Taking the toys from the boys

IssueNovember 2013
Feature by Ian Pritchard

‘We respect the protesters... [but] they may not understand the benefits of defence exports... If you said to CAAT how would you feel if 400,000 people lost their jobs, they may have a different answer’. So said one of the government’s chief arms sellers in response to the campaign against the Defence Security and Equipment International (DSEi) arms fair in September. (Telegraph, 8 September)

With one inaccurate and misleading statistic, concerns over the indiscriminate proliferation of weaponry and its appalling human cost are supposed to drift away. The tactic is well worn, not least by David Cameron when pushing weapons to repressive regimes (for example in the Telegraph, 5 November 2012). Tragically, it often works. The media print the numbers. They assume they’re accurate and reflect a valid argument, implicitly encouraging the rest of us to do the same.

Countering the PR
‘Jobs’ is the main PR tool of the companies and government. As a result, even if we think that ethics are paramount, we need to assess and respond directly to the arms industry’s arguments.

Some arguments are easily answered. For instance, using the government’s own statistics, it is clear that the number of arms industry jobs (for both export and ministry of defence procurement) is around half the figure used above.

Other arguments need more detail. What about those who are made redundant? Even though the numbers are exaggerated, there would be significant job losses if arms exports and production were radically cut. The welfare of the workers and their dependents is important. However, their skills are also important and in short supply, and an enormous amount of taxpayer funding is used to sustain the industry. These skills and funds constitute a sizeable resource available for alternative allocation.

A new report from the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), due out in December, considers where these resources would best be directed.

Offshore wind
The report uses two ways to assess what might be the best fit for a shift away from the arms industry: how it fits with sectors that the government wants increased investment in, and how it fits with technologies that are needed to cut carbon emissions.

On both counts, renewable energy – more specifically offshore wind – comes out as the clear winner. The authors also consider in some detail the related industries of onshore wind and wave and tidal power.

The report’s key findings are:

  • wind (mainly offshore) and marine renewable energy could provide twice as many jobs as the arms industry;
  •  they would provide more secure jobs;
  •  they could provide those jobs, for the most part, in the places where arms industry workers live, using the skills and education of the people in the arms industry;
  • these skills would make a large difference to the success of renewable energy;
  • this constitutes a massive opportunity for the government to create more and better jobs.

This is not a pie-in-the-sky approach. Offshore wind is growing quickly and the UK already has as much capacity installed as the rest of the world combined. However, the jobs, including those in the supply chain, are abroad.

The issue isn’t whether there will be a need for wind and marine renewable energy, or whether the energy source will be in the UK. It is only whether there will be a substantial industrial sector in the UK.

The market cannot create a UK renewable industry. Success is utterly dependent on government will. Showing support at the level that the arms industry currently receives is all that it would take to make a success of the changeover.

At present, political energy and public money is wasted on an industry that is stagnant as well as damaging, while a rapidly-expanding sector is neglected.

From conflict to security
The aim of the research was to address the main argument used for the arms industry – jobs. However, it turns out that the other favourite argument of the arms industry – national security – is also addressed by a shift to renewable energy technologies.

Current military spending and arms exports only decrease human wellbeing (security), by supporting authoritarian regimes, fuelling conflict, marginalising non-military solutions to problems, and wasting resources. Meanwhile, one of the greatest threats to human wellbeing is climate change (see Scientists for Global Responsibility’s report, Offensive Insecurity).

A shift of resources means security benefits on both counts. Added to this is a reduction in dependence on oil and motivation to go to war in oil-producing countries.

The taxpayer money and political support that fuels the arms industry needs to be reallocated, moving with it the employees and their skills. Society as a whole can benefit economically, environmentally and through improved security in its full sense.

This is a massive opportunity that goes beyond a response to arms industry PR. It is the chance to generate a vibrant sector in a growing market and improve UK and global security.

Topics: Arms trade