Jobs, jobs, jobs – how to divert away from the industrial military complex in the UK

Otto Dix, The trenches near Rheims II, 1916. Estate of Otto Dix, private collection.President
Eisenhower famously used his farewell address to warn future US governments to
‘guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or
unsought, by the military–industrial complex’.

he foresaw was a ‘potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power’ through
the development of the arms industry and its dependency on arms sales abroad to
sustain itself. The UK’s Department for International Trade, proudly announces
on its website, that on a rolling 10 year basis, the UK
remains the world’s second largest exporter of arms, with a 9% share of the
global defence export market in 2016.  Government pride is based upon jobs, balance
of payments, and maintaining an independent defence-manufacturing base. The defence
sector makes up 10% of the British manufacturing base and those defence exports
sustain 55,000 jobs.

Liam Fox, the UK’s Secretary
of State for International Trade, mounted an unashamed defence of
Britain’s arms sales at the opening of the world’s biggest weapons trade
exhibition in London this autumn. Fox said, “Britain is a global leader in
defence and that should be celebrated, ….we must work to defend and promote the
established defence industry.” These
words reflect little thought as to the use of these weapons and their
consequences. Military equipment worth at least £3.6 billion has been agreed for sale by the UK to Saudi
Arabia since the devastating conflict in Yemen began in 2015.
This has included Typhoon
fighter jets, and precision-guided bombs. Claims have been made that UK-made
arms are being used in indiscriminate bombing raids on civilian targets by the
Saudi-led coalition fighting Shia rebels in neighbouring Yemen. These sales contribute to thousands of
engineering jobs in the UK, and have provided billions of pounds of revenue for
the British arms trade.

Economics and job security trumps political morality. When
it was announced recently that BAE systems was to axe nearly 2,000 jobs, there was no reporting on how these weapons might
be used and the moral questions about the consequences of the UK sale of
weapons: the news  concentrated entirely
on job losses. The Unite assistant general secretary, Steve Turner, said:
“These planned job cuts will not only undermine Britain’s sovereign defence
capability, but devastate communities across the UK who rely on these skilled
jobs and the hope of a decent future they give to future generations.” There
was talk of ghost towns.

communities are currently heavily reliant upon the defense sector for
employment. So if there was to be any change of policy by governments, there
would need to be managed intervention which prepared for a transition away from
defence jobs to alternative forms of employment. As yet there is no real discussion whether those working in the defence industry
could be retrained. There would need to be a feasibility study that would
examine the investment in technologies and skills that could redirect
people from the arms industry to more socially responsible and desirable
industries. This could include renewable energy, offshore wind, wave power and
civil engineering and electronics. A more effective use of public resources could
be explored that directly supported civil research and development that would enhance
the country's manufacturing base.

Steve Scofield, who has written extensively on arms
conversion, proposes the need to examine how job-conversion could benefit small
groups of arms-dependent communities such as in Barrow-in-Furness, Glasgow,
Preston, Aldermaston and Plymouth. Opposition from the trade unions is
inevitable as these leaders see their responsibility as the protection of their
members’ jobs regardless of consequence, and frequently join forces with lobby
groups representing the arms industry. So,  says Scofield, for such an endeavour to succeed,
trade union and community participation would be essential and he suggests the
development of  a partnership between government,
trade unions and local communities.

Any change of policy will require a fundamental review
of our security policy and where we put our resources. Those
in government are sensitive to these issues, because with the loss  of jobs there is also the loss of significant
tax revenues from the arms manufacturing sector. Currently there is no serious political
opposition to the current defence policy and little appetite in the main
political parties for discussion that does not hinge on protecting Members’
constituency jobs and industries. The former Secretary of State for Defence
Michael Fallon asked  for increased
military spending. It is difficult for Labour to engage in these issues due to
pressure from unions surrounding jobs, as well as being seen as unpatriotic and
currently going against the political tide. The question of patriotism also needs
to be reframed in order to address our real security challenges.

The current western security paradigm means that huge resources
are being put into armaments, military intelligence, targeting, logistics, force
protection and allied coordination. What is now required is a more systemic
approach to security, where we do not decide defence and security in isolation from
humanitarian concerns and diplomatic efforts. A different kind of security that
looks at root causes of violence, and why people are angry and alienated.
This is not about Typhoons, nor the use
of strike fighters, hunter-killer submarines and fleets of drones, but is about
addressing the underlying causes of conflict.

But who is making the decisions to go to war, and are the
‘bigger picture’ questions being asked about the power and influence of the
military–industrial complex? The resistance from this powerful lobby cannot be overestimated. It will
argue that any doubts raised represent an economic threat to manufacturing and
the capacity of the UK to defend itself – so how to incentivize them to engage
in such a programme will involve maximum creativity and a firm government hand.

But the
challenges whilst serious are manageable –
the numbers of jobs involved in this transition are
a small fraction of those involved in similar transitions away from mining, or
even the defense diversification in the 1990s with the end of the Cold War. With proper preparation, anxieties about future job
insecurity if jobs in the arms industry are lost can also be addressed. 

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