It is now over 75 years since the end of the second world war. Three quarters of a century of peace in Europe. And yet the language of militarism is in everyday use, by politicians, by journalists, casually by commentators. Anniversaries and other significant dates are marked with military parades and flypasts of antique warplanes.
Britain spends billions on so-called ‘defence’; despite lack of any palpable threat of war. Late last year, the prime minister Boris Johnson unveiled a £16.5bn budget increase for the country’s armed forces. This was on top of agreed spending of £41.5bn. Do we really think these sums are proportionate to any risks we currently, or potentially, face?
But more than that, the UK sells arms throughout the world, fuelling conflicts and repression, bringing misery to millions. It’s what we do. The UK has been one of the world’s largest makers and suppliers of arms for centuries. “Defence” [a euphemism for war] grew to become one of this country’s greatest manufacturing and export sectors, representing on its own 11.2% of GDP as recently as 1951.
Much of this was concerned with lubricating trade within the British Empire. The war gave added impetus and justification for weapons development. The Cold War that followed appeared to justify the nuclear deterrent, but that ended in 1989, with the fall of the Soviet Union.
Today, less than 10% of GDP is from all manufacturing. The UK has a largely service economy, with little attention paid by politicians to the needs of making things except, strangely, arms. If we are concerned with jobs justifying the trade, defence is not doing very well, when in the last 10 years sector employment has declined from 160k to 132k, under 5% of manufacturing jobs.
For more than 200 years Sussex was the centre of manufacture of material for the nation’s armies, with over 40 forges, 27 furnaces and 7 powder mills employing up to 50,000. This eventually moved away to the North in the Industrial Revolution, leaving Sussex to a largely different future.
Yet the thirst for things military clings on, in the minds of politicians and newspaper editors. It provides a veneer of national kudos and feeds into a narrative we cannot seem to give up: of a ruling-the-waves exceptionalism rooted in the wars of the early 20th century and a long-lost empire.
The arms industry does create new tech that can be exploited in more peaceful ways. But does this justify arms sales that prop up nasty regimes against the will of their people? So much energy is put into sophisticated methods of killing and crushing the human rights of people we do not know nor, apparently, care about.
Think Israel and Palestinians. Think Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Is this something we should be doing? President Biden is rethinking US involvement. Maybe it’s time Britain should abandon this trade in death – and encourage other countries to do the same.
In a review of the sector, consultants PWC says: “management teams [of major defence companies] now seek, above all, to maximise shareholder value. Their goal is no longer to preserve national security”.
So do wealthy individuals need a ‘backstory’ about enemies, global threats and heroes to sustain investment in war technologies, which are so very profitable but of questionable need and ethics? Maybe too many UK investors, media owners and political backers were schooled in empire-building institutions, such as Eton, and by heroic war films, fuelling a yearning for the return of a ‘great’ Britain.
Sussex seems a better place without the hellish foundries – though we should always be on our guard here. Last year, Brighton Against the Arms Trade protested against an increase in production at the EDO MBM arms factory in Moulsecoomb.
Maybe this can be a better country without so much focus on a lethal trade run for financial gain and glory rather than for doing what is right and proportionate for the defence of the nation.
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