Financial Ruin…

A friend recommended that I read this article:

I enjoyed the article and thought that he made some valid and interesting points. It is therefore a great shame that some of the normal nonsense creeps in, for example:

‘Although Britain threw more than half a million troops from across the Empire into the war, it had been unable to break the Boers.’

Now, I’ve never been great at maths, but throughout the war, 448,435 British and Imperial troops served in South Africa (obviously not all at the same time) – so I fail to see how that can equate to ‘more than half a million’. Peak commitment was about 210,000 men, and during the Guerrilla War, this was steadily reduced to some 180,000. This number also included all the part-timers of the town guards and DMTs, plus mounted police etc.

Secondly, ‘When the Treaty of Vereeniging was negotiated it was a peace treaty – not the unconditional surrender the British had sought. The Afrikaners still had thousands of troops in the field and were willing to continue fighting’.

Very few wars in history have ended with unconditional surrender, and I have never read anything to suggest that HM Government considered that the Boer War should be an exception. London had never wanted the war, and, so long as the threat to Britain’s position in region had been taken care of, then the sooner it ended, the better.
There were indeed thousands of bittereinders still in the field at the end, but the article fails to mention that they were being swept up at a rate of 1,500 a month, or that all but the most deluded (De Wet, for example) had accepted the war was lost. Kitchener’s sweeps were proving effective and were netting hundreds at a time.

Most interestingly, however is this claim:

‘England will be financially ruined and have to stop. This was not far from the truth – the war had cost over £200 million, or the equivalent of £20 billion in today’s money’.

On the contrary, this is very far from the truth. It is obviously difficult to make direct comparisons between expenditure from different time periods, but, and to use Mr Plaut’s figures, the notion that modern-day Britain would be ‘financially ruined’ if it had to pay out £20 billion over 2.5 years is clearly far-fetched, especially given that a lot of it would be spent on armaments manufactured in British factories. At first glance it might sound like a lot of money, though one should bear in mind that a sizable chunk of the cost of fighting a war is the normal cost of having an army in the first place.
Anyway, to put the figure into a modern-day perspective, the RAF / RN’s first tranche of just 48 F-35 Lightning 2 fighter jets are costing over £9 billion, the cost of building the HS2 railway line to connect London to some cities in northern England is projected to come in at some £88 billion, the annual budget for the NHS (in England alone) is some £134 billion, while the Welfare budget is a truly colossal £270 billion a year.
And if these numbers are not convincing enough, just remember that today’s British government cheerfully throws away almost £16 billion of tax-payer’s money every year in foreign aid, for heaven’s sake.

In reality, Britain defence expenditure during the Boer War rose to just 6.91% of GDP. It should also be noted that government expenditure at the time was just 15% of GDP, rather than the eye-watering 40% it is today – so it wouldn’t have taken much to raise taxes to cover the costs if needed.

Defence expenditure during the Boer War was certainly more than it had been prior to the war (just 2%) but was still low in comparison to the years running up to the Second World War, a time made famous by appeasement but where defence spending was nevertheless 8.72 per cent of GDP in FY1938 and 15.19 per cent in FY1939. During both World War One and Two, it was over 40 per cent of GDP and even during the Korean War, it was between nine and eleven per cent.

Anyway, I pointed all this out in the comments section to the author, and, to justify his position, he came back to say that:

“The expenditure deepened, even if it did not cause, an Edwardian financial crisis. In September 1901 the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Michael Hicks Beach, had to go to cabinet to warn that mounting war expenditure might shortly necessitate an unpopular increase in taxation and called for ‘iron discipline’ from his fellow ministers in their planned expenditure. Financial constraints and the willingness of the Boers to continue resistance had forced Britain into an unsatisfactory peace.” It is also worth noting this: “On 24 January 1902 Kitchener wrote: ‘The Boers are being continually told that if they keep the war going a little longer, England will be financially ruined and have to stop.’”

I responded to this, pointing out that the possibility of perhaps having to raise taxes somewhat is very different from impending ‘financial ruin’.
I also pointed out that, just because the Boers were being told that England faced financial ruin, that didn’t mean it was in any way true: they were being told all manner of nonsense by their leaders so as to trick them into carrying on the war – apparently Russia was going to invade India, German was going to invade Britain, and HM Forces were being decimated by Bubonic plague, for example.


  • AM Posted August 8, 2020 9:13 pm

    It’s a growing trend, I’ve noticed, for language to be abused and stripped of its meaning. How on earth can a (modest by today’s standards) increase in taxation be equated to financial ruination? I certainly wish more people regarded increases in tax as ruinous because the world would be a better place, but c’mon.

    • Bulldog Posted August 9, 2020 5:21 am

      Indeed – and only a potential modest increase in taxation!
      That said, would that today’s politicians were so careful with the tax payer’s money.

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