Stop spending on war, writes Jim Mortimer

Much of the discussion about the economic problems facing Britain is based on a myth.

Put simply, the myth is that Britain’s national deficit between income and expenditure is attributable to unsustainably high wage levels, excessively generous pension schemes (particularly for public sector workers), high levels of social service benefits which discourage the search for jobs, too low a retirement age and unnecessary subsidies for social benefits including social housing, higher education and some disability allowances.

The main advocates of this myth are to be found in and around the Conservative Party and among newspapers sympathetic to the Conservative Party.

Unfortunately, some Labour politicians also subscribe to some of these myths, though almost always in a less emphatic manner than their Conservative counterparts. They subscribe to the ‘responsible’ view that the Labour Party should acknowledge the need for economy in social spending as an essential prelude to recovery. Labour politicians are also usually more ready than their Conservative opponents to draw attention and to criticise the excessive incomes and bonuses received by many of the top people in banking and commercial services.

Nevertheless, some Labour politicians have not vigorously defended or identified themselves with the efforts of working people through their unions to defend their jobs, wages and conditions. They are, in my view, wrong not to have done so.

The reason why they are wrong is that Britain’s economic deficit is attributable primarily to the commitment to unjustified and unnecessary wars in recent years. War, particularly when fought at great distance, is extremely expensive.

There was the war in Iraq. It was conducted by a Labour Government under Tony Blair. It was ‘justified’ on the false assertion that Iraq was in possession of nuclear weapons capable of a destructive attack on Britain or British possessions at very short notice.

No evidence was ever found to justify this allegation, nevertheless an extremely expensive war was conducted which not only added heavily to Britain’s financial burden but led to many deaths both among Iraqi citizens and among the military of the invading forces.

The other very costly military adventure is in Afghanistan seems interminable.

The origin of the Afghan war was partly internal and partly external. The USSR withdrew in 1988 because it became clear that they could not decisively influence the outcome of the internal struggle in Afghanistan and because of their own casualties. The conflict continued and now ten years after invading, NATO continues to suffer casualties, without being able to strike a decisive blow. The Taliban remain in Afghanistan and has neither won nor been defeated, so the war continues.

The third military conflict in which the British Government chose to intervene was in Libya. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Gadaffi regime – and there were both rights and wrongs – it was not the legitimate role of Britain to intervene with extensive bombing raids under the claim that it was defending civilians. Gadaffi was defeated, above all, by foreign military intervention including British forces.

There have also been other expensive military interventions by Britain in recent years. One such intervention was in Kosovo in the determination of some of the Western powers to bring about the disintegration of Yugoslavia. NATO acted independently of the United Nations, being well aware that Russian and China would have vetoed the bombing of Kosovo. The Yugoslav war removed the pretence of the sanctity of the UN Charter. It was Harold Pinter who said as long ago as 1999, that ‘the NATO action in Serbia had nothing to do with the fate of the Kosovan Albanians but was another blatant assertion of US power.’

Spending on war on the scale of recent years needs now to be eliminated from Britain’s expenditure. This is essential for Britain’s economic recovery.


Jim Mortimer was General Secretary of the Labour Party from 1982 to 1985.

This blog was from his contribution to the 2012 CLPD AGM.

Photo shows an All Terrain Jackal vehicle of the Household Cavalry in Afghanistan, by Sergeant Russ Nolan RLC. Defence Images.

Nick Brown ‘arguments moving away from Trident renewal’

Taken from a House of Commons debate on the progress of defence reform and the Strategic Defence and Security Review on the 26th January.

Nick Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne East) (Lab): I want us to look again at the case for Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent. I know that that will probably not be popular on either side of the House; others can make their points as the debate progresses. Given the current circumstances, it is time to consider the question again. The Government projects a total cost of £15 billion to £20 billion for the Trident successor programme. Independent research has suggested that the total cost would come in at three or four times that figure and our past experience with such big defence programmes suggests something similar.

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con) rose—

Mr Brown: I remember giving way to the hon. Gentleman the last time I spoke in a debate of this character, back in 2007. I bet his intervention is about the same point.

Dr Lewis: Conservative Members are nothing but consistent on this issue. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the Polaris fleet and the Trident submarines came into service on time and within budget.

Mr Brown: The hon. Gentleman presumably hopes that that will be the case in the future. However, I challenge him to point to any other defence programme from which he could extrapolate that conclusion. I know that he follows these matters with care, but I cannot think of another programme. He is right to point out the special cases of those procurements in the past, but I am not reassured that they will be repeated in the future. In any event, that point is not at the heart of my case. No matter how one looks at it, this is a very large sum of money to spend. My point is that we should look carefully at whether we should spend it.

The maingate decision on final renewal has been pushed back until after the next general election. The cost of that is said to be an additional £1.5 billion to refurbish and prolong the lifespan of the existing fleet. Parliamentary answers from Defence Ministers show that upwards of £2 billion has already been spent on preparatory work for the manufacture of the new submarines.

The Government clearly intend to press ahead with Trident renewal. In my opinion, they should seek explicit parliamentary authority for doing so. The failure to hold a vote in Parliament on the renewal of our independent nuclear deterrent is because of the inability to reconcile different views in the coalition. The question that faces us is whether an independent nuclear deterrent is a good use of such a large sum of public money in the present circumstances. The arguments, which were never that strong, are now moving away from Trident renewal.

Dan Byles (North Warwickshire) (Con): I am listening with great interest. Does the right hon. Gentleman not agree that a long-term strategic decision, such as the replacement of our nuclear deterrent, should not be taken in the context of the current short-term economic conditions?

Mr Brown: I will come on to deal with that precise point. I have no quarrel with the hon. Gentleman for making it.

The current Trident system relies heavily on US logistical, capacity, technological and military know-how. It is nearly impossible to imagine any circumstances in which we would launch a nuclear attack, much less that we would do so independently of the Americans. Likewise, were Britain to be attacked by a nuclear power, the terms of our membership of NATO would require a joint response by all members, including the US.

Mr Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Brown: I cannot give way because of the rules on these things.

NATO is a mutual defence pact. It is a fundamental strength that its armoury includes the nuclear capability of the US. There has always been a question over why Britain needs to duplicate NATO’s nuclear capability, rather than more usefully supplement its conventional capacity.

When I first entered Parliament in 1983, I resisted joining the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. I did not support our decision to go ahead with an independent submarine-based system of our own. However, I did support Britain’s membership of NATO, which CND did not. At the time, that was regarded in the Labour party as a very establishment and right-wing position. It is a small irony of Labour politics that the same position is today seen as very left-wing.

When the decision was taken to adopt the Trident system in the early 1980s, there was an understanding that in exchange for non-proliferation by the non-nuclear powers, there would be restraint by the existing nuclear powers, in particular the US and Russia, when it came to further weapons development and upgrades. That idea was enshrined in article VI of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. It can be argued that that has been more honoured in the breach by countries that did not possess a nuclear capability, but that do now. The underlying principle, however, seems to me still to be sound.

The large financial outlay that the Government are committed to in planning to replace our independent deterrent could be better spent in a number of ways. During the economic boom, I argued that we ought to better equip our troops, invest in the specialist field of anti-terrorism capability in line with the real threats that we face, and supplement our existing overseas aid budget. We now face new threats. To take one example, the money that we spend on Trident could be used to bring down substantially the tuition fees of every student. I think that cutting a generation adrift from higher education poses a bigger threat to our nation than the idea that a foreign power with nuclear weaponry would uniquely threaten to use it against us, and not the rest of NATO, and would somehow be able to disapply NATO’s founding terms. The real nuclear dangers of the future come from rogue states and terrorism. The possession of an independent nuclear deterrent does not make us safer. A better investment would be in anti-terrorism capabilities.

Three main arguments are put forward by proponents of Trident replacement. The first is that it is the best weapon that money can buy. The second is that it guarantees a seat on the United Nations Security Council. The final argument is that it contributes to our ability to punch above our weight in the world. I argue that it is not much of a weapon if the circumstances in which it may be used cannot be envisaged. Fundamental reform of the United Nations Security Council is long overdue and the difficulty, as we all know, is getting agreement on what that reform should be. I also think that other countries might like us more if we stopped punching above our weight in the world. We might be better thought of by the international community if we settled for being the medium-sized European nation state that we are, rather than the imperial power that we used to be.

We have a choice as a country: do we want to continue to drift into spending billions of pounds on supplementing a nuclear capability that we already possess through NATO or do we want to spend that money on tackling the problems that Britain actually faces in squeezed economic times? Surely we should resolve this issue now with a vote in this Parliament.