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We need to end the pro-military consensus

Politics
Arms
Royal Navy SSBN HMS Victorious

A nuclear submarine approaches Faslane in Scotland. UK Ministry of Defence under a Creative Commons Licence

The last couple of weeks have seen Britain’s military strategy brought to the forefront of the election, with Conservative Defence Secretary Michael Fallon accusing Labour leader Ed Miliband of ‘bartering away’ our costly and deadly nuclear submarines and ‘gambling’ with our national security. ‘Ed Miliband stabbed his own brother in the back to become Labour leader.’ we were told. ‘Now he is willing to stab the United Kingdom in the back to become prime minister.’

Unfortunately, despite the personalized tone of the comments, the political differences between the two main parties are actually far less pronounced than his outburst would suggest. Both parties remain completely committed to renewing Britain’s nuclear weapons. Miliband emphasized this point in his response: ‘Our position is continuous at-sea deterrence, like the Conservative Party, renewing Trident, like the Conservative Party, multi-lateral disarmament, like the Conservative Party... It’s absolutely fine to have differences, but making up differences when differences don’t exist on national security, is frankly a ridiculous and pathetic way to conduct a campaign.’

The issue goes far wider than Trident, with both parties agreeing on most of the fundamentals of foreign policy and national security.

The last few months have seen former Defence Secretaries from both sides joining NATO heads in calling on Britain to ‘show leadership’ by increasing its current $56-billion military budget. Senior military chiefs have threatened to quit if there are any cuts and last month the House of Commons Defence Committee urged the government to ‘rebuild its military capacity’.

The response of the political leaders has been to skewer their opponents and talk up their own commitment to the military, with Prime Minister David Cameron calling for spending to increase in the next parliament and the Labour leadership pledging to outspend the Conservatives.

This is all part a broader UK foreign policy that has been characterized by militarism, shows of strength and disastrous foreign interventions, like the deadly wars in Libya and Iraq. The emphasis on war and interventionism has been complemented by a consistent and utterly hypocritical support for tyrants and dictatorships, like those in Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain, which have all been designated as ‘priority markets’ for British arms sales.

This pro-military consensus has only been encouraged by a close-knit and compromising relationship between arms companies and politicians from across the spectrum.

This was on full display when the ADS, a trade body for arms companies, held its annual dinner at the Hilton Hotel in Mayfair two months ago. The dinner was attended by over 40 MPs, from across the three main political parties, including the Minister for Business, Vince Cable, and Labour’s Shadow Defence Minister, Vernon Coaker.

The high-level political support has been complemented by a strong structural support. This has led to the development of a ‘revolving door’ between arms companies and the corridors of power. Between 1996-2012 alone, senior military officers and Ministry of Defence officials were given approval for over 3,500 jobs in arms companies.

One of the most notable examples is former Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon, who is now the head of government affairs at AgustaWestland, which won a $2.6-billion contract while he was in office.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There are positive alternatives, which can change the way Britain acts and is perceived abroad. Unfortunately, none of those alternatives are coming out in party political debates, and they cannot come from selling weapons to despots and maintaining one of the highest military budgets in the world.

At the heart of the debate on militarism and war is the much wider question about what kind of country we want Britain to be. There is a fundamental choice to be made about the values we want to project and practice abroad and the kind of society we want to build at home.

Regardless of who forms the next government, it is not more manufactured and personalized arguments about Trident that are needed, but a fundamental review of our approach to national security.

Such a review would provide the opportunity to reallocate resources according to actual threats and potential benefits, including addressing major causes of insecurity such as inequality and climate change. But that will only come by ending the pro-military consensus that underpins our parliament and calling an end to business as usual.

Andrew Smith is a spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.

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