Truss’s Plan to Hike Defence Funding and Ignore the Climate Is a Disaster

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Yves here. There’s already a lot not to like about Liz Truss, starting with the fact that it is guaranteed to make Boris Johnson look good, if nothing else by virtue of her impressive cognitive deficiencies. The only reason to give Jacob Rees-Mogg an important Cabinet post is to avoid having someone brighter than you as a subordinate.

This post lays out at a high level how Truss’ planned increases in defense spending will wreak on the budget, requiring either big tax increases or massive cuts to services. It’s not hard to guess which she will propose.

By Paul Rogers, Emeritus Professor of Peace Studies in the Department of Peace Studies and International Relationsat Bradford University, and an Honorary Fellow at the Joint Service Command and Staff College. He is openDemocracy’s international security correspondent. He is on Twitter at: @ProfPRogers. Originally published at openDemocracy

Liz Truss, the UK’s new prime minister, places a high premium on loyalty. This is why many former members of the cabinet, however experienced, have been relegated to the backbenches. There is, though, one survivor from the Cameron-Clegg coalition era – Truss herself.

In keeping with her own politics, the market fundamentalism of the Tufton Street brigade is very much in evidence in her choices of both ministers and advisers – and in her response to the energy crisis. This will be met by a price cap, but that will be achieved by loans of up to £130bn that will have to be repaid by the public, with the massive profits of the fossil carbon corporations scarcely affected.

Meanwhile, the obscene maldistribution of wealth in the UK continues. The country’s billionaires have now accumulated more than £600bn of wealth, with the top ten on the Sunday Times Rich List amassing £176bn between them – but perish the thought that wealth redistribution or even windfall taxes should be mentioned in polite company.

This issue of who pays extends to a major element of Truss’s wider politics: defence policy. A key context, much in tune with grassroots Tories, is that the UK is one of the world’s great powers, to be demonstrated by increasing military spending to 3% of national income by 2030. This is the biggest hike since the 1950s, even though military spending went up under Boris Johnson, largely by diverting money from the international aid programme.

Truss’s plan goes very much further. According to a leading defence economist, professor Malcolm Chalmers from the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), this substantially increased spending will run to an additional £157bn at current prices. Chalmers points out that unless there are even more cuts in public spending, this would require income tax to increase by 5p in the pound, or for the standard VAT rate to rise from 20% to 25%.

Even if this were to be achieved, it leaves unsolved the much bigger issue of whether Britain’s current defence posture is relevant to the security challenges ahead, not least in terms of recent performance, let alone monetary efficiency.

Military Failures and Inefficiency

On the issue of performance, the evidence is damning. During the past two decades, the UK has been a core player in three failed wars and one that is currently failing.

Of the failed wars, the longest has been the 20 years of the Afghanistan war, but the Iraq conflict has been similarly disastrous, with violence and instability continuing and a violent death tollcurrently standing at 288,000, the great majority of them civilians.

The 2011 Franco-British war in Libya left a deeply unstable and volatile country serving as a conduit for extreme paramilitaries and weapons spreading across the Sahel. Even the presumed defeat of ISIS in the 2014-18 air war has turned out to be anything but, as groups linked to ISIS and Al Qaeda grow elsewhere, especially in northern and eastern Africa.

As to efficiency in the UK military-industrial complex, this is little short of a joke. The lack of efficiency has shown itself repeatedly, with persistent cost overruns, long delays in programmes and embarrassing failures of highly expensive new items, the recent breakdown of HMS Prince of Wales being just the latest case.

The UK’s National Infrastructure Authority has done its best for years to keep tabs on dodgy programmes. Four years ago, these reached a peak when five systems under development and collectively costed at just short of £16bn were all red-flagged (at risk of collapse) at the same time.

Part of the problem is that Britain’s military-industrial complex is very much a closed system that requires enemies in order to thrive and, if need be, can always resort to appeals for patriotism. It is a thoroughly integrated system comprising the military, arms manufacturers, civil servants, think tanks, security and intelligence agencies and university departments, with trades unions necessarily looking out for their members.

Truss’s defence stance, however unaffordable, will go down very well in these circles. It is, after all, nothing new. Five years ago, when Boris Johnson was foreign secretary, he gave that year’s Tory party conference his “let the British lion roar” speech, all about a renewed greatness rooted in the military.

Eighteen months later came the retro-fantasy of a new global Britain favoured by Gavin Williamson during his brief sojourn at the Ministry of Defence. This quasi-imperial, post-Brexit lurch, just like Johnson’s speech, is likely to be reeled out in the months ahead, with enemies such as Russia, China, Islamists and others all serving to remind the public of the need for strong defence.

Ignoring the Climate Crisis

Ordinarily, this might be expected to work, but there is one very awkward element that suggests otherwise. It also stands to cause Truss really serious problems.

One aspect of her political make-up that was evident during the leadership campaign is an almost total ignoring of the challenge of climate change, reinforced last week by her decision to promote an arch-climate sceptic, Jacob Rees-Mogg, to the energy brief.

This should come as no surprise. After all, when the Tories won an overall victory in the 2015 election and were no longer encumbered with the Lib Dems, they immediately took an axe to many of the decarbonising initiatives advocated by Labour before 2010 and maintained by the Lib Dems during the five-year coalition.

These included reducing support for solar power and electric vehicles; stopping subsidies for onshore wind while increasing them for North Sea oil; privatising the Green Development Bank; and scrapping the “zero carbon homes” plan due to ensure all new homes would be carbon-neutral from 2016.

These lost the UK years in decarbonisation, making the current energy crisis even worse.

What is perhaps forgotten is that the environment minister at the time was a rising young Tory politician by the name of Liz Truss.

Now, we have an entire government minimising the climate crisis just when it is becoming blindingly obvious that it is the greatest single threat to global human security.

The government may ignore this but the people won’t – and we can be certain that it will emerge rapidly, before the next general election, to be a focus of mounting public anger and action that will far transcend the activities to date of Extinction Rebellion and other activist and campaigning groups.

Even as we face a recession and a winter of crisis for so many people, this may yet come to be the defining crisis of Truss’s time in Downing Street.

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7 comments

  1. PlutoniumKun

    The Tories always have an odd relationship with environmentalism in that many of their supporters are prosperous rural dwellers who are passionately in favour of rural protection (i.e. keeping yobs firmly in the urban areas) and did everything they could to destroy the coal industry (not for green reasons of course). In my memory every new Tory government, or Tory PM, has talked loudly about deregulating planning and power, up to the point that someone reminds them that the typical Telegraph reader wants far more regulation, at least when it comes to their neighbourhood.

    Right now, investors in the UK are very keen on off-shore wind – its hugely profitable – so the Tories are not likely to do anything to prevent this. They are also getting much less keen on fracking (too much local opposition among Tory voters) and nuclear (far too expensive). The one thing they won’t do is promote sensible energy saving policies, unless they can work out some way to funnel it to small business and better of owners of large leaky houses. In truth, I don’t think that the Tories are likely to be any worse than Labour when it comes to climate change.

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  2. The Rev Kev

    Militarily, it seems that the UK has foregone having an active defense force and are now content to have a military that will act as auxiliaries to the US defense forces. And that is why the British Army has been strip-mined to fund two aircraft carriers and which will be interoperable with US and/or French squadrons taking off from them. Last I heard, the British Army will be reduced to a force of a little over 70,000 men & women. So I would guess that perhaps 10,000 of them will be actually shooters. So what, about three brigades worth? And considering the fact that they are being expected to use junk items like the General Dynamics Ajax vehicle, effectiveness of the British Army does not seem to be a priority. Will Liz Truss turn this around at all? Let us not be silly. I fully expect her to sign up for highly expensive weapons systems that may or not work but will feature the appropriate kick-backs to the right people. It’s the neoliberal way.

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    1. PlutoniumKun

      I was about to comment that the UK arms industry would happily prosper with exports to all the new conflict zones, but when I checked up the figures I was surprised to see that its fallen down to no.10 in the list of arms exporters around the world. Even Spain, ROK and the Dutch sell more. It could even be overtaken soon by Oz soon as an exporter, which is not something I’d have anticipated a few years ago.

      In many ways it makes perfect sense for the UK to focus its spending on a nuclear deterrent (even one that is in reality controlled by the US) and a semi-decent navy, but it does contradict its role as a cheerleader for more intervention everywhere. One hopes that European capitals have noted the contradiction between the UK’s active attempts to heat up the war in Ukraine with its obvious inability to contribute if the conflict widens.

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      1. Jams O'Donnell

        “a semi-decent navy” – We don’t have one of these either. The frigates are past their sell-by dates, the ‘destroyers’ are extremely noisy, prone to engine failure, needs lots of maintenance and are a very poor design with limited capability, especially when compared with that of other navies. Finally, the carriers too have low capability, having no catapult technology and are reliant on another poor design with limited capability, the F-35.

        Cost cutting and lack of foresight have caused this, and it will continue so.

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    2. NotThisAgain

      On a lighter note, this reminds me of an Emo Phillips joke–“I am not a Republican (read Tory in this case), but I am saving up to become one.”

      That aside, the UK’s “contentment” to be auxiliary to the US forces is quite understandable. Modern militaries are (insanely) expensive. The UK may be inefficient with its spending, but even back in the early 1960s military analysts were pointing out that the costs of developing and maintaining the infrastructure and technology to operate across “the entire spectrum” (which now includes cyber, space, and a few other things that did not exist in the 1960s) is exorbitant, and only the US (and, it was claimed, the USSR) at the time would be able to afford to maintain primacy in all domains. The only real option for other countries would be to piggyback/integrate with others. In other words, being able to operate independently from the US would drive up costs even more.

      I personally dislike Truss, and in any case I believe that she will be lucky to hold power until spring, but I am somewhat sympathetic to the argument for defense spending. If the UK decides that it must maintain relevance to the US (and I think all major UK parties currently hold this position) and the US is spending large amounts, then the UK may find it easiest to spend more in this direction rather than find another means of contribution.

      More importantly, I think that there is an increasing (and IMO accurate) concern that the US will be far more isolationist a decade from now than it is currently. In other words, the UK cannot depend on the US indefinitely, and it must reckon with the possibility of an increasingly divided Europe and the possibility of large German and Polish arms buildups. Moreover, to the degree that the US involves itself in the world, the Pacific is currently considered to be its focus (and the UK must be able to offer something that, for example, Australia with all of its geographical advantages cannot–moreover, all major Australian parties have also committed to massive planned military spending over the next decade).

      I do not envy any person holding the UK Prime Ministership (is that a word?) over the next 10-20 years. Yes, the problem is one of the UK’s own making, but it is a god awful position to deal with, and barring a miracle it is likely unsolvable.

      (As an aside, if you can find a 1962 article by RJ Sutherland called “Canada’s Long Term Strategic Situation”, it may be worthwhile reading–he got some predictions wrong, but as a whole the paper was, for me, extraordinarily illuminating. Unfortunately for it, even Canada seems unable to freeload off of the US to the degree it used to. In that case, the UK is in an even weaker position)

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  3. David

    Well, it’s Rogers, and he and Chalmers have a business model to protect, so you wouldn’t expect him to say anything else. Some of it is silly (5p on income tax, for heaven’s sake) but it does actually touch on a real point of interest, which is the huge problem that medium-sized powers now face in trying to decide what defence posture to adopt. It’s not unique to Britain: France has it to perhaps a lesser degree, and Germany has it catastrophically.

    All countries use their militaries as force multipliers to support their foreign policy. Effective armed forces gain you power and influence you wouldn’t have otherwise. Historically (ie for 50-60 years) Britain has been one the top half-dozen military nations in the world, and with this comes influence: if you’re the UN and you’re thinking of putting a peace mission in Myanmar together, you’ll ask the British and the French and a few others for their advice. You won’t ask the Portuguese or the Poles or the Mexicans. (Life isn’t fair.) The British have tried to retain forces that gave them this international influence, plus a major influence over the US and within NATO. The problem is that successive governments wanted the influence without being prepared to stump up the money. That was exacerbated by turning the management consultants and the privatisers loose on what was originally a well-run system, with disastrous results. In some ways, the military suffers from the same problems as all the rest of the public sector in Britain, including the NHS. The structural damage has gone so far that more money, by itself, isn’t the answer. Cost overruns and inefficiencies resulting from management insanity have resulted in the forces themselves being cut to the bone, so they are now simply too small for the tasks placed on them. Deciding to create (say) ten new infantry battalions tomorrow, which would be a help, is meaningless if you haven’t got the senior NCOs and officers and the infrastructure to support them. One of the lessons of the post Cold War period is that once you cut professional armed forces, it’s hard to impossible to build them up again.

    It would make sense, as PK says above, to keep investing in nuclear, because those forces (which are operationally independent, whatever you may read elsewhere) are the entry ticket to all sorts of political and strategic advantages. Beyond that? I don’t envy the decision-makers trying to work out what the priorities are. Moreover, much depends on what other nations do. There’s no point in putting together a small Expeditionary Force to send to Poland in a crisis, for example, unless everyone else is going to do the same thing.

    Reply

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