Those wars the left have supported have tended to be of the peace making / keeping variety such as Sierra Leone where British military presence helped stop a deeply unpleasant civil war.

The right on the other hand had less interest in defence since the end of empire. Advocates of a smaller sate and reductions in the public sector tend not to be in favour of large state institutions. Clearly few are mad enough to advocate even part privatisation of the armed forces (there was some talk in this regard during the heyday of Thatcherism though taken seriously by very few) but in times of austerity the idea of spending money on defence rather than cutting the deficit or taxes has little traction.

This is not helped by the fact that not infrequently defence spending results in vast overspends with equipment or forces requiring far more than originally budgeted for.

The only political constituency which routinely supports increasing defence spending (the odd, mad uncle above) tends to be the odder elements of the old right: the quintessential Tory colonels in the shires (though they often gravitate to UKIP nowadays). They seem annoyed by the decisions not provide the new carriers with cats and traps and to disband assorted famous regiments and still smart about giving back Hong Kong.

A couple of generations ago such people were concerned about the decision to withdraw from east of Suez and scrap both the two new larger carriers to replace HMS Eagle and Ark Royal and scrap the TSR 2. As such this constituency is essentially always dissatisfied that we are no longer an imperial power. They provide a perfect example of 1066 and All That’s explanation that history came to an end when the UK ceased to be top nation. Unfortunately their views have little more logic and credibility politically than 1066 and All That has historically.

Defence spending is not centrally, however, about any of those things and sits in an orphaned position as it is often a long term subject rarely beneficial to the party in or seeking power and often involves unknown unknowns or knowns people would rather ignore.

We will never know to what extent the massive defence expenditure of the post war years prevented a Third World War (arguably very little). Similarly we do not know what if any effect the Trident and before them Polaris submarines and their Russian counterparts lurking in the deep places of the world have had in keeping world peace.

Some cost saving defence decisions can be seen with very long hindsight to have been foolish. Had the 1966 defence review not cancelled the two large aircraft carriers and their attendant escorts it is most unlikely the Argentinians would have invaded the Falklands. That would have saved vast amounts of money and hundreds of lives on both sides but politically the benefit occurred to the Tories (not Labour who cancelled the carriers) and that was 15 years later.

Indeed the monetarist policy inspired decision by the Thatcher government to scrap HMS Endurance (and sell the remaining small carriers) helped inspire the Argentinian decision to invade the Falklands which ironically helped Thatcher when her government sent the Task Force to get them back (Michael Foot and shadow foreign secretary Peter Shore’s unstinting support for opposing the fascist Argentinian Junta is often forgotten).

Far more than Foreign Policy machismo, however, defence spending is about jobs and technology.

The jobs defence spending provides are highly important in a number of sectors. It provides employment for predominantly working class young men (and nowadays women) in the armed forces. Some do end up in problems after leaving the forces but many are provided with life skills where otherwise many would have been long term unemployed or worse. The military also provides high skill jobs both leading the army but also in all manner of technical, professional and managerial occupations. Modern militaries are extraordinarily complex and utilise cutting edge technology all of which require very highly skilled employees to operate.

Even more than members of the armed force defence spending provides very high skill manufacturing jobs in the production and maintenance of the equipment used by al branches of the armed forces. Not only do these skills provide very substantial export markets for British technology (BAE systems is one of the UK’s major exporters) but they are also transferrable to other parts of manufacturing industry.

Although the advantages are seen in the UK they are better illustrated in the USA. There is a tendency to conspiracy theory in the idea of the “Military Industrial Combine” and the suggestions it supports warmongering but the vast US defence sector not only provides very extensive export opportunities but also gives their manufacturers an advantage. Boeing’s ability to compete against Airbus is helped by the US government’s very extensive purchasing of its planes: both military and modified civilian. This can help smooth out the peaks and troughs in commercial aircraft purchasing. If the UK increased its defence spending it might well, if most of the funding was spent within the UK, pump prime a highly profitable part of our export industry. It is not unreasonable to hypothesise that more extensive naval expenditure might have kept more of the UK’s ship yards in business.

Defence spending also provides manufacturing which has general benefit. The Global Positioning System we all use in assorted devices comes directly from the US military’s system. Satellite technology was initially rocket technology, actually mainly developed by Nazi scientists. Wernher Von Braun was in both the Nazi party and the SS.

Defence spending will probably sway very few voters at the up coming election and is always a long term issue. However, it is worth noting that it is far more complex than the simple knee jerk right wing proposition it is often presented as. The most classic example is probably that the carriers which brought the Americans victory at Midway, the turning point of the Pacific war, were built by the Roosevelt government as part of the New Deal: not a military decision but an economic stimulus package to help in the austerity and depression of the 1930s.

This author has not written a biography and will not be writing one.

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