If you take a look at British government spending plans, you might notice a strange coincidence. Boris Johnson has announced that the UK’s military budget will rise by 10% for each of the next four years. This is on top of an existing agreement for an annual rise of inflation plus 0.5%, so given the current trend this takes the addition up to 12%.
Meanwhile, the Treasury wants to cut the UK’s development assistance programme from the current 0.7% of gross national income, as favoured by the UN, down to 0.5%: close to a 30% cut.
Johnson has denied any connection and precise figures are not yet available. But if both changes go ahead, this means that the military budget will go up by about £5.0 billion and the development budget will be cut by £4.2 billion. But the aid budget is falling anyway because of the COVID-related drop in the UK’s GNI, which means that the cut will actually be more or less enough to pay for the military’s extra £5 billion.
Having been around quite a long time (I was born in the middle of the Second World War) I’ve seen the changes in the UK’s approach to development right back to Harold Wilson’s Labour government in the 1960s that elevated the Overseas Development Ministry into a cabinet-level department for the first time. I was involved in the early development activism in the mid-1960s, including the group that eventually became the World Development Movement (and more recently Global Justice Now) and then worked for the Overseas Development Ministry in Uganda for a couple of years.
At that time, and even more so in the 1970s and 1980s, one of the aims of the World Development Movement , along with Oxfam, Christian Aid, War on Want and others, was to boost the aid programme to meet the UN’s 0.7% GDP target. That took decades to achieve but eventually came to be, thanks to a very rare cross-party consensus. It was David Cameron and his coalition government that reached the target in 2013, with a more market-orientated approach, and later made it a legal requirement; the market element became even more entrenched when Cameron’s Conservatives won the 2015 election outright.
Even so, that Cameron kept the UN figure in law was still symbolic, even if there was plenty of room for improvement. This is what Johnson is now breaking, and if we are talking about symbols it might well be described as moving government spending away from peace and towards war.
Furthermore, the present decision on the military is not just a substantial budget increase. It pre-empts the supposedly comprehensive Integrated Defence and Security Review that is happening at present and means that the focus is on defence in the traditional way. There is no connection with the real national and global challenges facing us.
It will certainly be welcome news for the war-promoting hydra that is the military-industrial complex, which will appreciate it even more in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic and the run-up to Brexit. For the armourers it will decrease their concerns about losing funding because of the desperate need to deal with the multiple crises facing so many marginalised people in COVID UK. Instead, military spending will actually be increased, just when the WHO and many other UN agencies are pointing to increased hardship and much greater need right across the Global South.
I mentioned the last war for another reason. I was a youngster in east London in the late 1940s, seeing the bomb sites everywhere and learning of the Blitz from my father, a fire-fighter at the time. If you take the civilian casualties in the UK during the whole of that six-year war, the total comes to just over 70,000.
Compare that with COVID-19: the official and narrowly defined figures for COVID-19 deaths are currently at 54,000 and increasing by over 3,000 a week, meaning that we will get to that war death total just before the new year. Excess deaths are a lot higher, probably the same as those wartime casualties. Given the overall rate of increase we will be lucky to avoid a death toll of 100,000 by the spring.
In other words, apart from everything else the COVID-19 pandemic should be seen as a huge human security disaster and certainly the worst to hit the UK since the Second World War. Yet it does not remotely figure in official thinking about security.
Worse still, the real elephant in the room is climate breakdown and that is nowhere to be seen in the government’s ‘defence’ spending plans.
Trident, for example, may be a pointless totem at the best of times but it is irrelevant when it comes to pandemics and climate breakdown. Being able kill 20 million people in a couple of hours is a warped worldview as a symbol of a civilised global greatness. You can’t nuke a virus nor can you ‘deter’ climate breakdown.
There are groups like Rethinking Security in the UK, of which I am a council member, and similar movements in other countries that are trying to think things through differently. They are more needed now than ever. This government may not change its tune in the short term but COVID-19 is affecting the whole security environment, which will then be turned upside down if climate breakdown is not prevented.