UK defence spending is just over £50 billion a year, or 6% of all public spending. So, not huge but contentious, as many believe the money would be better spent on health and welfare.
How important is defence in the UK?
The UK is a major player in NATO, the world’s biggest military alliance. It has regularly gone to war alongside the USA.
We also have a unique intelligence agreement with the USA, in which their National Security Agency and our GCHQ share their secrets. This is at the heart of what is sometimes called “the special relationship”.
How much do UK nuclear weapons matter?
The UK’s Trident nuclear missile submarines (one of which is always at sea and safe from attack) give the UK a platform for huge retaliation if it is ever attacked with weapons of mass destruction.
Furthermore, as one of the world’s few nuclear powers and because of its history, Britain is still seen by many as an important international military and intelligence power. Amongst NATO allies, it is second only to the USA in defence spending and it has a permanent seat on the United Nations security council.
So, why is defence an issue in elections?
In short, Jeremy Corbyn. The Tories generally see defence as one of their strong issues and they see Jeremy Corbyn and Labour as especially vulnerable on the subject.
Jeremy Corbyn, personally, has been a long-term opponent of nuclear weapons, NATO, and foreign interventions by UK armed forces. He opposed the UK going to war in the Falklands, Iraq (twice), Afghanistan, Libya, Sierra Leone and Kosovo.
Many Corbyn supporters see this as a positive stance that reflects public opinion — except about the Falklands, NATO and nuclear deterrence. But the Tories see these positions as weaknesses, and they will undoubtedly target them in the election.
What is Labour’s position?
Jeremy Corbyn’s views and the policy of the Labour Party are not always the same on defence issues. He, personally, has often attacked NATO in the past. Since becoming Labour leader, he has apparently accepted UK membership of the alliance. Although there is no record of him saying anything positive about it.
On nuclear deterrence, Corbyn has frequently restated his view that he favours unilateral nuclear disarmament and especially opposes the renewal of the Trident nuclear submarine and missile programme which is due to start soon.
Under pressure, especially from the trade unions, Labour has supported the renewal of the fleet. It has also committed to more or less the same levels of defence spending as the Tories.
But Labour remains exposed because Corbyn has said publicly that he, as PM, would never authorise the use of Trident, making it essentially redundant as a deterrent.
What about the Liberal Democrats?
The Lib Dems have argued that today’s threats to UK national security do not just come from conventional or nuclear weapons, but from a variety of other threats like terrorism and cyber-attacks.
The Lib Dems are opposed to Trident replacement.
What is the Intelligence and Security Committee report that people are arguing about?
The UK does face new, unconventional threats to national security. These range from direct sabotage by cyber warfare (as Russia did to Estonia in 2007) to disruptive interventions in elections and economic and corporate espionage.
Much of the threat is seen as coming from Russia. The cross-party intelligence and security committee carried out an extensive inquiry into the subject, covering both cyber and other forms of Russian interference in the UK.
Its final report, entitled Russia, was cleared by the intelligence agencies for publication but was blocked by Downing Street before the election. According to reports on the US’s CNN website, it contains damning evidence about Russian influence — human, financial and cyber — in the UK, including on the 2016 EU referendum.
This briefing is produced by The Day in association with ENGAGE Public Policy.
- Is it wrong to spend money on weapons of war?
- Iceland has had no army since 1869. Research other countries that have no defence spending. Write a list of five countries and learn them off by heart.
- North Atlantic Treaty Organisation is an international, military alliance of 29 member states from North America and Europe, founded in 1949.
- Government Communications Headquarters, founded in 1919, gives security information to the UK Government and to the army.
- The special relationship
- The term became popular after it was used in a 1946 speech by Winston Churchill. It refers to the cultural, diplomatic, economic, political, military and historical relationship between Britain and the US.
- Also known as the Trident nuclear programme or Trident nuclear deterrent, it refers to the development, supply and use of nuclear weapons in the UK.
- The action of returning a military attack; a counter-attack.
- NATO allies
- Member states are Albania, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Montenegro, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Turkey, UK, USA.
- Unilateral nuclear disarmament
- To get rid of nuclear weapons: an objective of peace movements.
- No longer needed or useful.
- To deliberately destroy, damage or obstruct something.