How much does the UK really spend on defence?

Liam Fox says that we have the fourth largest military budget in the world. Is he right?

If you cut through the military jargon, this morning's report from the defence select committee is remarkably hard hitting. The committee warns that the government's cuts mean the armed forces may be falling below the "minimum utility" required to carry out existing commitments, let alone future ones. Unusually, it also criticises David Cameron directly, stating that "The Prime Minister's view that the UK currently has a full spectrum defence capability is rejected by the committee, as it was by the Single Service Chiefs."

Liam Fox has responded by emphasising that the UK retains the "fourth largest military budget" in the world. But how accurate is this claim? It's true, in cash terms at least, that we're still one of the biggest spenders. In fact, according to the latest figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (the global authority on defence spending), we're now in third place. Below is the top ten.

Military Spending: the top ten

2010 (US$, at 2010 prices and exchange rates)

1. USA $698bn

2. China $119bn

3. UK $59.6bn

4. France $59.3bn

5. Russia $58.7bn

6. Japan $54.5bn

7. Saudi Arabia $45.2bn

8. Germany $45.2bn

9. India $41.3bn

10. Italy $37bn

Source: SIPRI

But this is a poor measure of a country's commitment to defence spending. A clearer picture emerges if we look at military spending as a share of GDP. Here, in graph form, is the top ten (plus the UK).


The data, again provided by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, comes with several caveats. The figure for Saudi Arabia, for instance (11.2 per cent), also includes spending on what is euphemistically described as "public order and safety". The figure for Israel (6.3 per cent) does not include the $2.9bn that the country received in military aid from the US in 2010. But it still offers a much more accurate picture - the UK does not even make the top 30.

This said, even after the government has cut defence spending by 7.8 per cent in real terms, the UK will still meet the informal Nato commitment to spend at least 2 per cent of GDP on defence, one of just five members - the others are the US, France, Greece and Albania - that does. With this in mind, it's hard to argue that the defence cuts are excessive (although the typically contrarian Simon Jenkins has suggested that they are far, far too small). What is now needed is a clearer alignment between commitments and resources.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Could Labour lose the Oldham by-election?

Sources warn defeat is not unthinkable but the party's ground campaign believe they will hold on. 

As shadow cabinet members argue in public over Labour's position on Syria and John McDonnell defends his Mao moment, it has been easy to forget that the party next week faces its first election test since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. On paper, Oldham West and Royton should be a straightforward win. Michael Meacher, whose death last month triggered the by-election, held the seat with a majority of 14,738 just seven months ago. The party opted for an early pre-Christmas poll, giving second-placed Ukip less time to gain momentum, and selected the respected Oldham council leader Jim McMahon as its candidate. 

But in recent weeks Labour sources have become ever more anxious. Shadow cabinet members returning from campaigning report that Corbyn has gone down "very badly" with voters, with his original comments on shoot-to-kill particularly toxic. Most MPs expect the party's majority to lie within the 1,000-2,000 range. But one insider told me that the party's majority would likely fall into the hundreds ("I'd be thrilled with 2,000) and warned that defeat was far from unthinkable. The fear is that low turnout and defections to Ukip could allow the Farageists to sneak a win. MPs are further troubled by the likelihood that the contest will take place on the same day as the Syria vote (Thursday), which will badly divide Labour. 

The party's ground campaign, however, "aren't in panic mode", I'm told, with data showing them on course to hold the seat with a sharply reduced majority. As Tim noted in his recent report from the seat, unlike Heywood and Middleton, where Ukip finished just 617 votes behind Labour in a 2014 by-election, Oldham has a significant Asian population (accounting for 26.5 per cent of the total), which is largely hostile to Ukip and likely to remain loyal to Labour. 

Expectations are now so low that a win alone will be celebrated. But expect Corbyn's opponents to point out that working class Ukip voters were among the groups the Labour leader was supposed to attract. They are likely to credit McMahon with the victory and argue that the party held the seat in spite of Corbyn, rather than because of him. Ukip have sought to turn the contest into a referendum on the Labour leader's patriotism but McMahon replied: "My grandfather served in the army, my father and my partner’s fathers were in the Territorial Army. I raised money to restore my local cenotaph. On 18 December I will be going with pride to London to collect my OBE from the Queen and bring it back to Oldham as a local boy done good. If they want to pick a fight on patriotism, bring it on."  "If we had any other candidate we'd have been in enormous trouble," one shadow minister concluded. 

Of Corbyn, who cancelled a visit to the seat today, one source said: "I don't think Jeremy himself spends any time thinking about it, he doesn't think that electoral outcomes at this stage touch him somehow."  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.