Business is booming!

IssueMarch - May 2001
Feature by Janet Kilburn

In the post-Thatcherist political landscape of British society we continue, in a truly British fashion, to maintain the notion of the level playing field, meanwhile progressing the ethos of protectionist privatisation with a ruthless and self-serving agenda.

New phrases (and concepts) such as public-private-partnership and private finance initiative are commonplace in the political language of modern Britain under Tony Blair's personal version of caring capitalism.

A cynical process

The principle of selling-off assets and contracts to private companies can be seen throughout the public service industry. From prisons, to schools, to hospitals private companies are attempting to deliver services for less money than they are being paid for the contract, and therefore to make a profit for their shareholders. In this way the government delivers more services, though not necessarily better services for less money.

In my mind this process of tendering-out government contracts is yet another cynical process by which the rich benefit, in this case from the provision of basic services, services which are supposed to benefit children, the sick and the poor within societies. However, the reality is that private companies are making money out of public services which were previously managed and performed directly by functionaries of the state.

Invest now!

Whether or not you think it a service to the public to produce genocidal weapons of mass destruction, this shift in policy in favour of private company involvement, can be seen very clearly in the case of the development, production, maintenance, and decommissioning of nuclear weapons. Since 1993 British nuclear weapons production has taken place under a GOCO system that is, Government-Owned Contractor-Operated. This means that while the state owns both the physical sites of production, private companies, in consortia, manage all the day-to-day functions of Trident warhead production and maintenance. They are also responsible for the decommissioning of old British nuclear weapons, such as the Chevaline warheads (from Polaris submarines) and the WE-177 free-fall bombs (now decommissioned in entirety). The current 10-year contract is worth an estimated £2.2bn of British taxpayers money.

The consortium currently managing the two British Atomic Weapons Establishments (or AWEs) is made up of three companies. These are: the 100% British government- owned, and somewhat beleaguered, British Nuclear Fuels Plc (BNFL); US arms giant, manufacturer of the Stealth Bomber, and probably the biggest arms producer in the world, Lockheed Martin; and SERCOa facilities management company, who have benefited from several British government private finance or public-private- partnership schemes and are rapidly expanding. SERCO have done particularly well out of the private hospital, railway, prison and prisoner transfer contracts. In fact SERCO are probably an excellent company to invest in given the likely future policies of many governments around the world they stand to make a lot of money for their shareholders. Year on year this company is increasing in every way: share value and dividend, turnover, even the number of people it employs. With a relatively rapid expansion across the globe, particularly in Asia, the pacific and North America, SERCO confidently brag of operating from Alaska to Antarctica. The rapid transnational growth of companies such as SERCO reflects the basis of global economic policy trends. Lockheed Martin are involved in projects all over the world (and in the militarisation of space) including a controversial incineration project in Russia which has generated local grassroots resistance. In the US many groups have taken on Lockheed through direct action, and in Britain the BBC (state- owned media) made two programmes exposing the poor health and safety record the company has in the US in relation to managing nuclear plants. It appears Lockheeds detractors are many. BNFL have their US wing, BNFL Inc, and are involved in the global radioactive waste dump which might be built on Aboriginal land in Australia.

Protectionist realities

The British government goes through several laborious processes to award contracts to private companies a process which provides the veneer of control under democratic principles (but in reality is probably a waste of public money in administering). But in the US, the government is considerably more honest about how contracts are awarded.

Successive US governments have identified half a dozen or so US companies which they term prime contractors, companies to whom the US Department of Defense consistently awards lucrative contracts: unsurprisingly, Lockheed Martin are one of these prime contractors! Perhaps this is a bit more honest than the British approach, (who create the myth that it is a fair competition,but then award contracts to ailing government-owned companies).

One of the most amusing things about watching the new consortia take over management of the British nuclear weapons programme has been the outcry that an American company is involved. This parochial outrage is frankly hysterical given the 50-year-old legal defence agreements between the US and British states, the fact that our Trident warhead is built to a very close US (but uniquely British) specification, and the missile bodies are bought directly from the US (from Lockheed Martin in fact). The close and interdependent relationship between the US and British governments is nothing new, and that it extends into private companies should come as no surprise either.

Industry and ideology

So while the British public continues its self-deception about the nature and the murky politics of the nuclear weapons industry, a handful of companies continue to rake in the profits unabated. One incidental point being that shortly after Lockheed Martin announced that they had finally completed work on the Trident system for the US government, they picked up the reins at Aldermaston. A series of events perfectly compatible with both countries NATO membership and the overall NATO nuclear posture.

For campaigning and activist groups in Britain and the US, this at least transnational, if not global, interweaving of unpleasant policy and action by governments and companies should give us plenty of scope for attacking the industry, and the ideology behind it, on many fronts. And I use the word attack, because I am under no illusions that there is any point expending our limited energies on attempting to reform or make nice either the industry or the ideology behind it. So, from collective international action against companies who operate globally in weapons manufacture and sales (such as Lockheed), to links with the anti-private prison campaigns, with single-issue anti-nuclear campaigners, and wider links with activists working to dismantle the ideological basis of such policies (which ensure the success of the death trades) we are being presented with real opportunities to stand strong together in taking action. Lets start taking them.