Once I read a review of the old David Bowie movie ‘Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence’ and it described this tale of life in a Second World War Japanese prison camp as “a clash of two militaristic societies”. I was surprised by this, the Japanese Empire had an army of millions of men, the generals ran the country for the benefit of the army. I wondered if this had been the case in Britain. As I got older, I heard the left wingers at university telling me that British ‘militarism’ was responsible for the troubles in Ireland, Israel and even Africa. This wasn’t just something in the past, but something, apparently, we were still doing. Prompted by the ever provocative Walthamstow Underdog, I thought about whether Britain actually was a militaristic state.
Wikipedia defines Militarism as “the doctrinal view of a society as being best served (or more efficient) when it is governed or guided by concepts embodied in the culture, doctrine, system, or people of the military.” With this in mind, it is clear that that British society is, and probably never has been, militaristic.
Let us look at the two world wars, as mentioned by the Underdog. On the outbreak of the First World War the British army was a colonial gendarmerie of 100,000 men compared to the millions Germany, France and Russia could put into the field. Even Serbia had a larger standing army in 1914. Surely a militaristic society would have put more men in uniform than that? 20 years later, as Britain went to war with Hitler, were we any more militaristic? No. Once again the British army was small in comparison with its continental allies and enemies. The armed force which saved Britain from Nazi invasion in 1940 was the RAF, in large part made up of part time pilots with very little flying experience, not what you’d expect from a militaristic power.
Indeed, the British tradition of ‘make do and mend’ and doing things on the cheap bedeviled our military efforts in the opening stages of both world wars. Defence spending shrank throughout the 1920’s, and even with storm clouds gathering post 1933, there was a constant struggle to increase military spending in the face of deep seated penny pinching. The whole British government policy of appeasement was anti militaristic. If it worked, it hoped to avoid a war, if it didn’t it would at least buy time to repair the inter war neglect of the armed forces.
British society did become more militaristic, by the above definition, but only after the end of World War 2. During the war, every aspect of British life became geared towards assisting the war effort. Unlike the ‘business as usual’ attitude of 1914, from the off the government took control of whatever it needed, such as coal and steel and all manufacturing, to fight the war. The planning worked and Nazi Germany was defeated and this led many to the conclusion that a plan would work in peace time as well. As Tony Benn put it, “If we can have full employment by killing Germans, why can we have it by building houses and schools?…There was a belief that if we can plan for war we can plan for peace”.
So society was to be planned like D Day had been planned. The phrase ‘command economy’ even came into use. Targets were set for investment in industry, food was rationed out and people were only allowed to take an amount of money specified by the government abroad. As well as the strategic industries of steel, coal railways, airlines, shipbuilding, telephones, electricity, gas and car production, a chain of nationally owned restaurants were set up as was a government owned brewery. Anyone familiar with the military phrase ‘command and control’ would recognise these ideas.
Looking back to 1914, AJP Taylor wrote that “Until August 1914 a sensible, law abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state, beyond the post office and policeman”. Now, we have a government that spends 42% of national GDPand employs 1 in 5 British workers. Command and control is the order of the day with armies of civil servants (570,000) setting, administering and monitoring targets, goals and objectives. British society has been militarised, not by men in jackboots and black shirts, but by men and women with ‘good intentions’ and smart suits.