In the first two instalments of this series we looked at the true nature of the UK state’s brutal foreign policy and the damage done to working-class communities as a result of their role within UK imperialism. In this instalment, I’d like to consider how the Military–industrial complex (1) operates within the UK, particularly with respect to government subsidies to the arms trade. In doing so, I’d like to illustrate another aspect of our political culture which demonstrates that the UK is a state in thrall to a military culture which values the profit from arms over the profit from renewable technology. Much of the evidence I will present in support of this view has been provided by the excellent Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) website.
The arms trade is a deadly, corrupt business. It is responsible for supporting, and profiting from conflict. Its customer base largely consists of human rights abusing regimes all over the globe. Yet this grim trade carries on with the full and explicit support of successive UK governments. The arms trade has traditionally been dominated by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council: US, China, Russia, UK and France. These five nations are all nuclear weapons states and they are also the five countries which top the list for global arms spending (2). As well as being the world’s largest spenders on weapons, these five nations, with the inclusion of Germany, also head the list of nations which are the world’s largest arms exporters (3).
The weapons sold range from CS hand grenades, teargas and riot control agents to fighter aircraft, helicopters, tanks and warships complete with guided missiles. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s arms transfer database shows that the US, Russia, China, UK and France regularly supply around three quarters of all major conventional weapons sold. Given that world military expenditure in 2012 was $1.75 trillion, that’s a hefty sum of money. In fact, it’s equivalent to approximately $240 for every person in the world (4).
This trade is carefully nurtured and highly valued by the UK government, regardless of who’s buying. You may be aware that in April 2013, in New York, the UN General Assembly passed an Arms Trade Treaty. NGOs and countries hailed the treaty as a great step forward in the control of the “illegal” arms trade. This news may have left you with the impression that it is the “illegal” arms trade that is damaging while the legal trade is tightly controlled and acceptable. This is not the case, the illegal arms trade accounts for less than 10% of world trade (5). In fact, the vast majority of arms sold around the world, including those to human rights abusing governments or into conflict areas, are legal and actively supported by governments, including our own (6).
The UK government claims, of course, that arms exports are managed responsibly. This is not true; the UK consistently sells arms to repressive regimes that have outrageous records of human rights abuses. Every year, the UK Government authorises the sale of arms to well over 100 countries across the globe with only a token effort at meaningful control and restraint (7). In 2010, 10,850 arms export licenses were accepted and only 230 were refused.
Of the 16 countries identified by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute as locations of major armed conflict in 2009, the UK sold arms to 12 (8). In 2010, the UK Government’s own Human Rights Annual Report identified 26 “countries of concern” (9). In that year, the UK approved arms export licences to 16 of these including Israel, Libya, Pakistan, Russia and Saudi Arabia. The following year, 2011, immortalised in history as the year of ‘The Arab Spring’, the UK sold arms to the regimes in Bahrain, Yemen and Libya. Export licences were also granted for 45 different types of shipment to Egypt, 43 to Saudi Arabia and 38 to Iraq. Licences were granted for the export of 10 types of weapons and ammunition to Saudi Arabia alone, including sniper rifles and submachine guns. (10).
For decades, regardless of which of the UK establishment parties is in power at Westminster, it has been UK government policy to vigorously support arms exports. To facilitate this, successive UK Governments have allowed arms companies unrivalled influence in policy-making. As well as day-to-day involvement with the MoD and UK Trade & Investment (UKTI), a key feature of the relationship between the Government and military industry is the so-called revolving door. This is the process whereby senior military officers, key UKTI civil servants and MoD officials are employed by the arms industry once they leave public service. Research by The Guardian newspaper in 2012 found that senior military officers and MoD officials had taken up 3,572 jobs in arms companies since 1996.
The most infamous example of the above is the case of of Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles. As Britain’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia he pressured the Serious Fraud Office to drop its investigation into BAE-Saudi arms deals. On leaving the Foreign Office he was given a job with, wouldn’t you guess, BAE Systems.
The Government’s UKTI department is a vital element of the UK’s arms dealing and is treated accordingly. In 2008, it opened the Defence & Security Organisation (DSO) which promotes UK weaponry around the world on behalf of arms companies. To demonstrate its importance to the UK government, it’s worth noting that there are 158 civil servants employed in UKTI DSO while all other non-arms sectors have a combined total of 137 staff (11).
Now, you may be of the opinion that the government is correct to promote the arms trade like this as, after all, it’s supporting British jobs, right? Well, wrong, actually. Although UK establishment politicians never miss an opportunity to champion the arms trade and extol its job-creating powers, it is really a fairly insignificant part of the total UK economy. Even worse, those jobs that do exist are all heavily subsidised by you, the taxpayer. So, how important to the economy is the arms trade?
As a percentage of employment in the UK, arms export jobs contribute 0.2% of the total (12). As a percentage of all exports, arms contribute 1.5% of the total (13). So, despite our government being historically keen on selling as many weapons as possible to all and sundry, the industry isn’t particularly valuable to our economy. But the government has a special place in its heart for its friends in the arms industry it would seem, and just loves to shower money on them. For instance, 27% of all UK Government research expenditure is spent on arms (14) and, as noted above, the UKTI dedicates 54% of its entire staff complement to the sale of arms (15).
But this isn’t the end of government and the arms trade’s special relationship in the UK. No, it gets much, much worse. According to figures obtained by CAAT, £700 million a year is spent on government subsidies to the arms trade (16). This total includes arms export promotion activity, export credit support and, the largest element of the subsidy, research & development funding. This works out at a phenomenal £9000 subsidy for each job in the arms industry in Britain. That is your money – used by your government to subsidise an industry that produces the weapons used to quell democratic protests all over the world. Makes you proud to be British, right?
It doesn’t have to be this way. Imagine we lived in a state which did not have a history of aggressive imperialist wars and which was not obsessed with its role on the world stage. Imagine we lived in a country where people and the environment were valued more highly than profit and military might; a country where our politicians were not mesmerised by the shiny allure of military hardware.
An independent Scotland, built on our shared values of equality, tolerance, justice and fairness could be that country. Rather than revelling in war and warfare, we could choose to prioritise other areas of the economy. Spending public money on areas other than arms will create at least equivalent numbers of jobs. A recent study by US academics analysed the employment effects of devoting $1 billion to the military versus the same amount of money spent on clean energy, health care, and education (17). They concluded:
- $1 billion spent on each of the domestic spending priorities will create substantially more jobs within the economy than would the same $1 billion spent on the military
- investments in clean energy, health care and education create a larger number of jobs in both lower and higher pay ranges.
The Better Together campaign makes great play of the Scottish defence jobs supposedly lost if Scotland votes Yes, and they love to shoehorn in a reference to BAE Systems. The fact of the matter is that we can have both jobs AND a greener, more peaceful nation. The skills required in the renewable technology sector are extremely similar to those in the arms sector. The bottom line is that, despite being the world’s second largest arms producer (18), BAE’s workers are effectively paid for by taxpayers. The BAE portfolio includes fighter aircraft, warships, tanks, armoured vehicles, artillery, missiles and small arms ammunition. Wouldn’t it be possible to subsidise highly-skilled engineering jobs elsewhere in the economy?
Voting Yes presents us with a perfect opportunity to decide the future direction of our nation. Having a national conversation about our ideals and our future aims allows us to seriously consider diversification; to rethink industrial support and subsidy, and to move it from the problematic arms industry towards renewable energy technologies. Renewable energy presents a massive new market, it is already large, about eight times bigger than the defence sector (19), and unlike the arms market, is growing swiftly and has immense potential. However, in 2011 the UK government chose to spend 30 times more on research & development for the arms industry than it did on the renewable energy sector (20).
According to CAAT, the UK government spends more money buying arms from BAE Systems than it does on tackling climate change- equivalent to £64 a year for every adult and child in the UK. Instead of investing for our collective future, the UK government is wasting money, skills and expertise on weapons and warfare. This historical UK government attitude is not set to change, regardless of which of the Westminster based parties is in power.
In Scotland, however, we have the unique circumstance of affecting a truly radical change. The Scottish referendum next year gives us a chance to create a better Scotland for all of us. The market for arms is worth billions, but it is positively dwarfed by the market for green, sustainable energy. Because arms jobs are paid for by taxpayers, resources can be redirected if the people have the will to do so. Shifting priorities away from warfare to tackling climate change could have a dramatic impact on the whole world. We could choose to become a nation that improves human security rather than threatens it. We could choose the show the world a better way to live. Why would we say NO to such an opportunity?
Member of Scottish CND
Supporter of the Radical Independence Campaign
Footnotes and References
(1) The Military–industrial complex is a concept commonly used to refer to policy and monetary relationships between legislators, national armed forces, and the military industrial base that supports them.
(2) Figures from Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI): The 15 countries with the highest military expenditure in 2011. See http://www.sipri.org/research/armaments/milex/resultoutput/milex_15/the-15-countries-with-the-highest-military-expenditure-in-2011-table/view
(3) Figures from Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI): Arms transfer database. See http://armstrade.sipri.org/armstrade/page/toplist.php
(4) See http://books.sipri.org/files/FS/SIPRIFS1304.pdf
(5) Stohl, Rachel and Grillot, Suzette (2009):The International Arms Trade, Polity Press
(7) Department for Business Innovation & Skills, Strategic Export Controls Country Pivot Report 2009
(8) SIPRI, SIPRI Yearbook 2010, Oxford University Press, 2010 and Department for Business Innovation & Skills, Strategic Export Controls Country Pivot Report 2009
(9) Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Human Rights and Democracy: The 2010 Foreign & Commonwealth Office Report, March 2011
(10) Committees on Arms Export Controls – First Joint Report . Scrutiny of Arms Exports (2012): UK Strategic Export Controls Annual Report 2010, Quarterly Reports for July to December 2010 and January to September 2011, the Government’s Review of arms exports to the Middle East and North Africa, and wider arms control issues.See http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmselect/cmquad/419/41902.htm
(11) UK Trade & Investment, UKTI Corporate Plan 2010-2011, March 2010, pp.38-39
(12) Total UK employment in 2010 was 29.02 million (Office for National Statistics, Labour Market Statistics, April 2011, Table 3 ). UK arms export jobs are estimated to total 55,000 (ADS trade association estimate provided by UKTI DSO to CAAT, 22 December 2010). Using these figures, arms export jobs comprise 0.19% of the workforce.
(13) Total exports of goods and services in 2010 were £428 billion (Office for National Statistics, Exports and Imports of Goods and Services. Total arms exports (goods and services) are approximately £5 billion per year. In 2008, the Government stopped publishing the data on arms deliveries, however, figures prior to that oscillated around £5 billion (Defence Analytical Services and Advice, UK Defence Statistics 2008), and the lack of any increase since then can be seen in Richard Grimmett, Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations, 2002-2009, Congressional Research Service, 10 September 2010. Using these figures, arms exports comprise 1.17% of total exports. 1.5% is used in the table to cover year-by-year variations in arms exports.
(14) Total Government funded R&D for 2008 was £7,949 million (Office for National Statistics, UK gross domestic expenditure on research and development, 26 March 2010). Ministry of Defence R&D expenditure for 2008 was £2,111 million (Defence Analytical Services and Advice, Defence Statistics 2010, Table 1.8, using 2007/8 and 2008/9 figures).
(15) UKTI DSO has 158 staff. Other sectors have a total of 137 staff (UK Trade & Investment, UKTI Corporate Plan 2010-2011, March 2010, pp38-39)
(16) Assessment of UK arms export subsidies. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, May 2011 PDF (153k)
(17) Pollin, R & Garrett-Peltier, H. (2011) ”The U.S. Employment Effects of Military and Domestic Spending Priorities: Update” . Political Economy Research Institute, University of Massachusetts
Read the report on the PERI website
(19) Submission from the Campaign Against Arms Trade to the Defence Committee on the impact on UK Defence of the Proposed Merger of BAE Systems and EADS (2012). http://www.caat.org.uk/resources/publications/government/defcomm-bae-eads-oct12.pdf
(20) UK Research & Development spending on arms was £1,560 million in 2010/11 (BIS, SET Statistics 2012) while R&D for renewable energy was £50.3 million in 2011 (International Energy Agency, R&D Statistics)
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