Sunday, 18 September 2011

An immoral trade

I don't use the word 'immoral' lightly; it brings back memories of Mary Whitehouse and 'My Ding-a-Ling', and I wonder how much meaning it still retains. I don't know what other word to use of the arms trade, though, and the emerging scandal over illegal munitions and shackling equipment on sale at the DSEi fair in London. It's not even the first time such stuff has been on offer.

There have been times - Sierra Leone (I declare an interest here; it's where my wife and kids come from), probably Libya, where the UK armed forces have done real good. There have been too many occasions when they've been nothing but a bloody disaster; the only unique aspect of Bloody Sunday was the publicity it gained. Behind it all, though, lies the murky world of arms dealing, in which Britain is an international leader. Again, I have an interest; the civil wars in Sierra Leone and so many other places would never have been possible without Europeans eager to buy smuggled diamonds or whatever, and snaffle up the cash in return for weapons.

It's easy to justify a small arms industry, producing weapons for national self-defence. A multinational juggernaut manufacturing machinery designed wholly and solely for killing human beings in all sorts of ingenious ways, and selling it to all comers with as few questions asked as possible, however, is something else. I wonder how many deaths the British arms industry has been responsible for over the last decade?

Surely there's an answer. Over a decade, say, we could retool the vast majority of those factories, and employ the skilled workers there to produce something useful. British industry has been hollowed out over a generation by turning asset stripping into a national pastime. Who knows; there may be a chance here to rebuild some of it, given sufficient ingenuity. We need a government with the guts to bite the bullet, preferably before it's fired.


  1. In the 1980s and 1990s there were special funds set up by the European Union to establish new businesses in areas which were heavily dependent on Cold War arms production. These were beneficiaries of the "peace dividend" which was available because money was not being spent on arms.

    The problem with the arms trade for Britain is that we are particularly good at making arms. Go into any Birmingham museum (I was at Winterbourne House today) and sooner or later there is a reference to the vast wealth that has come to the city because of the local skills with metal.

    The argument will simply be that if we are not making these arms someone else will. Not moral in the sense that we would want it to be, but still an argument that will be deployed and deployed with success. Some of those most enthusiastic for the arms trade are those that make their living as the very highly skilled workers and their unions. As a politician I went to several arms factories in my constituency and the union reps were always on hand to urge my support.

    That skill set brings another important point. Weaponry is now so complex that your suggestion of a small arms industry making weapons for self defence is rarely possible. For example a defensive rocket project will inevitably mean having the capacity to launch an offensive rocket. It is next to impossible to disentangle defensive and offensive weapon systems and a small arms will often be a non-starter. Hence the reason why governments throughout the world beat a path to British arms fairs, they haven't the industrial and technological capacity to make the things themselves.

    So what should we do?

    Firstly as individuals and as corporate entities we can refuse to personally profit from the trade. That means ethical investment.

    Secondly we can insist on a political level that arms sales are licensed and regulated. This should stop - though not always successfully - the sale of arms to repressive regimes. It wasn't lost on many in Birmingham that several of the bomb parts dropped by the Germans in the second world war had been made in the very factories they were then targeting!

    Thirdly we should follow - as you suggest - the Biblical injunction to beat our swords into ploughs. Some - not all - of the technology that can be used to kill can be used in other ways.

    That's a few thoughts about the arms trade. I think Christians need a more thorough discussion. I can't help feeling that a generation ago each of us would have a more definite view than in the case today.

  2. Any weapon can be used either way, I agree. However there are some weapons which we could usefully ban; nuclear weapons are a clear example, but ICBM's - the Chinese are developing a ship killer version, for instance -large aircraft carriers and submarines are examples of other weapons whose use is rarely defensive. Overseas bases might be considered somewhat dodgy as well.

    The big problem is how to disentangle ourselves; nobody wants large numbers of people just thrown out of work. Trouble is, nobody's seriously addressing the issue, and I'd agree that the church might be the place to start.