Armaments have made a re-appearance in British politics. Under-the-counter sales to Sierra Leone have been revealed. The Saudis, major customers for British arms, have released two nurses held for murder. Jonathan Aitken, a former defence procurement minister, has been charged with perjury and other offences, following a libel case involving allegations connected with arms sales to Saudi Arabia. British-made armoured cars have been involved in internal repression on the streets of Indonesia—another important arms customer. George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara is being staged again. After more than a year of preparation, New Labour has published its Strategic Defence Review.footnote1

These recent events are merely a reminder of the continued importance of the British arms trade, and of the place of the military in the British state. For many on the Left, the coming into office of New Labour offered very little except the possibility of a new constitutional settlement, and a more positive approach to the European Union. Defence policy highlights the continued centrality of the Atlanticist, rather than the European dimension, as well as the continued importance of the military at the heart of the British state. A deep commitment to the maintenance of strong armed services, a strong defence industry, and an increase in British abilities to intervene around the world characterize New Labour’s defence policy. Indeed a new moral imperialist fantasy has gripped New Labour. George Robertson says in his introduction to the Strategic Defence Review that ‘The British are, by instinct, an internationalist people. We believe that as well as defending our rights, we should discharge our responsibilities in the world. We do not want to stand idly by and watch humanitarian disasters or the aggression of dictators go unchecked. We want to give a lead, we want to be a force for good.’footnote2

New Labour’s foreign secretary, Robin Cook, cut quite a dash as an able inquisitor of the Tory government on the sales of arms to Iraq. On coming into office he trumpeted a new ‘ethical foreign policy’, which involved putative restrictions on the British arms trade. And yet, existing contracts were let through, the new European code on arms exports he promulgated was exceptionally weak, and the new parliamentary controls on export licensing of arms are much weaker than those proposed by Sir Richard Scott’s report on the sale of arms to Iraq. Robin Cook is now reported to have successfully argued for the maintenance of a larger frigate force than the Ministry of Defence wanted (32 out of 35) for both humanitarian purposes and for showing the flag.footnote3

There was never any question that New Labour would take on the military-industrial complex, quite the contrary. Thus, while for Frank Dobson, Secretary of State for Health, nothing is ruled out in thinking about the future of the nhs, and at Social Security, a junior minister, Frank Field, was licensed to ‘think the unthinkable’, the Strategic Defence Review has been conducted on the basis of a clear prime ministerial commitment to the maintenance of strong armed forces. Furthermore, key aspects of defence policy—the maintenance of Trident, and the procurement of Eurofighter—were beyond consideration in the Review. The key mantra repeated by George Roberston throughout the Strategic Defence Review was that it was ‘foreign policy-led’, unlike the supposedly ‘Treasury-led’ reviews of previous years. ‘Treasury-led’ is nothing but a code for cuts in spending. Gordon Brown’s Treasury reportedly wanted cuts of around 10 per cent but only managed a tiny fraction of this, though they have successfully insisted on the sale of property. The result is that absolute defence expenditure will stay at some 80 per cent of the level of the late 1970s, and some 70 percent of the peak in the mid-1980s.footnote4 As the Ministry of Defence itself rightly states, ‘This Government is not allowing resources to drive defence policy.’footnote5

Robertson has claimed that the Review will result in a radical redeployment of British forces, a theme echoed by some commentators.footnote6 And yet what is really striking is how little change there will be. As well as retaining Trident and the Eurofighter programme, there will be marginal cuts in the air force and navy, and a small increase in the size of the army, much of which will remain in Germany. The well-known military historian and defence editor of the Daily Telegraph, John Keegan, is clear that the Review ‘leaves our armed forces much where they were under the last government, but defines their various roles in neat and persuasive language. It is an exercise in words rather than a re-organization or a rationalization’. Crucially, too, he suggests that the planned aircraft carriers, which are supposed to come into service around 2012, will continue to allow Britain, in the eyes of the service chiefs, to provide a complete air, sea, and land force, though on a small scale, to assist us operations. He claims that the composition, rather than the size of British forces, is what allows Britain to be the usa’s principal partner.footnote7 It is little wonder that the service chiefs are happy, as are—to judge by the business pages—the arms suppliers.