How the Warfare State Failed

Peter Forbes
6 min readJul 20, 2019

That’s us — Great Britain, the UK — I’m talking about. If the term “Warfare State” is unfamiliar to you, as it will be to most I will explain. The term was coined by the historian David Edgerton; I have taken issue with many of the contentions in his book The Rise and Fall of the British Nation elsewhere but his concept of the warfare state is the vital key to understand the position of Britain in the world today.

A Vulcan bomber

In a familiar popular narrative, the defining element of post-war Britain is that it became a Welfare State. The Empire was wound down, we ceased to be a world power, but the Beveridge report and Butler Education act defined the post-war ethos: an almost Dutch/Scandinavian style social democracy.

This was true up to a point but obscured an important side of the equation. Britain was not resigned to losing World Power status after WW2 and in fact to this day — to use the crass expression — tries to “punch above its weight”. Britain had been indisputably the world’s greatest power in 1900 and entered WW2 as clearly a player on a similar scale to Germany, Japan and America.

An obvious play on “Welfare State”, Edgerton’s coinage reveals his contrarian nature but there’s more to it than being different for difference’s sake. He defines post-war Britain as a state that privileged military over civilian investment. It happened because WW2 elided into the Cold War with barely a caught breath and Britain, having entered the WW2 as a Great Power believed itself to have a similar role in the new conflict. But in 1947 Sir Henry Tizard, soon to become the Ministry of Defence’s Chief Scientific Advisor, said:

“We persist in regarding ourselves as a great power, capable of everything and only temporarily handicapped by economic difficulties. We are not a great power and never will be again. We are a great nation, but if we continue to behave like a great power we shall soon cease to be a great nation.”

These words, so prescient then, now read like an epitaph for the soon to be Brexit nation.

But at the time, denial wasn’t hard to justify. The impetus of war had kept Britain apace technologically. When Tizard wrote, the country was more or less on a par with America in aircraft, electronics, advanced materials, and the nascent technology of computing. Germany and Japan were ruined and forced by the USA to forswear all aggressive military capability. The UK regarded keeping up with the US as its priority and the background to this was the emerging Cold War.

It was the 1945–50 Labour government — the one usually credited primarily with introducing the NHS and the Butler education reforms — that created the Warfare State. Without consulting the Cabinet or Parliament, let alone the British people, the government t decided to develop the British atomic bomb. The ostensible reason was that in an act of betrayal, America passed the McMahon Act in 1946 forbidding the export of nuclear technology. So the British scientists who had actually given their expertise to launch the Manhattan Project were frozen out. This was not the last such betrayal by America.

Despite this, Britain was a loyal ally of the USA when war broke out in Korea. So much so that Defence spending — at 2 % as I write — rose to 10% of government expenditure in 1950. So was born a UK military-industrial complex, that’s the beast Eisenhower was to warn the USA against in 1961.

What this meant in the UK is that the cutting edge of Britain’s science and engineering was applied to military projects. and these were undertaken on a grandiose scale. We needed a plane to deliver the atomic bomb and three different bombers were commissioned and put into service. Many prototype fighter planes were commissioned. These programmes were colossally wasteful and largely mediocre: Britain failed throughout the 1950s to create a supersonic fighter jet.

The focus on military technology meant that costumer manufacturing was neglected. For a while this was an easy market because European and Japanese manufacturing had been destroyed. Old-fashioned British consumer products could still command a market for want of competition. The investment necessary for the coming age of consumer expansion was neglected.

So a thread developed in which industry preferred military contracts because they were cost plus with no competition. Cost-plus meant that instead of a competitive tender, contracts were awarded on the basis of “do the work whatever it costs then slap a markup on it — we’ll pay up”. Commercial projects actually had to compete in the market place. Not only did this encourage waste and inefficiency, the resulting products were often inferior. The huge investment in military technology might have paid off if some of the equipment had been exported. But unlike the French, we proved dismally unsuccessful at this. UK expertise in electronics, computing and aviation went into developing the Lightning fighter, the Bloodhound surface to air missile and the Vulcan bomber. But disastrous mistakes were made in these projects. If the weapons had been successful they would have been valuable exports but, Saudi Arabia apart, only the RAF bought the planes in any quantity. Saudi Arabia has bought several generations of British equipment and we remain uneasily in hock to this brutally authoritarian regime to this day, supporting the military operation in Yemen which most of the world condemns. .

These failures first began to tell seriously in the 1960s. By now European manufacturing was recovering and out-competing British industry. The Labour government that came to power in 1964 faced a balance of payments crisis. The result was the cancellation of projects like the supersonic bomber TSR2 and forced consolidation of the major industries. The electrical industry effectively became a single company: GEC. The aircraft manufacturers merged into what is now BAE. That company is still with us but in 2006 (the year that both GEC and ICI collapsed) they made a disastrous decision to abandon their stake in the civilian Airbus in favour of purely defence work — that old cost-plus again.

The upshot is that today industries that in 1945 were cutting edge — electronics, computing, chemical — have disappeared, been lost to foreign ownership, or have become a mere rump.

Although industry had profited from the cosy relationship with government and its cost-plus economics the government has tended at times to forget that we were supposed to be a warfare state. In 1957 the Conservative Defence Minister Duncan Sandys made the crass judgement that manned planes were over: the future lay with guided missiles. The supersonic fighter plane, which we at last had the ability to build, was cancelled (although the rival Lighting programme was eventually allowed to go ahead). Sixty two years later the manned fighter is still the staple, despite the arrival of the drone.

In a similar act of vandalism, 2010 the Cameron Coalition government introduced Austerity with instant draconian military cuts. The airforce was reduced from 12 to 6 squadrons. The entire Harrier fleet was sold to the USA for spare parts, leaving a gap, which has still not been filled nine years later as we await the combat readiness of the American (with a Tier 1 British contribution from BAE) F35 fighter and its host aircraft carrier. The rationale was that cuts in public expenditure would free up the entrepreneurial spirit to create a more balanced dynamic economy. Some hope! The Chancellor George Osborne floated the March of the Makers idea. But this was no more than a meaningless slogan. Decades of hollowing out meant that there was no base from which to reindustrialize Britain. The Warfare State was shrunken and an exporting failure; consumer goods were dominated by German, Japanese and US manufacturers. By default Britain became a country with a bloated financial services sector, inward investment, often involving foreign dirty money, and an inflated housing market, fuelled again by dubious foreign money. Britain, once the world model of a vibrant democracy with an innovative productive economy has become an extractive state in which assets are sweated, sold and the proceeds stashed in tax havens.

The result is a nation that doesn’t make its own trains, cars, machine tools, TVs, computers — you name it — and struggles to put more than six planes in the air at any one time, can field only 100 tanks, and has 19 fighting ships with which to rule the waves.. Having presided unconcernedly over the collapse of the civil manufacturing industry and having forgotten the rationale of the Warfare State, Britain is leaving the EU with no game plan. The Britain that is sailing into uncharted waters, apparently alone, is a Britain of pustular developments like the new quarter of Battersea: foreign real estate investment, with the profits siphoned off into Tax Havens. It will need a lot more than Boris bluster to get us out of this fix.



Peter Forbes

I write about biomimicry and nanoscience in books and review science books for the Guardian and Independent. Teach Narrative Non-fiction at City University.