factFiction3The claim

“Maybe I am just an old war horse from the past but I think it has a profound implication for our country. I think it diminishes our country hugely.”

Paddy Ashdown, BBC News, 30 August 2013   

The background

Parliament’s vote against military action in Syria has sent Britain plunging “towards isolationism”, says former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown. The move “diminishes” our position in the world, he said.

Lord Ashdown isn’t the only one questioning our new world order.

“I think there will be a national soul-searching about our role in the world,” Chancellor George Osborne predicted on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

But what is our role in the world, and how much has it changed since Tony Blair led us into the Iraq war in 2003? FactCheck investigates.

The analysis

Critics say the move makes Britain look “weak”.  So how do we measure up against the other key members of the UN Security Council: China, France, Russia and the US?


We spent $60.8bn on defence in 2012 – up 4.9 per cent since the Iraq war kicked off in 2003. We are the fourth biggest spenders on defence behind the USA, China and Russia (in that order).

Since 2003, our military expenditure as a share of GDP has remained unchanged at 2.5 per cent and our spending as a share of GDP ranks us 57th in the world.

We have the 22nd largest population in the world, with 63m people – up from 60m in 2003. And our GDP per capita has climbed from $21,310 in 2003 to $37,500 in 2012 – 34th in the world.

But during that time the number of active military personnel has plummeted from 212,000 in 2003 to 165,650 in 2011 (and further since), according to World Bank data.

US, China, France and Russia

The US is by far the biggest military spender – with a bill 10 times that of Britain’s at $682bn last year. It spends 4.6 per cent of its GDP on defence – up from 3.7 per cent in the early days of the war on terror in 2003.

But its share of global defence spending has fallen below the 40 per cent mark for the first time since 1991, according to the think tank Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

On a global scale, defence spending took its first annual tumble since 1998 last year, dropping 0.5 per cent to $1.75tr, said SIPRI.

China has meanwhile pushed up its spending by 175 per cent since 2003 to an estimated $166bn in 2012, but as a share of China’s GDP it’s still only 2 per cent.

China has the largest population in the world – which in 10 years has grown by 61m (not far off the UK’s entire population right now). They now have a population of more than 1.3 billion.

Yet since 2003, China’s military might has declined by 21 per cent to 2,945,000 active personnel.

Indeed, the US military is the only one to have expanded in size. FactCheck however, knows that size isn’t everything – it’s spending and what they are spending their money on, which counts.

Russia and America, for example, spend far more as a percentage of their GDPs than the 2.5 per cent average that the UK adheres to.

But it’s much less than Saudi Arabia’s 9.1 per cent of GDP or Jordan’s 9.5 per cent of GDP in 2012. The CIA’s full list of spending puts it into perspective.


The verdict

Sizing up the big five UN Security Council members, FactCheck found that Britain spends a tenth of the amount America does on defence and we have the smallest standing military force among the five.

All five members consistently back up their position financially. It’s no surprise that the US spends the most on defence in the world, followed by China, Russia, the UK and until recently France (perhaps surprisingly, France’s position at number five was usurped by the Japanese last year).

We might spend more than the French – now at number six – but they’ve cut their defence spending by 3.3 per cent since 2003.

We’ve increased ours by 4.9 per cent over the same period. Our standing military force has been cut by more than 20 per cent in the last decade and is two-thirds the size of France’s.

Paul Flynn, MP for Newport West, accused Paddy Ashdown “and other strutting make-believe Napoleons” of mourning the loss of an expensive “world policeman role”.

He’s right it’s expensive, and the truth is that we don’t have too many boots on the ground to share around. But being small has never stopped us being mighty – and perhaps that’s what Lord Ashdown means.

By Emma Thelwell

(Sources for graphic: CIA, SIPRI, World Bank)