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Constraints and choices in the transformation of Britain's defence effort since 1945*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 October 2009

David Greenwood
Reader in Higher Defence Studies, University of Aberdeen


The United Kingdom's defence effort has undergone profound transformation in the thirty years since the end of the Second World War. Further change is foreshadowed in the programme for the forthcoming decade which emerged from the Labour Government's 1974 Defence Review. Indeed, as Britain's economic distress persisted through 1975 it became apparent that the budgetary projections yielded by this “most extensive and thorough review of our system of defence ever undertaken by a British Government in peacetime” would themselves come in for further scrutiny and revision. Even the future is not what it used to be.

Research Article
Copyright © British International Studies Association 1976

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page 6 note 1 Barnett, C., The Collapse of British Power (London, 1972)Google Scholar; Northedge, F. S., Descent from Power: British Foreign Policy 1949–73 (London, 1974)Google Scholar; Bartlett, C. J., The Long Retreat (London, 1972)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Martin, L. W., British Defence Policy: The Long Recessional, Adelphi Paper no. 61, (London, 1969).Google Scholar

page 7 note 1 Darby, P., British Defence Policy East of Suez 1947–68 (London, 1973), p. 334 (emphasis added).Google Scholar

page 7 note 2 See Barber, J. P.‘British Foreign Policy: a review of some recent literature’, British Journal of International Studies, i (1975), pp. 272–82.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

page 8 note 1 See Goodwin, G., ‘British Foreign Policy since 1945: the long Odyssey to Europe’, in Leifer, M. (ed.), Constraints and Adjustments in British Foreign Policy (London, 1972)Google Scholar; and Howard, M., The Continental Commitment (London, 1972).Google Scholar

page 11 note 1 On which see S. Hoffman, ‘The Acceptability of Military Force’, L. W. Martin, ‘The Utility of Military Force’ and also Ian Smart's essay in Force in Modern Societies: its Place in International Politics, Adelphi Paper no. 102 (London, 1973).

page 11 note 2 See Bergsten, C. F., Keohane, R. O. and Nye, J. S., ‘International Economics and International Politics: a framework for analysis’ in Bergsten, C. F. and Krause, L. B. (eds.), World Politics and International Economics (Washington, 1975), pp. 336.Google Scholar

page 11 note 3 See Halle, L. J., The Society of Man (London, 1965), pp. 171–2Google Scholar, to whose thoughts on “the direction of history” I return in the following pages.

page 12 note 1 See, for instance, Hitch, C. J. and McKean, R. N., The Economics of Defense in the Nuclear Age (London, 1960)CrossRefGoogle Scholar especially ch. 4; and also Walker, P. GordonThe Cabinet (London, 1972 ed.)Google Scholar on “the interconnection of issues”, p. 132.

page 13 note 1 Op. cit. pp. 171–2.

page 14 note 1 There is an extensive literature on the theme of this paragraph. For a summary discussion, see Steiner, P. O., ‘Public Expenditure Budgeting’ in Blinder, A. and Solow, R. M. (eds.), The Economics of Public Finance (Washington, 1974) especially, pp. 241–97Google Scholar and Greenwood, D., Budgeting for Defence (London, 1972)Google Scholar especially ch. 2 and p. 90. (Much that has been written on ‘authority’, ‘legitimacy’ and ‘the calculus of consent’ is germane to the argument too, of course.)

page 12 note 2 I use the phrase ‘priority in value’ as Laski did. (See Parliamentary Government: A. Commentary (London, 1938), pp. 277–8.)

page 15 note 1 It follows that, although exceptionally economic constraints may impinge directly on aspirations or actual policy, their impact is typically felt via provision. (My own preference for the term defence effort will have been obvious in the paper already. Its merit is that ‘effort’ carries the right connotations of commitment of resources - sometimes no more than time and energy - to a worthwhile purpose with fulfilment of some aspiration in view. In thus comprehending at least three of the four notions distinguished here it is the most generally useful term).

page 15 note 2 As, for example in M. Leifer (ed.), op. cit. Introduction, p. 13.

page 16 note 1 The formal point should not pass without further comment, however. There is in fact a riddle here: “when is a constraint a constraint?” The answer is: when it is judged too expensive - in terms of the alternative uses of resources that would have to be forgone - to either breach or circumvent it. That is to say, the crucial economic constraints (in defence or elsewhere) derive from discretionary choice about the allocation of resources, within the overarching limitation of the aggregate capacity of the economy. In a word, it is the final category of ‘constraint’ that really matters. See C. J. Hitch and R. N. McKean, op, cit. pp 23–25.

page 17 note 1 On relative threat evaluation, see Greenwood, D., ‘Why Fewer Resources for Defence?’ The Royal AirForcesQuarterly, xiv (1974)Google Scholar especially p. 277. ‘Allocative constraint’ is, of course, a contradiction in terms, strictly speaking; but the point does not affect my argument. In a sense it is what the following pages are all about.

page 17 note 2 p. 11 above.

page 18 note 1 The reporting of Bevin is Field Marshal Montgomery's. See Rosecrance, R. N., Defense of the Realm (New York, 1970), p. 67.Google Scholar

page 18 note 2 See, for example Dow, J. C. R., The Management of the British Economy 1947–60 (Cambridge, 1964), pp. 2546.Google Scholar

page 18 note 3 The phrase is Richard Rosecrance's: op. cit. p. 31.

page 19 note 1 Dow, op. cit. p. 57.

page 19 note 2 House of Commons Debates, 15 Feb. 1951, col 653 (Gaitskell): 23 Apr. 1951, cols. 34–43 (Bevan). (See also Dow, op. cit. p. 56 f. and Rosecrance, op. cit. pp. 151–5).

page 19 note 3 The arguments in Barclay, C. N., ‘Historical Background, General Policy and Tasks of the Army’ in Brassey's Annual, 1990 (London, 1950)Google Scholar (cited in Rosecrance, op. cit. p. no ) are relevant here.

page 19 note 4 Statement on Defence, 1992 Cmd 8475 and a citation in Snyder, W. P., The Politics of British Defence Policy 1949–62 (Columbus, Ohio, 1964), pp. 195–6.Google Scholar

page 20 note 1 The following paragraphs are based on the section ‘Trends, Priorities and History’ in Klein, al, Social Policy and Public Expenditure 1974 (London, 1974), pp. 511Google Scholar, from which Tables 3–5 are also drawn.

page 24 note 1 Dow, op, cit. ch. vii and Cohen, C. D., British Economic Policy 1960–69 (London, 1971)Google Scholar, ch. 4.

page 24 note 2 Cmnd. 124. See also Rosecrance, op. cit. pp. 188–90 and ch. 8.

page 24 note 3 On the defence reviews of 1964–8 and 1974 see the present writer's ‘The Defence Review in Perspective’, Survival, xvii (1975), pp. 223–9.

page 25 note 1 It is the economic problem, although a curious convention has developed in the literature of politics which attributes its discovery to Harold and Margaret Sprout! (H. and Sprout, M.‘The Dilemma of Rising Demands and Insufficient Resources’, World Politics, xx (1968), pp. 660–3Google Scholar). Whatever happened to interdisciplinary awareness? In 1976 we celebrate an important ‘bi-centennial’ – the publication of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations!.

page 25 note 2 Waltz, K., Foreign Policy and Democratic Politics (Boston, 1967). p. 7Google Scholar and pp. 161–2.

page 26 note 1 Why were all the conclusions on the extra-European role not drawn at once? If the granting of independence to India destroyed the rationale for the ‘traditional Imperial role’, why did defence contraction not follow close upon political withdrawal? Some did think it through this way, of course: Cripps, for example (See Rosecrance, op. cit. p. 106). But, surely, such ‘parallelism’ would have been out of keeping with the trusteeship concept underlying that Imperial role, with its elements of protection, advancement and eventual independence. For, as circumstances had it, the ‘protection’ element outran the independence timetable at almost every turn; and British forces were engaged in major operations on this account until the mid-1960s. (I am indebted to Gwyn Harries-Jenkins for bringing this point to my attention: see also Darby, op. cit. pp. 327–31 and Gordon Walker, op. cit. ch. 8).

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