|ISSUE 53 WINTER 2006-07
|last one out turn off the lights
action: military and education
The war machine is insatiable. Britain’s military budget is the second highest in the world after the USA’s. ‘Defence’ is the fourth largest consumer of taxpayers' money after social security, health and education. Yet you would be hard put to find a serious discussion in the mainstream media, let alone parliament about the impact these skewed finances might have on state support for public health services, education and social justice generally. ‘In a country as rich as Britain it is embarrassing and shocking that children still live in poverty,’ notes Hilary Fisher, director of the campaigning coalition End Child Poverty.
In 1999, Tony Blair promised to eradicate child poverty ‘within a generation’. Last year, the government was forced to announce that it had failed - by a significant margin - to meet its first target. In the same month that child poverty statistics were published, indicating that 3.4 million children in the UK live in poverty, costly plans for replacing Trident were announced.
In the same month the National Audit Office seemed to congratulate the MoD for going only 11% over budget on new acquisitions, which included attack submarines, destroyers, the Eurofighter, and anti-tank weapons. What the report and almost everyone else failed to ask is what all this hardware was for. Is anyone expecting armoured tank divisions to be heading for the Channel coast any time soon? Apparently not: in the 2003 White Paper the MoD admitted that ‘there are currently no major conventional military threats to the UK or NATO.... It is now clear that we no longer need to retain a capability against the re-emergence of a direct conventional strategic threat’. Obvious to most of us, probably, but it’s good to know we are not alone: at its recent summit NATO, though always on the look-out for reasons to exist, conceded that ‘large-scale conventional aggression against the alliance will be highly unlikely’.
Things are much worse on the other side of the Atlantic. The Bush administration wants Congress to approve an additional $100bn for making life intolerable for people in Iraq and Afghanistan. This would bring US expenditure on the war on Iraq and Afghanistan to over $500 billion – enough to give every American $1,600 or every Iraqi $18,700, but, hey, that’s no way to win people’s hearts and minds! Perhaps more importantly, there would be less benefit to big business: Halliburton’s profits in 2005 were ‘the best in our 86-year history’.
Here as there, big budgets mean big lobby groups supported by a wide range of interests – from arms manufacturers and trade unions to shady salesmen with walletfuls of slush money. According to a Downing Street aide, whenever the head of BAE encountered a problem ‘he'd be straight on the phone to No 10 and it would get sorted’.
Justifying this vast expenditure on pointless hardware, in the face of truly pressing social needs, is a major creative effort. Even so, it is hard to understand why there is so little resistance, why so few questions are being asked. Why aren’t more people insisting that future challenges are insoluble by military means, and are in fact exacerbated by ‘defence’ expenditure almost as much as by Britain’s wars? Even if the effects of climate change turn out only half as bad as many expect, the resultant social breakdowns, mass migrations, food shortages and struggles over failing resources will be infinitely worse than the grimmest scenarios provided by the war-on-terror prophets.
The intelligent thing to do? Redeploy the resources of the MoD to urgent nonmilitary objectives, both here in Britain and elsewhere in the world. Applying those resources to energy efficiency, foreign aid and arms control would bring us a lot closer to a less violent and more sustainable world.