Notes From the Margins…

Punching Above Our Weight

  • January 31, 2013
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After a mild drop in the military budget over the last two years,   the government has announced that it plans to spend £160 billion over the next ten years on new weapons systems that include Trident missile submarines, aircraft carriers and drones as part of the MoD’s ‘Force 2020’ program.

Given the state of the economy and the scale of the deficit that supposedly justifies the government’s ‘tough but far’ emergency budget,   one might wonder why this weaponry is necessary.     Luckily, Defense Secretary Philip Hammond has the answer, declaring   “It is essential that our forces are fully equipped to respond to the range of threats we face in this uncertain world”.

This explanation shouldn’t detain us long.   In the past decade, Britain has engaged in two major wars riding shotgun with the United States, in addition a number of more indirect ‘interventions’, which have done more to magnify these ‘threats’ than diminish them.     And if   ‘ al Qaeda’ and ‘terrorism’ are the main threats that we face, then what use are Trident nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers?

We often think of the United States as a country addicted to war and militarism, and in thrall to a military-industrial complex – a logical enough interpretation given that the US   spends more on ‘defense’ than its fifteen closest competitors combined.

But our humble island is not without its own military-industrial complex.     In 2011, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), ranked Britain fourth in its list of countries with the highest military expenditure,   with a military budget of $62.7 billion in terms of military spending,   – 3.6 percent of the global total.     Given that the three countries above Britain in SIPRI’s world ranking are China, Russia and the United States, this is no mean achievement for a country with a population of just under 62 million that has no military enemies.

Like the United States, Britain’s ‘military-industrial complex’ is a profitable and self-generating activity.     BAE Systems (UK) is the second largest arms company in the world, producing weapons for domestic consumption and also for export abroad.    So important is BAE considered to the ‘national interest’ that politicians – most famously Tony Blair – have effectively placed it above the law and sought to screen the company from serious fraud investigations.

All this is supported by a powerful lobbying group that includes the Ministry of Defense and former politicians and military officers who walk through the ‘revolving door’.       But the MoD’s latest spending plans also reflect the special political and cultural importance of military power for the British establishment.

When I learned history at school, we were often taught to regard Britain as an essentially peace-loving pacific country, that preferred free trade to war even during its imperial heyday.  Such imagery ignored the wars of conquest and territorial acquisition by which Britain acquired its formal empire – not to mention the persistent use of military force in parts of the world that did not ‘belong’ to Britain to preserve an international trading and geopolitical order favorable to its economic interests.

In the course of history, Britain has fought quite a lot of wars, many of them of its own choosing,   and British military prowess has always been part of our national self-image and our sense of what makes Britain great.     Whether it was Britannia ruling the waves or Britain’s supposed expertise in counterinsurgency, the British public has always been inculcated with the notion that its armed forces are ‘the best in the world’ and are indispensable not only to the ‘national interest’ but to global peace and security.

With the waning of British imperial power after World War II, and the various ‘fighting retreats’ that marked that decline,   the British elite continued to regard the military as a compensatory mechanism for the loss of empire, which enables Britain to continue to ‘sit at the big table’   and ‘punch above our weight’ as the dreadful image conjured by Douglas Hurd once put it.

In other words, without our nuclear subs, aircraft carriers etc, we would just be a minor country on the world stage, not the ‘beacon of light’ that Tony Blair once insisted that we should be.  Our politicians would not be able to stand on the White House lawn with US presidents,   or lay down the law at meetings of the UN security council.   Our soldiers would not be bringing civilization and democracy to Basra, Helmand and the Sahara.

Thus the former security minister Lord West in 2011 argued against cutting the military budget, declaring “we are not a second-tier power. We are not bloody Denmark or Belgium, and if we try to become that, I think we would be worse-off as a result.”

Yes, God forbid that we should become like ‘bloody Denmark or Belgium’ and allow ourselves to become ‘worse-off.’

According to the Rowntree Foundation, millions of the poorest households in the country face council tax rises of up to £600 a year,   as local authorities seek to compensate for the Coalition’s benefit cuts – cuts that was supposedly introduced to reduce the deficit.   More than 50,000 families in the UK are already homeless, according to Shelter, and more are still to come, as the government’s benefits cap takes its toll.

But never mind you whingers.   Take some comfort from the thought of those spanking new ships and aircraft carriers roaming the seas, and those drones and planes in the skies keeping us safe.

And know that as bad as things may seem, Britain is still out there, punching above its weight.



  1. Paul

    1st Feb 2013 - 2:22 pm

    £160 million, Matt? I’d be delighted. That wouldn’t buy the paint for the subs and planes. It’s £160 *billion*

    • Matt

      1st Feb 2013 - 3:00 pm

      Thanks Paul. I did, in fact, know this, but for some reason didn’t put it. Figure is now amended. And by the way, doesn’t the price of paint for these things depend on whether you use gloss or eggshell?

      • Paul

        1st Feb 2013 - 3:40 pm

        Surely you would recommend matt, Matt? 🙂

  2. Richard Carter

    2nd Feb 2013 - 12:48 pm

    Ah, but the sad news is that we won’t be able to “punch above our weight” for at least another 7 years!!! What will we do? How can we even show our faces in the (diplomatic) public arena?

    More seriously, for more bad news, see the FT’s interview with that fool Philip Hammond, who now wants to deploy both of the ludicrous aircraft carriers instead of mothballing one of them. It would only cost an extra £70 million a year, Hammond says (and does anyone outside of the MoD and our secure mental institutions believe any more the quoted figures on “defence”?

    In the same interview, Hammond discusses the planned renewal of Trident and suggests that it would be eminently affordable to preserve our nuclear deterrent. He doesn’t, however, say who it is supposed to deter – certainly not the raggle taggle band of men in North Africa, despite what Cameron says represents a generational, existential (does he actually know what ‘existential” means? It doesn’t refer to ‘large’ or ‘significant,’ David, but a threat to our very existence) threat.

    Details at

    • Matt

      2nd Feb 2013 - 2:57 pm

      No, I doubt whether Cameron understands what ‘existential’ means either, though I suspect he means ‘threat to our way of life’ – which, as you point out, is bollocks. As for Hammond, don’t get me started…

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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