A century ago, Britain joined a deadly struggle for continental dominance.
A century ago, Britain joined a deadly struggle for continental dominance. Nine million soldiers were killed, of which around a tenth were British or from Britain’s colonies.
Since then, UK forces have not seen a single year without combat. The centenary of the start of the First World War should shake us to our senses.
If UK forces withdraw from Afghanistan on schedule at the end of 2014, we have an opportunity to break this lethal habit: it will be the first time we have not been at war for 100 years.
Britain has the sixth-largest “defence” expenditure in the world, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. We spend around £40 billion a year on it.
In this time of austerity, a fundamental re-think of our priorities is essential. If you struggle to pay your utilities each month, do you really want your tax to be funding high-altitude drones, fighter jets with long-range strike capability, and an outmoded and profoundly immoral nuclear deterrent?
We could free-up much-needed cash by drastically reducing our arms expenditure. If carefully planned, it need not lead to thousands of workers losing their jobs in British arms industries.
In the 1970s, workers at Lucas Aerospace famously drew up detailed plans for re-deploying their highly-technical skills away from producing combat aircraft in favour of “socially useful” alternatives - such as low-energy heat pumps and improved kidney dialysis machines.
Twenty-first-century socially-useful alternatives include renewable energy production and promotion of low-carbon living - with immense potential to create skilled jobs. The UK is already a world leader in offshore wind farms.
We have still got the balance wrong as we teeter on the brink of climatic catastrophe: The Ministry of Defence spent £900 million on research and development for the financial year 2012-13, according to the National Audit Office. The Department for Energy and Climate Change’s RandD spend was a paltry £28 million.
“Massive military spending and new investments in modernizing nuclear weapons have left the world over-armed - and peace under-funded,” warned UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon in 2012.
All the while the future horrors of global warming loom: droughts, floods, "extreme weather events", mass species extinction, the spread of disease, and more conflict over water and food shortages. “Climate change is the single greatest threat to a sustainable future,” said Ban last month.
So, on this centenary, let us reflect on the causes, the consequences, the ghastly suffering of the First World War.
But let us also reflect on war and peace more generally. It is time to break the “habit of war” and insist a better, more peaceful world is possible.
Davy Jones is the Green Party parliamentary candidate for Brighton Kemptown: www.davyjones4kemptown.org.uk. He is speaking at a public meeting –“ No Glory: One hundred years of resistance to the arms trade” - at 5.30pm-7.30pm, tomorrow (Saturday), at the Brighthelm Centre, North Road, Brighton.