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).

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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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How to think about the EU result if you voted Remain

A belief in democracy means accepting the crowd is wiser than you are as an individual. 

I voted Remain, I feel sick about this result and its implications for what’s to come. But I’m a believer in democracy. This post is about how to reconcile those two things (it’s a bit unstructured because I’m working it out as I go, and I’m not sure I agree with all of it).

Democracy isn’t just fairer than other systems of governance, it’s smarter. It leads to better decisions and better outcomes, on average and over the long run, than countries that are run by autocrats or councils of wise men with jobs for life. It is simply the best way we have yet devised of solving complex problems involving many people. On that topic, if you’re not averse to some rather dense and technical prose, read this post or seek out this book. But the central argument is that democracy is the best way of harnessing ‘cognitive diversity’ — bringing to bear many different perspectives on a problem, each of which are very partial in themselves, but add up to something more than any one wise person.

I don’t think you can truly be a believer in democracy unless you accept that the people, collectively, are smarter than you are. That’s hard. It’s easy to say you believe in the popular will, right up until the popular will does something REALLY STUPID. The hard thing is not just to ‘accept the result’ but to accept that the majority who voted for that result know or understand something better than you. But they do. You are just one person, after all, and try as you might to expand your perspective with reading (and some try harder than others) you can’t see everything. So if a vote goes against you, you need to reflect on the possibility you got it wrong in some way. If I look at the results of past general elections and referendums, for instance, I now see they were all pretty much the right calls, including those where I voted the other way.

One way to think about the vote is that it has forced a slightly more equitable distribution of anxiety and alienation upon the country. After Thursday, I feel more insecure about my future, and that of my family. I also feel like a foreigner in my own country — that there’s this whole massive swathe of people out there who don’t think like me at all and probably don’t like me. I feel like a big decision about my life has been imposed on me by nameless people out there. But of course, this is exactly how many of those very people have been feeling for years, and at a much higher level of intensity. Democracy forces us to try on each other’s clothes. I could have carried on quite happily ignoring the unhappiness of much of the country but I can’t ignore this.

I’m seeing a lot of people on Twitter and in the press bemoaning how ill-informed people were, talking about a ‘post-factual democracy’. Well, maybe, though I think that requires further investigation - democracy has always been a dirty dishonest business. But surely the great thing about Thursday that so many people voted — including many, many people who might have felt disenfranchised from a system that hasn’t been serving them well. I’m not sure you’re truly a democrat if you don’t take at least a tiny bit of delight in seeing people so far from the centres of power tipping the polity upside down and giving it a shake. Would it have been better or worse for the country if Remain had won because only informed middle-class people voted? It might have felt better for people like me, it might actually have been better, economically, for everyone. But it would have indicated a deeper rot in our democracy than do the problems with our national information environment (which I accept are real).

I’m not quite saying ‘the people are always right’ — at least, I don’t think it was wrong to vote to stay in the EU. I still believe we should have Remained and I’m worried about what we’ve got ourselves into by getting out. But I am saying they may have been right to use this opportunity — the only one they were given — to send an unignorable signal to the powers-that-be that things aren’t working. You might say general elections are the place for that, but our particular system isn’t suited to change things on which there is a broad consensus between the two main parties.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.