This week, Rishi Sunak is in the United States to sign an agreement confirming a new defence pact between the UK, the US, and Australia. Under the so-called AUKUS partnership, Britain and the United States will provide Australia with the technology required to build its own nuclear submarine fleet. The pact is widely perceived as an attempt to curb China’s growing influence in the Pacific, as well as an opportunity for Britain to carve out a more significant global role for itself post-Brexit.
The new commitments Britain is making as a signatory to the pact will not come cheaply. The Prime Minister has announced that UK defence spending will increase by nearly £5 billion over the next two years, with £3 billion of that being committed to support AUKUS projects.
At a time when Britain is already providing billions of pounds in military aid to Ukraine, these new spending commitments have re-opened questions about how much the Government spends on the armed forces and where that funding goes.
In research conducted last week—before the new spending was announced—we at Redfield & Wilton Strategies found that pluralities of British voters believe that Britain spends too little on defence and that Government funding for the armed forces should increase. However, fewer than one-in-three voters think the amount of taxpayer money that goes towards funding the military should increase.
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, 41% of voters think the British military has the resources necessary to help an ally suffering an invasion, against 33% who believe it does not, but voters are more pessimistic about Britain’s ability to defend itself. 39% do not believe the military has the resources to defend Britain in the event of a foreign invasion, against 36% who think it does. That said, the likelihood of a foreign power attempting such an invasion is (for now) reassuringly slim.
Against the backdrop of the Ukrainian conflict, 37% of British voters say that Britain spends too little on its own defence, while 24% think it spends the right amount and 17% think it spends too much. 50% of likely Conservative voters say that Britain spends too little on its own defence, as do pluralities of both likely Liberal Democrat (41%) and likely Labour voters (34%).
Intriguingly, responses to this question show that the views of current likely Labour voters are slightly more hawkish than among the party’s 2019 voters. Back then, the party was led by Jeremy Corbyn, who in the 2019 election campaign—after a career spent calling for Britain to abandon its nuclear deterrent and NATO to be disbanded—refused to commit to raise defence spending, saying the then goal of spending 2% of GDP on defence was “a reasonable figure.”
Under Keir Starmer, Labour now says one of its missions in Government will be to make Britain “NATO’s leading European nation,” with the party calling for a halt to planned cuts in the armed forces and an increase in domestic arms manufacturing.
Our poll shows that this shift in tone at the top of the party is reflected among Labour’s voter base. Likely Labour voters are six points more likely than 2019 Labour voters to say the UK spends too little on defence (34% to 28%) while they are also eight points less likely than the party’s 2019 supporters to think the UK spends too much on defence (19% to 27%).
Overall, a plurality of British voters say they would favour increasing the British military’s budget. 41% of voters say they would support the Government increasing the military’s budget, against 21% who say they would oppose the Government doing so.
2019 Labour voters, meanwhile, are almost evenly divided. A plurality of 37% would support increasing the defence budget, while 31% would oppose an increase.
These results would suggest, then, that Mr. Sunak’s announcement of an extra £5 billion for the armed forces should be relatively well-received.
The outstanding questions, however, are (1) how the extra money will be raised and (2) at the expense of what other investments?
Problematically, most British voters are not currently prepared to support more taxpayer money going to the armed forces. As it stands, 28% of voters think the amount of taxpayer money that goes to the military should increase, while a plurality of 35% think the current amount should stay the same. 22% even favour a decrease in the amount taxpayers contribute to the military.
In short, the Government has support from the public for increasing defence spending, but against the backdrop of creaking public services and a cost-of-living crisis, very few Britons are willing to countenance spending more in taxes to fund such spending increases.