The British left and the defence economy

Rockets, guns and kidney machines, 1970–83

Keith Mc Loughlin
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Forty years before Covid-19, socialists in Britain campaigned so that workers could have the right to make ‘socially useful’ products, from hospital equipment to sustain the NHS to affordable heating systems for impoverished elderly people. This movement held one thing responsible above all else for the nation’s problems: the burden of defence spending. In the middle of the Cold War, the left put a direct challenge to the defence industry, Labour government and trade unions. The response it received revealed much about a military-industrial state that prioritised the making and exporting of arms for political favour and profit.

The British left and the defence economy takes a fine-grained look at peace activism between the early 1970s and Labour’s landslide general election defeat in 1983, incorporating activism, politics and the workplace to demonstrate the conflict over the economic cost of Britain’s commitment to the Cold War. Moving away from the perception that the peace movement was ‘post-materialist’ or above the crises of postwar deindustrialisation and unemployment, this book asserts that the wider left presented a comprehensive, detailed and implementable alternative to the stark choice of making weapons or joining the dole queue.

This book will be invaluable to lecturers and students studying the history and politics of postwar Britain. It challenges many widely accepted conclusions, including the ‘abandonment’ of social democracy and Britain’s inability to ‘find a role’ after the loss of its empire. This account provides a glimpse at an alternative future, one based on human-centred, environmentally friendly production with lessons for our own times.

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