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The arms industry is advertising its vulnerability

Arms company BAE Systems always have adverts at Parliament's underground station. Why do they feel the need to buy these posters? What does this tell us about their political position?

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
23 October 2013
Westminster tube station.jpg

Westminster Tube Station/photo - forum.skyscraperpage.com

Westminster tube station is a commuter's cathedral. The ride down the stacks of escalators from the ticket barrier to the Jubilee line platform is my favourite journey in London. But the smile inspired by this sublime chasm of modernist mega-sculpture is always sullied by a piece of brutal vandalism.

Just as you place a foot onto the first descending metal step, you are confronted by a banner of propaganda. The specific image varies. The exact wording isn't always the same. But the colours never change: red, white, blue. And the company is consistent: BAE systems.

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A BAE Systems advert at Westminster Tube Station

Westminster tube station is home to some of the most expensive poster advertisements on the underground. And the biggest slots, every time I have passed through, have been filled with the same basic message: the armament industry is key to the British economy. When I last made the trip, there was only one difference. At the bottom of the wonderful journey into the void, I found Lockhead Martin had contributed, with a solitary poster, to the regiment of militaristic propaganda.

Advertisements are sign posts and windows. They at once point to a vulnerability in their desired audience and allow us to glimpse the fears of their creators. They tell us what the advertiser is most desperate will be heard, those things that the audience needs to be persuaded of, and how we can be convinced. Coke wouldn't be “the real thing” if they didn't fear Pepsi, if you could tell the difference, or if we didn't cling to authenticity in a fast changing world.

The reason to be interested in the advertising found on the hoardings beneath Portcullis House is obvious. It is the final gathering place of many of the most powerful people in the country before they retreat into a building in which paying for access to their minds is slightly more tricky, slightly less legal.

There was, in 2007, an exhibition at the Tate Britain of replicas of the posters Brian Haw displayed in Parliament Square. It won the Turner Prize. Haw himself was voted the most inspiring political figure at the Channel 4 awards the same year. These tributes marked the fact that his ten year protest opposite the House of Commons was an anomaly. His permanent presence beside one of humanity's greatest symbols of imperial power was a rare call for peace, so rare it was worth talking about, so rare he was worth legislating for. But Brian Haw is dead. His comrades have left the square, and the Tate's display is long since over.

Brian Haw at the Tate.jpg

Mark Wallanger's exhibition of Brian Haw's banners at the Tate/Loz Flowers - some rights reserved

The poster exhibition in my favourite nearby underground atrium, in contrast, is a permanent feature. Unlike Haw, it isn't discussed in the national papers. It isn't said to scar the view for visiting tourists, or to be artwork worthy of the highest award in the land. This isn't a much remarked on or controversial feature of the London landscape. It is normal. On the commute to the mother of parliaments, it's expected a propagandist will attempt to change your mind, so long as they have paid someone for access to it. And it's no surprise that the company doing so is one that sells tools of violence to autocrats. Because what's surprising and what's normal is crushed into our minds by the weight of the powerful.

And, of course, the creators of the posters on the underground wouldn't want a prize. They wouldn't even want a comment. Because the point is not that you notice, but that you see. It is not that you think, but that you remember. A thought is contentious. You trust your memory. Your eyes flick over the images, and their lesson is flashed to your subconscious before you can notice.

The message shot into the minds of our MPs and their advisers is a brutal one. The British economy relies on the manufacture of armaments. And all politics is a four letter word: jobs. “You take us on” they are saying “and you will lose your seat”. In a sense, of course, this is true. Arms are a major industry in Britain, employing around 300,000 people. In 2012, the exports from what is euphemistically called the 'defence' industry increased by 62%. In an otherwise stagnant economy, these figures are hard for politicians to argue with.

But of course it's more complex than that. The best estimate of subsidies to these companies from the British government in 2009/10 is £698.9 million, including the £562.4m of support for research and £75.4m for underwriting loans for their exports. 'Official visits' cost £5m that year though since then, David Cameron has seemed particularly willing to act as travelling salesmen. And of course, there's the £15.8m Defence & Security Organisation, sitting in Vince Cable's department, co-ordinating taxpayer support for the industry. If we invested that much public money in most industries, they would likewise likely thrive.

When the Icelandic president was asked in Davos why his country had recovered so quickly from its economic collapse, he gave a simple response. Once the brightest computer experts were freed from playing in the money markets, he said, their energy was released into more productive affairs. The same argument can be made for British engineers. Our best minds and metal are bent towards building ever more inventive contraptions of war. What ingenious machines would they have developed if they were applied elsewhere? How astounding could be our exports to the booming renewable energy market?

But this isn't really the point. Because political decisions aren't played out on the field of facts and logic. They take place on the territory of emotions, values, assumptions. And that is the ground on which marketers are the real experts. Attacking a company which 'creates jobs', even if you would immediately replace them, is bad politics.

More even than most trades, the arms industry is a political game. As well as subsidies, it depends on the British state for much of its business, and other governments for almost all of the rest. And there is the basic legal fact that they depend on politicians for licences to export their wares. Without state permission, BAE couldn't have provided Saudi and Bahraini autocrats with the weaponry needed to crush the Arab Spring on their peninsula. Without Tony Blair's say-so, MDBA – a joint BAE/Finmeccanica venture – couldn't have sold missiles to Gaddafi in 2007.

And when it comes to politics, they know there are two balancing forces. On the one hand, they employ many people in this country. On the other hand, they know that when the British people discover who our industry arms, they disapprove.

And so the survival of BAE and its friends is dependent on politicians believing that the former of these factors is more important than the latter. And so it comes back to windows on vulnerability. If the arms industry were totally confident of their support from Parliament, would they buy these advertisements?

I am told that in the equivalent underground station in Washington DC – the station used by the people who work on Capitol Hill – the equivalent posters are paid for by investment banks. The speculators, it seems, are afraid that the Obama administration is going to attempt to contain them. This seems like a credible threat.

In the UK, it's not bankers who need posters. They have a political party. It's BAE and their brigade. And the fact that the arms industry feels that they do need this propaganda is a message. It is a sign to the people who stand up to these corporations that those who deal in the tools of death are worried. Arms companies only need to warn politicians of the risk of taking them on because they think there is a real chance that MPs will. The truly powerful never need to issue threats.

Next time you travel through Westminster Tube Station, look around you. Enjoy the prizewinning stack of escalators, and the magnificent descent into central London's deepest pit. Take note of the BAE posters, remember that they exist to mask the deep fear of those who know their great power is largely a facade, and consider that thought as you speed off under the city.

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view of the escalators up from the Jubilee Line at Westminster

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