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Shifting priorities, then and now

“Social reforms which involve expenditure are at a standstill; we are making drastic cuts in the supplies for education and for housing; our hospitals are seriously embarrassed; our industries are crippled; our unemployed number more than 1,500,000, and yet in the last financial year we spent more than 23 million upon armaments. No wonder the taxpayer grumbles and the financiers shakes their heads.”

– Major General Sir Frederick (Barton) Maurice in 1921 (1)

Today, Monday 14 April, we are taking action with people across the world to challenge military spending and to say it’s time to shift priorities and fund human needs, not war. Meanwhile, researchers for Selling to Both Sides: the arms trade and the First World War have been exploring debates about military spending before and after the First World War, and the parallels with today.

In 1905, Liberal MPs were arguing against a proposed increase in taxation in the Finance Bill (2) with Northamptonshire MP Francis Channing advocating welfare over warfare.

“Allowing for the repayment of capital charges for military and naval works, the total expenditure on war and armaments during the last ten years amounted to something like £400,000,000. Through the policy of war, expansion, and reckless Imperialism, the whole of that money had been thrown into the sea.

“Placed at 5 per cent. the mere interest on that sum would have provided universal old-age pensions for ever without any further appeal to the taxpayer.”

Another Liberal, Joseph Walton wanted more money spent on education and less on the military. Education spending had increased by £6,000,000 while spending on the Army and Navy had grown from £35,500,000 to £71,250,000, he said. This:

“reminded him of an incident at a Scotch election, where the candidate was heckled by being asked— ‘Am I to understand, Sorr, that whilst you are prepared to spend £31,000,000 over the Army and Navy, you are only willin’ to spend £8,000,000 on education—that is, £31,000,000 for blawin’ brains oot and only £8,000,000 for pittin’ brains in.’”

pie chart showing massive war spending in 1913

In 1913, the Religious Society of Friends calculated that far more was being allocated for war (and the debts from previous wars) than for social needs. (3)  © Religious Society of Friends in Britain

Eight years later in 1913, in the build-up to another war, the Religious Society of Friends calculated that far more was being allocated for war (and the debts from previous wars) than for social needs.

Today at least the proportion of military expenditure has decreased – but the UK’s military spending is still the sixth highest in the world. Meanwhile public sector cuts continue to drive homelessness, hunger and inequality in the UK, and renewable energy is woefully underfunded. We still need to shift priorities.

  • Help end the scandal of military spending: Share these powerful spending comparisons on Twitter and Facebook.
  • The government spends thirty times more on weapons research than tackling climate change. Become a CAAT speaker and help share the message that it’s time for this to change.
  • Book a CAAT speaker for your event on the First World War or on alternatives to military spending – email outreach(at)caat*org*uk.
  • Selling to both sides is a research project in collaboration with On the Record. Our volunteer researchers are uncovering stories of the arms trade, and opposition to it, in the First World War era. You can follow their blog here.
  1. From the Maurice Collection, Kings College London, Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives GB0099 KCLMA Maurice FB. MAURICE/3/6/3 1921 Oct “The Limitation of Armaments”, extract from The Contemporary Review. Vol CXX. Pp 433-440.
  2. Hansard: HC Deb 16 May 1905 vol 146 cc501-60
  3. Image c. Religious Society of Friends in Britain

Thanks to Rowanna Cadman-Bell, Holly Spencer and Caroline Prosser for their research on military spending.

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