Moving from arms to renewables

IssueOctober - November 2014
Feature by Sarah Waldron

What sort of future do we want to invest in? Last month’s NATO summit offered a dystopian vision. Here, ‘building stability’ involved turning Cardiff and Newport into militarised zones, overtaken by security fences and armed police, while warplanes roared overhead. It also involved promoting the commercial interests of the weapons manufacturers that have been the main beneficiaries of NATO’s militarism and force projection.

Defence ministers dined aboard the BAE Systems’ Destroyer, HMS Duncan, and Newport’s Celtic Manor golf course was adorned with warplanes, armoured vehicles and missiles. Meanwhile, the UK government invited a number of other ‘international partners’, many of them representatives of repressive regimes, to browse the military hardware.

As usual, calls for increased military spending to guarantee our ‘security’ were prominent, with defence secretary Michael Fallon explicitly warning against prioritising social welfare spending ‘when the threats are on our doorstep.’ Those making these calls ignored, of course, NATO’s role in creating and perpetuating the threats it identified, and proposed to solve them with more of the same.

Business minister Matthew Hancock said: ‘This week shines a spotlight on the UK’s thriving defence industry. As part of our long term economic plan, we are working closely with the defence sector to secure new investment, highly-skilled jobs and build a better and brighter future for Britain.’

Not waving but drowning

Yet all of this fanfare should not be seen as a show of strength by the UK arms industry, but rather as a cry of desperation.

Despite the UK’s huge military spending (the sixth highest in the world), and the £700 million it spends on subsidising arms exports each year, the industry has been in long-term decline and, in its own words, is ‘stagnant’ and ‘flatlining at best’.

The decline seems likely to continue even considering the disproportionate public resources the government devotes to supporting it. Projected increases in the UK military procurement budget will only maintain the current number of jobs but budget pressure, alongside public resistance to UK involvement in further military interventions, mean they may well decline further. For the arms industry to stay at the levels it is at will require increased exports to the rest of the world, in particular the Middle East, but increased global competition means this too seems unlikely.

Another vision

The government is propping up jobs in a declining industry, the outputs of which are death, destruction and insecurity, and we’re all paying for them. We’re paying for jobs to manufacture military technology we do not need, such as the £2.5 billion spending on fighter jets to fight unnamed ‘future threats’, while vital public services are being cut. And we’re subsidising arms companies by hundreds of millions of pounds a year to export misery and destruction around the world.

We have another vision – one which guarantees highly skilled manufacturing jobs that will be there in the future – and which creates the kind of future we might want to see.

Real security involves tackling the causes of problems, not creating more, and climate change is one of the biggest that we face. It threatens all of our lives: millions of people already face food and water shortages. Extreme weather events, flooding and droughts will displace populations and create conflict over resources.

If we really want a safer world, we must cut carbon emissions fast.

The UK is in a powerful position to play its part. Offshore wind power has amazing potential in the UK. We have the largest wind resources in Europe and already have as much capacity installed as the rest of the world combined. The UK’s ideal building conditions has led to it being referred to as the ‘Saudi Arabia of offshore wind.’ We also have substantial wave and tidal resources.

Better jobs

CAAT’s research shows that a move towards offshore wind and marine energy could produce more jobs than the entire arms industry.

These jobs would provide alternative employment for arms trade workers. Like arms, the renewable energy sector is highly skilled. It has a similar breakdown across broad categories of skill levels and employs many of the same branches of engineering.

There is substantial overlap between the companies in each sector, from large-scale offshore construction down to the component level. For example, Schleifring Systems, exposed in 2014 for providing components for the Israeli tanks and drones used in Gaza, provides similar high-tech components for wind turbines.

There would also be appropriate work available in most areas where arms workers are located, with tens of thousands of supply chain jobs that could be located anywhere in the country.

These would be better jobs for the workers and for all of us: jobs in an industry which is growing not declining, which create a safer, rather than a more dangerous, world.

If we invest now, the UK would be in a leading position in technologies that will be in high demand, will have major export potential, and will also help other countries cut their carbon emissions. But this potential won’t be realised without action.

It needs investment and concerted UK government effort at the level currently devoted to the arms industry. It desperately needs highly-skilled engineers – like those currently working in the arms industry. And it needs all of us: to make the government shift priorities and create more and better jobs and a safer world for all

One of our first tasks is to ensure there is proper debate on the UK’s security policy and role in the world from 2015. This is our chance to demand a strategy that focuses on real threats, such as climate change, and delivers the resources we need to tackle them, rather than one which fuels conflict and repression with arms sales and destructive military intervention.

Topics: Green, Arms trade