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

There is talk of ghost towns if UK defence jobs are threatened, but are these the only ghost towns that should concern us?

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’.

What 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.

Particular 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. 

About the author

Gabrielle Rifkind is the founder of Oxford Process, a diplomacy initiative that creates quiet off-the-record dialogue in areas of conflict. She is co-author of  “Fog of Peace: how to prevent war”, IB Tauris 2016.


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