If Coronavirus Really Led to a Global War, How Would That Affect the UK?

We spoke to some military experts about the likelihood of rationing, conscription and a war-time economy ever making a comeback.
London, GB
uk army world war 3
A UK Army Apache attack helicopter in front of exploding pyrotechnics. Photo: Shaun Davey / Alamy Stock Photo

Yesterday, General Sir Nick Carter, a senior UK Army officer, warned Sky News that the economic crisis caused by COVID-19 could lead to a global conflict.

“We have to remember history might not repeat itself,” he said, “but it has a rhythm, and if you look back at the last century, before both world wars, I think it was unarguable that there was escalation that led to the miscalculation which ultimately led to war at a scale we would hopefully never see again."


When the interviewer asked if Sir Carter was saying the threat of WWIII is real, he replied, “I am saying it's a risk, and I think we need to be conscious of those risks”.

Many in the UK remember what it’s like to live through a modern war, insomuch as there’s really not too much to live through. The Iraq War was a cataclysmic event for the Iraqi people, with an estimated 185,000 to 208,000 civilian deaths between 2003 and 2017, but it wasn’t that dramatic in the UK. There were no deaths on British soil, no rationing, no night-time trips to air-raid shelters. Unless you had relatives in Iraq or fought there yourself, it likely didn't affect your life in a material way, no matter how vehemently you opposed it.

This doesn’t diminish the magnitude or tragedy of that conflict. But the point is: in recent British history, war has mostly been something that happens elsewhere. Any conflicts we’d enter in the near future would likely be very similar. But what would it take for us to enter a war whose effects we would feel? How likely is this to happen, and what might it look like?

To find out, I spoke with Dr Pablo de Orellana, a lecturer in International Relations at the War Studies Department, King’s College London; Dr Simon Moody, a lecturer in the Defence Studies department, also at KCL; and Nate Bethea, a writer and US Army veteran who runs What a Hell of a Way to Die, a leftist podcast devoted to military issues.


How Likely Is It That the UK Will End Up at War?

There’s a peculiar type of middle-aged British man who seems bitterly disappointed he’s never had the chance to prove himself by fighting in a war. Bad news for these weirdos, good news for everybody else: the chances of the UK entering a “total war” – one which the entire country is mobilised, as it was in 1939 – are, at present, extremely slim. “There’s no scenario, presently, in which we’d need to enter into a total war,” said Dr de Orellana.

“If we went to war with Iran, it would be a war of choice, like Iraq and Afghanistan, rather than a war of necessity,” he continued. “Iran would pose a serious challenge, but they simply don’t have the weapons to reach the UK. We think of ourselves as having decayed in terms of power, but we’re still very safe. It’s difficult to attack the UK, in terms of conventional warfare. You can’t put an army in London.”

Dr Moody agrees that the scenario is unlikely: “I can’t really think of a plausible situation in which the UK would be drawn into a major conflict against a near-peer adversary. The only states which really pose a credible existential threat to British security are Russia and China. It would be against the national interests of both of these states to try to wage total war against Britain to further their policy aims. Besides, liberal democracies do not have the political will or economic resources to wage total war.”


The notion we have of total war is outdated, Dr de Orellana argues: “During the Cold War we pioneered new ways of fighting. Now, Russia is leading the way with hybrid warfare: this would include terrorism, false-flag operations, cyber-terrorism. The idea is you create puppet actors and they fight on your behalf, with your support.”

Having established that there is basically zero chance of a total war happening any time soon, I ask the annoying follow-up question: “But… what if it did?”

What Plans Do the Government Have in Place?

“If such a war were to happen,” Dr de Orellana said, “we still have some standing plans for recruitment of the military. We shrunk the army a few years ago, but we have a large reserve, so our military would swell. There would be a significant appropriation of money by Parliament. There would also have to be a very desperate and quick dash for re-armament. We only have one company that produces all of our machines now; anything our military uses is likely to be made by BAE, so we have a limited capacity to expand quickly.”

What would the government look like during a total war? “The biggest change would be a War Cabinet. During WWII, parties got together to run the country without competition. Even Labour was doing the opposite of what it normally did: it was telling workers to shut up and not go on strike. Even now, Parliament would likely choose to give unusually colossal powers to the War Cabinet. There would be no competition or elections.”


What Would Happen to the Economy?

The event of a total war would obviously have a huge impact on our economy.

“One thing we might see,” Dr de Orellana said, “is a controlled economy. During WWII, for instance, the Minister of Supplies was in charge of most food production, although it wasn’t nationalised in a socialist sense. But if we started a total war today, that wouldn’t happen immediately. There would be private sector resistance, as there was in WWII. Would there be the necessary political will to put the entire economy into service of the war? I’m not sure.”

Could we end up bankrupting ourselves? “In the immediate term, no,” Dr de Orellana replies, “because we still have ridiculously good credit – oh, the irony! But Brexit could seriously undermine that. There is also still a lot of money to be taxed. During WWII, for instance, the tax rate for high earners was 70 percent, and we could do the same again. But we fought that war with big and expensive machines that did most of the work: fighter planes, tanks, etc. We were a rich empire and it was a luxury war. That would be harder to accomplish now. We no longer have hundreds of car factories we could convert into arms factories, for a start.”

Would We See a Return to Conscription?

A range of politicians have proposed a reintroduction of National Service, including Chuka Umunna, and the policy is fairly popular among the British public. But there’s a difference between thinking it would be nice for your children to learn how to make a bed properly, via a month or two of military training, and putting them at risk of being brutally killed.


As such, there is considerably less public enthusiasm for enlisting in the Army: according to a 2018 YouGov poll, only 20 percent of people would do so if the UK were to enter a war of similar severity to WWII. If conscription became mandatory, 40 percent of millennials would try to dodge it, which has pretty major implications for Britain’s ability to fight. As it stands, according to Dr Moody, “the whole of the British Army could fit comfortably inside Old Trafford football ground. Britain, and most other European nations, do not have the manpower to fight a total war.”

“I would expect that if the UK got involved with something huge, there would be a push to register everyone for potential conscription," said Nate Bethea, "even if the conscription itself wasn't immediate. I also think it would be very popular at first. If it was something serious, the government would try to campaign on the idea of shared sacrifice."

Given how jingoistic the UK has become in recent years, such a campaign isn't hard to imagine. However, Dr de Orellana is sceptical about the idea of outright conscription returning. “Conscription might not happen. It didn’t even happen in WWII, really, when we only had limited conscription by ballot and lottery. If the conflict was really big, the biggest change to society wouldn’t just be people popping off to military service. It would be broader than that; it’d be about calling up all sorts of different experts. The UK spies and builds its way out of war.”


Would Rationing Return?

Rationing Is Not the Enemy

Some people have suggested that a return to rationing would be a good response to the climate crisis, regardless of how much food is available. There has also been much talk recently of Brexit necessitating a return to rationing and, in response to Marcus Rashford’s efforts to ensure that children don’t starve, misty-edged nostalgic reminiscing about how great surviving on a tiny amount of food once was. But whether we’d see rationing as a result of total war is debatable.

“It would depend on the context,” said Dr de Orellana. “During WWII, we were being attacked at sea, which is how a lot of our food reached us. If the situation was similar now, we probably would have rationing.”

But rationing was never simply a matter of practicality, he added: “It’s also about keeping morale high – the idea that we’re all in it together. You really don’t want the super-rich to be eating lovely cuts of beef when most of the country is surviving on porridge. It was kept up partly for this reason. Whether that feeling of solidarity could exist in a new conflict, I don’t know.”

How Might Society Change?

The long-lasting consequences of a total war would be huge. As with WWII, they might even be positive.

“World War 2 showed people it was possible for the state to feed the population,” said Dr de Orellana. “For many poor people, it was the first time they’d eaten a regular meal. This paved the way for the welfare state, because it showed what was possible. You also had posh RAF boys meeting normal people for the first time, on a regular basis, and this does change society. It creates a sense of solidarity, which we don’t really have now.”

Does he think it could make the UK more left-wing? “It’s hard to say. It might actually make it more nationalist, because now we’d be starting from a very nationalist place, which wasn’t the case in 1939. But it would also make the case for a more solidarity-based society, as well as belying this Conservative idea that ‘money doesn’t grow on trees’. Because when you’re fighting a total war, it kind of does.”