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Don’t Mention The War!

April 4, 2011

There seems to be a reticence among many Labour front-benchers to using the military operation in Libya as a political argument domestically. The placards at the March 26th demonstration which read “Money for Welfare, Not for Warfare” and “If there’s money for a war, there’s money for the NHS” are punchy, but are perhaps viewed as malformed arguments. They are likely to be answered with sound bites of the “Should we let the people of Libya be murdered?” variety. Added to this there is a general reluctance in making political points by reference to military action.

There is, however, a more important question to be asked and a more elegant argument to be made. It concerns the duplicity of standards applied to foreign and domestic policies.

Last week, I posted a blog which suggested that there is a danger in applying sterile economic arguments to choosing where the cuts will bite hardest. The article was read my many thousands of people. I received hundreds of incredibly warm messages of support for the sentiment it expressed. I was also at the wrong end of a fair amount of ridicule. Comments were made by (anonymous) persons which suggested “I had been smoking something” or that “money is the only thing that matters” or that I need a reality check, because “there is no money there, period”.

A few days ago I circulated (on Twitter, political discussion threads, but also privately to lawyer ex-colleagues) this question: “Can a budget be said to be fiscally neutral, when it announces that the cost of military action is to be met from Treasury reserves?” I have not received a satisfactory answer. I invite readers to elucidate the point, if they can.

Counter-arguments suggesting that the loss of life in Libya is not on a par to the loss of public services at home, are clever but hollow. While the UK is a small part of an international community which may or may not have a responsibility toward Libyan civilians, it has sole and exclusive responsibility for the welfare of its own people. A cut in front-line police officers or NHS staff will result to loss of life in this country. Although on a smaller scale and less dramatic, these deaths will be no less final. The misery of poverty and unemployment does not recognise nationality.

My own feelings on whether the intervention in Libya is justified are not relevant in this respect. My impression that Cameron’s statement to the House of Commons contained a glee at having the opportunity to be statesman-like, which was inappropriate for an announcement which endangers lives, both British and Libyan, is a personal one. What is illuminating, however, is the rhetoric he uses in support.

His language, and the language of his cabinet, on this issue has been almost exclusively formulated in terms of this being “the right thing to do”, regardless of cost considerations. Cameron made a statement on Thursday that “Britain has no selfish or strategic or oil-related interest in what is happening in Libya“. At the same time, any argument on domestic fiscal policy which argues that some things are too important not to be ring-fenced regardless of cost, is slapped down with cries of “we are broke” and over-blown claims regarding national debt and budget deficit. There is a complete denial that the cuts are driven by ideology, despite brazen statements by ministers that they are “making cuts that Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s could only have dreamt of” (h/t to Mark Ferguson).

Therein lies this government’s repugnant hypocrisy.

The Opposition needs to press this point. There are only two possible outcomes. Either the government has to stop obfuscating its foreign policy and admit that the reason for intervening in Libya is primarily to do with money or they have to accept that, in principle, there are issues so important that a purely economic dissemination is inappropriate. Once they concede this fundamental truth, we can have a proper mature argument about what those issues are.

Until then, do mention the war. I mentioned it once and I think I got away with it all right.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Treasury reserves permalink
    April 6, 2011 8:31 pm

    “Can a budget be said to be fiscally neutral, when it announces that the cost of military action is to be met from Treasury reserves?”

    Technically I suspect this means that the payment is being made out of the Contingencies Fund (CF) rather than the Consolidated Fund (AKA the Exchequer Fund) (EF) from where most public spending flows. EF monies will have been assigned to a particular departments’ budget by Parliamentary vote whereas the CF monies are to be spent on emegencies. Arguably therefore the CF monies may not have been counted in the budgeting so on that basis HMG could in
    assert fiscal neutrality.

    The obvious problem is: what if HMG needs to access the CF for a domestic emergency e.g. the banks fall over (again)? If all the CF monies have been spent the delay in seeking new funds from Parliament in a crisis could prove disastrous. Of course Parliament may have already voted to refund the CF but that money would need to come from the EF… and the budget would no longer be fiscally neutral.

    It sounds therefore like the govt. is spending the UK’s emergency fund and taking a gamble on no national emegencies arising in this financial year.

    I don’t know this is what they are doing it just sounds like it to me.

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