Say no to Johnson’s military spending spree

By Carol Turner

Labour CND is launching a campaign to persuade Labour to oppose the huge increase in the UK’s military spending which was announced a week ahead of the Chancellor’s autumn statement. Here’s why.

On 19th November, in an update on the Integrated Review, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced to the House of Commons that there’d be a hike in the UK’s military budget of £24.1 billion over the next four years. This means Britain’s military spending is set to rise by 10% for the next four years. That’s in addition to an existing government commitment to increase the military budget by 0.5% above inflation during these four years.

The PM’s announcement not only came ahead of the Chancellor autumn statement, but before completion of the government’s Integrated Review which is charged with overhauling UK foreign, defence, security, and development priorities and is due to report early next year.

However, “extending British influence requires a once-in-a-generation modernisation of our armed forces,” Johnson said. The latest technological advances “will multiply the fighting power of every warship, aircraft and infantry unit many times over.”

Responding to the announcement for Labour, Keir Starmer welcomed “this additional funding for our defence and security forces”, beginning his remarks with: “Under my leadership, national security will always be Labour’s top priority.  Britain must once again show global leadership and be a moral force for good in the world…”

Supporting Johnson’s military spending hike, Starmer chose merely to criticise the PM’s “lack of clarity over strategic priorities”, blaming “a decade of Conservative government and under-investment in our armed forces” for a drop in UK military spending.

The reality of the UK military budget is somewhat different to what either Johnson or Starmer are prepared to admit. A small percentage decrease in UK defence spending is in line with the overall decline in global military spending that has taken place since the 1990s.

Notwithstanding, Britain’s military budget remains one of the highest in the world, at an eye-watering $US58 billion according to the authoritative International Institute for Strategic Studies. With a population of less than 67 million people, we are the sixth biggest military spender, second only to the US (pop 328.3 million), China (pop 1.4 billion), Saudi Arabia (34m), Russia (144m), and India (1.4bn).

For the majority of the post-war period, the UK’s budget has been the biggest of all NATO’s European allies, and the highest in the EU. This picture has changed over the past decade, as French spending drew level with that of the UK and as NATO expanded its membership across East Europe.

When the Chancellor’s statement came on 25th November, a week after Johnson’s Integrated Review announcement, Rishi Sunak included a cut of around 30% in the international development budget. It will be going down from the 0.7% minimum laid down by the UN to 0.5% of UK gross national income (GNI).

It has gone largely unremarked that when Johnson announced last February that the government was to hold an Integrated Review, he committed to maintaining military spending at 2% of gross national produce (GDP) and international development spending at 0.7% of GNI.

The ground for the Chancellor’s cut in the international development budget had been laid in a decision by Johnson in spring this year, a few months after the Integrated Review was announced. Against the advice of the Select Committee on International Development, Johnson decided to subsume the Department for International Development (DfID) into the Foreign Office. The international aid budget would be “wholly integrated with UK foreign policy”, he said. Johnson described the merger as “an opportunity to get value for the huge investments we make in overseas spending.”

The government has been quick to deny that the announcement of a cut in international development and the increase in the defence budget are connected. But as Professor Paul Rogers and others have pointed out, international aid will drop by around the same amount military spending will rise by. “Given the COVID-related drop in the UK’s GNI,” Rogers says, “the cut will actually be more or less enough to pay for the military’s extra £5 billion.” Needless to say, a drop of this magnitude will have a significant impact on the programmes international development money is able to support.

Labour opposed the DfID-Foreign Office merger at the time, and remains committed to a 0.7% development budget. Starmer reiterated this in the Commons on 19th November. This leaves Labour as open to attacks about lack of strategic clarity as Johnson himself is.

The position of the front bench on military spending needs urgent action. In the midst of the Covid crisis, with a breath-taking decline in the British economy looming, millions of workers facing unemployment and hundreds of thousands of families already on the breadline – not to mention a growing number of social and economic health deficits – Labour should not be supporting a Tory military spending spree.

Labour CND has launched a campaign to call the Labour leadership to order. Sign up to our webinar on 6thDecember and find out how.

  • Join the Labour CND campaign against the Tories military spending spree:

Register here for our webinar with Jeremy Corbyn and guests

Download our model resolution, and

Visit LabCND website to join our online lobby

Carol Turner is Co-Chair of Labour CND.