Child Poverty And The “Defence” Budget

It was the Daily Telegraph, not the ‘liberal’ Independent or Guardian, that reported accusations last week that Tony Blair is “wasting nearly £7 billion of taxpayers’ money on a failing war on terror”. (Toby Helm and Brendan Carlin, ‘Anger at £7bn cost of war on terror,’ Daily Telegraph, November 20, 2006)

Unsurprisingly, the Telegraph was reporting from within the government’s propaganda framework of a “war on terror”. But the news coverage was welcome given that critical reporting of the immense financial costs to the public of invading and occupying Iraq and Afghanistan has been muted.

The report added that Blair and his Tweedledum/Tweedledee accomplice, Gordon Brown, had proudly “trumpeted special funding” of British taxpayers’ money to Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan: a sum totalling £844 million. This funding announcement came just two days after Blair admitted in an Al-Jazeera interview that the 2003 invasion of Iraq had been a “disaster”. Perturbed government officials have since back-pedalled frantically, claiming a prime ministerial “slip of the tongue”.

The day after the Telegraph story, the Press Association reported that the “special funding” was part of a huge increase in Ministry of Defence expenditure limits: up £1.6 billion for the next financial year. Defence Secretary Des Browne quietly slipped out word of the increase in a written statement: the already massive UK “defence” budget would be raised from £32 billion to £33.6 billion for 2006-07. (Ben Padley, ‘MoD seeks extra £1.4bn for Iraq and Afghanistan,’ PA, November 21, 2006)

Several days afterwards, media database searches showed no mention, or follow-up, of this PA news story in the British press. The single exception is a comment piece by George Monbiot in today’s Guardian. He observes of the huge increase in the military budget:

“No one noticed. Or if they did, no one complained. The government didn’t even bother to issue a press release.” (Monbiot, ‘Only paranoia can justify the world’s second biggest military budget,’ The Guardian, November 28, 2006)

Also, as researcher Chris Langley explains, even last year’s quoted expenditure limit of £32 billion is “misleading.” (Langley, personal communication, November 27, 2006). The actual expenditure, including depreciation and cost of capital charges, was £39.8 billion, according to figures produced by the Defence Statistics Agency. (http://www.dasa.mod.uk/ natstats/ukds/2006/c1/table11.html)


Punching Above Its Weight – Trampling The Poor

In cash terms, as Monbiot notes, the UK military budget is the second highest in the world (after the US). But then, as we are often reminded by politicians and the media, ours is a country that likes to “punch above its weight” in global affairs. “Defence” is the fourth largest consumer of UK taxpayers’ money after social security, health and education. (Chris Langley, ‘Soldiers in the Laboratory,’ report, 79pp., Scientists for Global Responsibility, January 2005; www.sgr.org.uk/ArmsControl/MilitaryInfluence.html)

The mainstream media rarely question why such a large portion of the country’s tax budget is devoted to the military sector. You would be hard pressed to find a discussion about what impact these skewed finances might have on state support for public health services, education and social justice generally. In particular, there is no debate linking the country’s huge military budget with the consequences for eradicating child poverty in Britain – an ongoing scandal. Hilary Fisher, director of the campaigning coalition End Child Poverty, notes:

“In a country as rich as Britain it is embarrassing and shocking that children still live in poverty.” (www.ecpc.org.uk/index.php?id=4)

The coalition cites some of the ugly realities of child poverty in the UK:

  • 400,000 children have inadequate diets.
  • Around 52,000 families with children became homeless in 2005.
  • Increasing gas and electricity costs mean three million families are expected to be unable to heat their homes this year.
  • Children from families of unskilled labourers are 15 times more likely to die from a fire at home.

As one single parent of three children in North London says:

“The worst blow of all is the contempt of your fellow citizens. I and many families live in that contempt.” (‘Making UK poverty history,’ Oxfam GB, BOND, End Child Poverty Coalition and the TUC, October 2005, report, 20pp., www.oxfmagb.org)

In October, End Child Poverty called on Gordon Brown to allocate just £4 billion to wipe out child poverty in Britain. The group warns: “It is clear that current policies and resources will not enable the government to reach its targets.”

But one has to turn to the small-circulation Morning Star newspaper to join the dots and point out the obvious. A recent editorial noted that, in March 1999, Tony Blair promised to eradicate child poverty “within a generation,” quoting 2020 as a target. (Editorial, ‘Sick set of priorities,’ Morning Star, November 20, 2006)

In March 2006, the government had been forced to announce that it had failed – by a significant margin – to meet the first target in that project. It had boasted it would reduce the number of children living in poverty by 25 per cent – approximately one million – and missed by 300,000.

The Morning Star editors wrote:

“There are 3.4 million British children still living in poverty because of that failure, roughly a quarter of the population under 16 years old, in a country which boasts the fifth-largest economy in the world.”

The editorial pointed to the scandal of Blair calling, in the same month these child poverty statistics were published, for a renewed British nuclear “deterrent”. Or, as the paper put it sagely, a replacement for “the irrelevant, ineffectual and unused Trident missile system at an estimated cost of around £25 billion”.

But even the mind-boggling figure of £25 billion is likely a gross underestimate of the final cost to the public. A report in the Guardian, based on calculations by the Liberal Democrats, estimates a much higher total figure of £76 billion. This would be the treasure chest required to buy the missiles, replace four nuclear submarines, and maintain the system for its lifetime of 30 years. (John Vidal, Tania Branigan and James Randerson, ‘Global warming: Could scrapping these… …save this?’, The Guardian, November 4, 2006)

Dr Stuart Parkinson, Executive Director of Scientists for Global Responsibility, sent us his response to government plans to replace Trident:

“It’s extremely disturbing that the government seems willing to take a decision to commission a new nuclear weapons system – whose total costs could be as high as £76 billion – while child poverty still exists in the UK.” (Email, November 28, 2006)

Polly’s Cameronian Caravan

Sadly, the same directness in challenging establishment priorities was absent from Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee’s article last week on poverty. (Toynbee, ‘If Cameron can climb on my caravan, anything is possible,’ The Guardian, November 22, 2006). Over many years, Toynbee has built a reputation in the mainstream as a social democrat who champions the cause of poverty reduction.

“For the Tories to admit that ignoring relative poverty was a terrible mistake represents a real breakthrough,” her article declared.

And – another Toynbee gem – Tory leader David Cameron “makes it easier for Labour to be bold on poverty, to hit that target of abolishing child poverty by 2020”.

This was a trivial analysis. Toynbee thus gave credit to Tory leader David Cameron for his wretched PR attempt to hijack the poverty issue. There was no mention of the corporate-dominated policies supported by his party, and pursued by the state no matter which party rules, to the detriment of social justice – including any realistic hopes of abolishing child poverty. As radical historian Mark Curtis has written:

“Addressing poverty eradication without tackling big business is a bit like addressing malaria without mentioning mosquitoes.” (Curtis, ‘Web of Deceit,’ Vintage, 2003, p.217)

We wrote to Toynbee as follows:

“There’s no mention in your article of skewed government spending priorities such as its overblown ‘defence’ budget; and, specifically, whether the state should be paying billions for the invasion-occupation of Iraq.

“Or, looking to Richard Norton-Taylor’s column immediately to the right of yours [‘Beware Trident-Lite’], whether paying for a grossly expensive updated nuclear ‘deterrent’ is a responsible use of public revenue.

“Why did you not consider these issues of relevance in your piece on poverty today?” (Email, November 22, 2006)

In reply, we received an interesting permutation of the standard “lack of space” canard:

“Well, you can’t put everything into one column! Or you’d always write the same one…” (Email, November 23, 2006)

Such a response would make sense if Toynbee had repeatedly examined the link between exorbitant military spending – the Trident replacement, in particular – and the lack of progress on eradicating child poverty. But, in the last twelve months, she has only twice hinted at a possible link. This is an unimpressive performance from someone lauded in the mainstream for her commitment to exposing poverty and social injustice. And so her answer enters the lexicon of liberal evasions.

We also wrote to Andrew Grice, political editor of the Independent, in response to his weekly column on the same topic. (‘The week in politics: Beckham, Toynbee and the Tory view of poverty,’ The Independent, November 24, 2006):

“You referred to: ‘the root causes of deep poverty, such as alcohol and drug problems, and poor education and housing.’ Why is there no mention in your article of the state’s skewed priorities in spending taxpayers’ money; in particular, the huge sums spent on ‘defence’?

“As you are likely aware, Tony Blair faced accusations last week ‘that he was wasting nearly £7 billion of taxpayers’ money on a failing war on terror.’

“Moreover, Defence Secretary Des Browne has just announced an increase in the annual UK military budget from £32 billion to £33.6 billion for 2006-07.

“And then there is the proposed replacement for Trident, at a cost of £25 billion or more. Indeed, calculations that account for buying new missiles, replacing four nuclear submarines, and maintaining the system for 30 years, suggest a much higher total figure of £76 billion.

“Why did you consider all of this irrelevant to your column this week?” (Email, November 24, 2006)

We have received no response at time of writing.

Concluding Remark

Corporate reporters and commentators have mastered the art of not making painful connections; painful for powerful interests, that is. Thus, shameful child poverty and a massive military budget belong in separate compartments of mainstream thought. Woe betide anyone who should look at one, and then the other, and wonder aloud whether state policy is, in fact, insane.

It is as though the state were hard-wired to *exclude* rationality; indeed, to exclude compassion.

Chogyam Trungpa once noted that “compassion is the ultimate attitude of wealth: an anti-poverty attitude, a war on want. It contains all sorts of heroic, juicy, positive, visionary, expansive qualities”. (Trungpa, ‘Cutting through spiritual materialism’, Shambhala, 2002, p. 99)

At root, we need to question whether the state can, in any meaningful way, act with rationality and compassion. And, if not, what we are going to do about it.


The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Write to Polly Toynbee, Guardian columnist:
Email: [email protected]

Copy to Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian:
Email: [email protected]

Write to Andrew Grice, political editor of the Independent:
Email: [email protected]

Copy to Simon Kelner, editor of the Independent:
Email: [email protected]