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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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.