The demonstration was organised by Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) to highlight the first Global Day of Action on Military Spending, which saw similar events take place around the world.
Protesters contrasted what they described as the relatively light curbs on military spending – some of which the government has suggested may be reversed – to far more savage cuts in other areas, including health, education, welfare and housing.
As part of the coalition’s “austerity drive” Ministry of Defence budgets were slated for 8 per cent cuts over four years while in other departments cutbacks averaged 18 per cent.
CAAT also highlighted “largely hidden” subsidies that the government passes on to the arms industry. These include taxpayer-funded research and development, as well as government sponsored insurance and trade promotion through the UK Trade & Investment Defence & Security Organisation (UKTI DSO).
The group has calculated that this second subsidy amounts to nearly £500 million a year for an industry which employs just 0.2 per cent of Britain’s workforce and is responsible for less than 1.5 per cent of exports.
London CAAT spokesman Ian Pocock said: “It is shocking that the government continues to spend big on arms and the military even as it cuts back on social welfare.
“This is not OK.
“We want to see a fundamental shift in the government’s spending priorities, away from arms spending towards more ethical and beneficial areas, and an end to government promotion of arms exports.”
Another source of anger for campaigners is the controversial multibillion-pound Trident replacement. Although an official decision has yet to be made the MoD has already spent millions on components for the system,
CND general secretary Kate Hudson said: “The ruinously expensive Trident nuclear weapons system is probably the clearest example of the near total disconnect between military spending and the real needs of the country.
“Over the last decade UK military spending has leapt from £23bn to £39bn and even in this time of cuts, items like Trident seem immune from the cuts facing almost all other areas of public spending.”
She said billions of pounds could be released for real public sector priorities if Trident and its proposed replacement were scrapped.
“Nuclear weapons are a dead end and spending on them deprives the country of much needed investment in real social needs,” she concluded.