Comment: Want to boost the economy George? Try slashing the arms trade

The arms trade requires public subsidy but doesn't necessarily make us safer
The arms trade requires public subsidy but doesn't necessarily make us safer

By Katie O’Reilly Boyles

Since the Tories' election victory, two issues have been at the forefront of debate: the threat of violent extremism and the need to cut government spending. What no-one dares to mention is that we can improve both our security and our economy by tackling our role in the arms trade.

At a time when the UK should be investing in its manufacturing and renewable energy industries to create sustainable and stable jobs, the Department for Energy and Climate Change announced last month that it's ending subsidies for onshore wind farms in 2016, which will significantly damage the sector. In response, the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) launched the 'Arms to Renewables' campaign which highlights how government investment in the arms trade could easily be transferred into the renewable energy industry. According to CAAT's research, this would create a lot more jobs than the UK currently has in the arms export trade. 

CAAT found that the 55,000 arms export jobs make up only around 0.2% of the UK workforce and two per cent of manufacturing jobs. Meanwhile, according to lobby group EngineeringUK, Britain currently has a shortfall every year of about 55,000 people with engineering skills. The campaign group Science is Vital suggests that UK investment in scientific research is at a 20-year low.


Nevertheless, the UK government still feels that subsidising and supporting the arms industry is a priority. Under the UK's export credit guarantee scheme, the British taxpayer is left to foot the bill if a country defaults on payments for exports such as arms, regardless of that country's human rights record. According to official annual reports, support for military deals accounted for 47% of all export credits in 2012/13. The UK government also subsidises the arms trade by providing marketing and promotional support, mainly through the Defence Export Services Organisation. Overall, the industry costs the taxpayer £763m per year, according to Oxford Research Group/Saferworld The Subsidy Trap.

The UK used the same missiles against Gaddafi which it had sold to him beforehand

Not only is the UK's current support of the arms industry hindering our economic recovery, but it is creating long-term security risks to citizens here and abroad by helping to prop up repressive and dangerous regimes. The UK, for example, ended up using the same missiles from arms company MBDA in our expensive operation in Libya that we had had originally sold to Colonel Gaddafi in 2007. Moreover, Saudi Arabia, the UK's largest importer of arms, used weapons from BAE Systems, another UK arms giant, to repress pro-democracy protests in Bahrain. This is despite the fact that in 2011, David Cameron told the United Nations General Assembly that the Arab Spring presented "a massive opportunity to promote peace, prosperity, democracy and vitally security".

What is more, our arms sales to countries like Qatar and Kuwait have not only funded brutal, anti-democratic regimes in the countries themselves, but also inevitably caused money to fall into the hands of terrorist groups in the region such as Jabhat al-Nusra. This week, Labour leadership candidate Jeremy Corbyn argued that many of the weapons we sell to countries in the region have likely ended up in the hands of Isis, a group which is hell-bent on destroying anyone who opposes them and brainwashing citizens around the world to do the same, including many British citizens.

There have been countless protests against the UK's role in the global arms trade. Demonstrators in 2014 successfully campaigned against Barclays' investment into Israeli arms company Elbit, whose Hermes 540 drone, according to Human Rights Watch, "can stay aloft for up to 24 hours at altitudes of up to 18,000 feet and has an array of optical, infrared, and laser sensors that allow the operator to identify and track targets as well as to guide munitions in flight". The device had a key role in the needless deaths of thousands of civilians in Gaza.

Cameron praised the Arab Spring, but supplied weapons to the countries which crushed it

Barclays eventually pulled its investment from Elbit, but the UK government continues its ties with the company. This was met with protest this week at the Shenstone factory near Birmingham, which makes engines for Elbit. It came amid the publication of a report by War on Want demanding Whitehall refuse export licences to Israel, revoke existing licences and ban UK-Israeli corporate collaboration where British firms are supporting the infrastructure of Israel's occupation of Palestine.

Despite Barclays' withdrawal from Elbit, the bank continues to invest in arms companies such Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, the latter of which creates arms linked to the use of cluster bombs, which are illegal under international law. While Barclays is a private institution, it has been argued by Tony Greenham, head of finance and business at the New Economics Foundation, that it's able to enjoy lower borrowing costs of £11.7 billion due to the market's expectations that the UK government is ready to bail out the banking sector. 

This results in an implicit subsidy of £420,000 per Barclays investment banker by the taxpayer, the equivalent of seventeen nurses' annual salaries. The bank's decision to continuously invest in these arms companies was met with further protests in April, outside the gates of its annual general meeting.

In February, activist Anne Marie O’Reilly interrupted a UK Arms Trade annual dinner (at which Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat politicians were in attendance) to protest the industry, highlighting the futility of supporting the sector at a time of increased food and fuel poverty and severe inequality.

While countless politicians claim the world is becoming a more dangerous place, they paradoxically ensure that this remains the case by continuing to support the investment of an industry which creates far fewer jobs and far less economic prosperity than it is worth.

Katie O’Reilly Boyles is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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