The Ragged Trousered Warmongers

Trident Nuclear Submarine HMS Victorious
(Picture thanks to Wikipedia)

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is considered by many to be central to the growth of the Labour Party in the UK.

In his 1997 book Faces of Labour – The Inside Story, Andy McSmith calls the book one of “the cultural icons which hold the party together – the Red Flag, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists”.

Ask any active Labour Party member what their favourite or most influential book is and they’re are likely to name Robert Tressell’s Edwardian classic.

According to this website “a survey of 160 MPs in August 1997, just after Labour came to power, found that The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists was joint winner of the title best political book”.

Labour’s Stella Creasy MP claims to have read the book when she was 9.

Her party and Parliamentary colleague Jamie Reed MP, when asked “If the British Library were on fire and you could only save three books, which ones would you take?”named The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.

Labour MPs George Howarth, Louise Ellman and Tristram Hunt also claim that Tressell’s book influenced them, and other of their colleagues think enough of the book’s author to have signed a Parliamentary Early Day Motion noting “the centenary of the death of Robert Noonan (Tressell) on 3 February 2011”.

Yet all these MPs, and a majority of Labour MPs (who one would imagine would also refer to Tressell’s book as having influenced them) also voted for the renewal of Trident.

One of the key arguments given time and again in favour of Trident by these MPs and others is that of jobs.

Deputy Labour Leader Tom Watson MP said,

“The construction and maintenance of Trident’s replacement will directly support more than 30,000 jobs in the UK, including 6,000 at BAE Systems’ facility in Barrow-in-Furness. Unite, my union, has said a failure to renew would lead to the “obliteration” of thousands of its members’ jobs and warned many communities would become “ghost towns”. That is an economic catastrophe we cannot afford and one we cannot ask those communities to pay.”

Jamie Reed MP has said,

“(there is)nothing right wing about supporting the tens of thousands of skilled workers that enable us to maintain our deterrent…”

And Tom Blenkinsop MP

Thousands of high skilled manufacturing jobs around the UK are reliant on keeping and renewing the system. This factor means that Mr Corbyn, if he were to vote against renewal, would be voting for a measure which would threaten union members’ jobs.

As well as many others.

These are all people who argue for Trident on the grounds of jobs and are also fans of Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.

Well maybe they should take heed of the words of Frank Owen, the book’s socialist hero.

     “Even if there is more shops than what’s actually necessary,” cried Harlow, “it all helps people to get a livin’! If half of ’em was shut up, it would just mean that all them what works there would be out of a job. Live and let live, I say: all these things make work.”
“‘Ear, ‘ear,” shouted the man behind the moat.
“Yes, I know it makes ‘work’,” replied Owen, “but we can’t live on mere ‘work’, you know. To live in comfort we need a sufficiency of the things that can be made by work. A man might work very hard and yet be wasting his time if he were not producing something necessary or useful.
“Why are there so many shops and stores and emporiums? Do you imagine they exist for the purpose of giving those who build them, or work in them, a chance to earn a living? Nothing of the sort. They are carried on, and exorbitant prices are charged for the articles they sell, to enable the proprietors to amass fortunes…”

Indeed Trident does create jobs, at a great cost (renewing Trident would cost £205bn according to the latest estimates). But then again paying people to dig holes and fill them back in again creates jobs. Anything can be justified if the reason is to create jobs.

As the C19th French Assembly Member, Frederick Bastiat, said in the second part of his brilliant essay “That which is seen, and that which is not seen”,


It is the same with a people as it is with a man. If it wishes to give itself some gratification, it naturally considers whether it is worth what it costs. To a nation, security is the greatest of advantages. If, in order to obtain it, it is necessary to have an army of a hundred thousand men, I have nothing to say against it. It is an enjoyment bought by a sacrifice. Let me not be misunderstood upon the extent of my position. A member of the assembly proposes to disband a hundred thousand men, for the sake of relieving the tax-payers of a hundred millions.

If we confine ourselves to this answer – “The hundred millions of men, and these hundred millions of money, are indispensable to the national security: it is a sacrifice; but without this sacrifice, France would be torn by factions, or invaded by some foreign power,” – I have nothing to object to this argument, which may be true or false in fact, but which theoretically contains nothing which militates against economy. The error begins when the sacrifice itself is said to be an advantage because it profits somebody.

Now I am very much mistaken if, the moment the author of the proposal has taken his seat, some orator will not rise and say – “Disband a hundred thousand men! do you know what you are saying? What will become of them? Where will they get a living? Don’t you know that work is scarce everywhere? That every field is overstocked? Would you turn them out of doors to increase competition, and weigh upon the rate of wages? Just now, when it is a hard matter to live at all, it would be a pretty thing if the State must find bread for a hundred thousand individuals? Consider, besides, that the army consumes wine, clothing, arms – that it promotes the activity of manufactures in garrison towns – that it is, in short, the god-send of innumerable purveyors. Why, any one must tremble at the bare idea of doing away with this immense industrial movement.”

This discourse, it is evident, concludes by voting the maintenance of a hundred thousand soldiers, for reasons drawn from the necessity of the service, and from economical considerations. It is these considerations only that I have to refute.

A hundred thousand men, costing the tax-payers a hundred millions of money, live and bring to the purveyors as much as a hundred millions can supply. This is that which is seen.

But, a hundred millions taken from the pockets of the tax-payers, cease to maintain these taxpayers and the purveyors, as far as a hundred minions reach. This is that which is not seen. Now make your calculations. Cast up, and tell me what profit there is for the masses?

I will tell you where the loss lies; and to simplify it, instead of speaking of a hundred thousand men and a million of money, it shall be of one man, and a thousand francs.

We will suppose that we are in the village of A. The recruiting sergeants go their round, and take off a man. The tax-gatherers go their round, and take off a thousand francs. The man and the sum of money are taken to Metz, and the latter is destined to support the former for a year without doing anything. If you consider Metz only, you are quite right; the measure is a very advantageous one: but if you look towards the village of A., you will judge very differently; for, unless you are very blind indeed, you will see that that village has lost a worker, and the thousand francs which would remunerate his labour, as well as the activity which, by the expenditure of those thousand francs, it would spread around it.

At first sight, there would seem to be some compensation. What took place at the village, now takes place at Metz, that is all. But the loss is to be estimated in this way: – At the village, a man dug and worked; he was a worker. At Metz, he turns to the right about, and to the left about; he is a soldier. The money and the circulation are the same in both cases; but in the one there were three hundred days of productive labour; in the other, there are three hundred days of unproductive labour, supposing, of course, that a part of the army is not indispensable to the public safety.

Now, suppose the disbanding to take place. You tell me there will be a surplus of a hundred thousand workers, that competition will be stimulated, and it will reduce the rate of wages. This is what you see.

But what you do not see is this. You do not see that to dismiss a hundred thousand soldiers is not to do away with a million of money, but to return it to the tax-payers. You do not see that to throw a hundred thousand workers on the market, is to throw into it, at the same moment, the hundred millions of money needed to pay for their labour; that, consequently, the same act which increases the supply of hands, increases also the demand; from which it follows, that your fear of a reduction of wages is unfounded. You do not see that, before the disbanding as well as after it, there are in the country a hundred millions of money corresponding with the hundred thousand men. That the whole difference consists in this: before the disbanding, the country gave the hundred millions to the hundred thousand men for doing nothing; and that after it, it pays them the same sum for working. You do not see, in short, that when a tax-payer gives his money either to a soldier in exchange for nothing, or to a worker in exchange for something, all the ultimate consequences of the circulation of this money are the same in the two cases; only, in the second case, the tax-payer receives something, in the former he receives nothing. The result is – a dead loss to the nation.

The sophism which I am here combating will not stand the test of progression, which is the touchstone of principles. If, when every compensation is made, and all interests are satisfied, there is a national profit in increasing the army, why not enroll under its banners the entire male population of the country?

A great many people have looked at the employment effects of military spending over the last half a century.

Marion Anderson, for example, looked at the USA’s military expenditure in the 1970’s, and her research shows that military expenditure creates negative employment. Over a four year period the USA lost out on opportunities to create 800,000 extra jobs because of the vast amounts spent on the military

The economist RP Smith has done tremendous work looking at military expenditure. One piece of work looked at military expenditure in the West between 1953 and 1973:

The empirical evidence…suggests that military expenditure imposes a substantial burden. Among the advanced capitalist nations high military expenditure is associated with much lower investment, lower growth, and higher rates of unemployment.

This is what the Wall Street Journal had to say in 1980:

“‘Defense spending…. is the worst kind of government outlay, since it eats up materials and other resources that otherwise could be used to produce consumer goods.”

One of the biggest thorns in the military’s side, and one of the greatest yet least known friend to World Peace was the economist Seymour Melman. He noted that it was impossible for a person to work on the Atomic Energy Commission and at the same time be a trainee surgeon; that people can’t teach children while at the same time design parts for weapons. He showed that up to 30% of the USA’s total number of scientists and engineers were working within the military complex when the Cold War was at it’s peak.


“…whatever else you can do with a nuclear-powered submarine that is almost as long as two football fields you can’t wear it, you can’t live in it, you can’t travel in it, and there’s nothing you can produce with it.”

said Melman.


But it was another economist, Ruth Sivard, who put it best when she said,

“The most obvious price of the world’s arms race, represented by trillions of dollars in taxes and public debt, is only a small fraction of the real cost. The real cost—on which no final price can be set— is in opportunities lost, the burden of material neglect, social alienation and upheaval, lives wasted in wretched poverty.”

As the Scots would say, “telt”.