Public support for defence spending
Finally, we look at changes in public attitudes to defence spending over time to see if they may have been influenced by high-profile military missions, and especially the deployments of UK Armed Forces to Iraq and Afghanistan given the debates around adequate resourcing for personnel. Since 1983, British Social Attitudes has collected data on people's priorities for government spending by asking them to select the public service that would be their highest priority for extra spending. The choices offered are between education, defence, health, housing, public transport, roads, police and prisons, social security benefits, help for industry and overseas aid. A full set of first and second priorities for extra spending are presented in the chapter on Health. Figure 8.1 shows the trend for the proportion of the public selecting defence as their first priority.
We see that only a small minority have ever said that defence is their top priority for additional government spending. But while the first British Social Attitudes survey, conducted a year after the Falklands War, shows three per cent choosing defence, the proportion falls to just one per cent three years later and hovers around that level until 2003. It then increases to six per cent in 2009, before falling again. In the latest survey, five per cent regard defence as their top priority for extra spending.
It therefore seems there was no great public clamour for more money to be spent on defence near the start of either the Afghanistan or the Iraq deployments. Nor does it seem likely that the increase in support for defence spending that occurred between 2003 and 2009 is a response to the increasing number of deaths that have occurred among UK service personnel as this has continued to increase while the priority awarded to extra defence spending has decreased. It is more probable that the modest spike we see in support for increased defence spending is a response to the public debate that peaked in 2009 around claims that the UK Armed Forces were experiencing shortages of vital equipment - an interpretation supported by other recent studies (McCartney, 2010; Edmunds, 2012; Forster, 2012).
More generally, we may conclude that while the majority of the British public hold the Armed Forces in high esteem, only a small number regard defence as a top priority for additional public spending. It may be that the public supports the Armed Forces but is unwilling to provide additional spending at the expense of other government sectors if current spend levels are widely considered to be sufficient and resourcing problems seen to be due to poor financial organisation and planning. Other sectors, especially health and education, which regularly emerge as the top two priorities, are generally considered more pressing concerns and possibly more deserving of extra funding.
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- See news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/1596810.stm
- A police estimate of numbers. Protest organisers suggested a figure nearer two million. See news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/2765041.stm
- 'Armed Forces Covenant recognised in law for first time', Ministry of Defence, Defence News, 3rd November, 2011, available at www.mod.uk/DefenceInternet/DefenceNews/DefencePolicyAndBusiness/ArmedForcesCovenantRecognisedInLawForFirstTime.htm
- A report by the former Liberal Democrat leader and career soldier Lord Ashcroft (2012) recently cast some light on public attitudes towards the Armed Forces, but owing to its sampling strategy the findings were not necessarily representative of the UK population as a whole.
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