Why Britain Is a Bonanza for the Arms Industry

Today's arms fair in Farnborough is just the latest in a string of weapons festivals taking place across Britain – revealing the huge power of the war industry, as well as its cosy relationship with government.

Former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook wrote that under Tony Blair the arms company BAE Systems had ‘the key to the garden door at Number Ten’. While not all prime ministers have been quite as subservient to the arms industry as Blair, it doesn’t seem that any of them have bothered to get the locks changed.

On Sunday, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace announced that £5 billion of public money will be spent on a new Digital Warfare Centre – a figure that, alone, would be enough money to keep the £20 per week on Universal Credit for almost a year. This is only the latest of a string of similar measures announced over the last year, which also includes the largest percentage increase in UK military spending since the Korean War. Such announcements capitalise on rhetorical references to ‘security’ and ‘keeping us safe’, but the only thing they’re are actually likely to secure are the profits of arms dealers.

The AUKUS pact is a case in point. Signed in September, the deal will see British and US-based arms companies supplying Australia with the means to produce nuclear-powered submarines. It is a deal between nation-states, but it’s not necessary to propose a conspiracy theory to recognise the arms industry’s influence: all three governments spoke about the supply of military equipment as they announced the pact, and the MoD’s first press release on AUKUS praised BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce. The Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) have compiled an impressively detailed database to illustrate known contacts and conflicts of interest between government and the arms industry.

Today, arms dealers gathered in Farnborough for an arms fair formally known as DPRTE. DRPTE stands for ‘Defence, Procurement, Research, Technology, Exportability’, an absurdly unutterable mouthful of euphemisms. The ‘event partners’ included the UK Submarine Delivery Agency, with the US and Australian defence ministries also expected to make appearances. At the same time, new International Trade Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan spoke at a Conservative conference fringe meeting sponsored by the arms company Raytheon, whose customers include Israel and Saudi Arabia.

At Labour’s conference last week, Shadow Defence Secretary John Healey spoke at an event sponsored by the arms company Leonardo. While many Labour members were among those protesting against the DSEI arms fair in London in September, Labour’s shadow junior defence minister Chris Evans was inside the event. The chief executive of the British wing of Lockheed Martin—the world’s largest arms company—tweeted Evans to thank for him for trying out their equipment at the arms fair. ‘The flight simulator was a great experience!’ Evans replied enthusiastically.

There weren’t so many politicians at Farnborough today. It is a smaller-scale event – the second of four arms fairs to take place in the UK in the space of less than two months, with others in Liverpool and Malvern. Some similar events were delayed by Covid, but the virus hasn’t undermined the fact that this is a particularly lucrative time to be an arms dealer.

Johnson’s military spending hike, AUKUS, and the arms industry have all been applauded by Keir Starmer’s team. In March, Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy managed some mild criticism when Johnson declared that he would raise the cap on the number of nuclear warheads owned by the UK government by 44 percent, but the only part of Johnson’s review of defence policy that Keir Starmer attacked in the Commons was the plan for a slight reduction in the number of army personnel.

Labour’s failure to challenge miltarist policies is especially striking at a time when the pandemic has exposed its lies. As Covid spread and the UK government struggled to provide PPE to NHS staff, nuclear submarines patrolled at a cost of billions, powerless in the face of a virus. In recent weeks, many people have been grateful to army personnel driving ambulances in Scotland and delivering fuel.

Far from being an advertisement for armed force, these events illustrate the underfunding of civilian emergency services compared to the military. We have allowed ‘security’ and ‘defence’ to be turned into euphemisms for warfare – but they cannot protect us from pandemics, poverty, or climate chaos. If you’re worried about buying food or fuel because your Universal Credit is being cut, it’s unlikely that a Digital Warfare Centre is going to make you feel more secure.

This government’s militaristic policies are not treated as a major issue in the British media, but it would be too easy to let all the blame fall at the feet of the press and the Opposition. Those of us who oppose these moves need to make a clear case for why these issues matter. On the left, we sometimes tend to treat issues of peace and war as separate from ‘bread and butter’ concerns, but they are intimately connected: they all relate to vital practical questions about where money goes, whose needs we seek to address, and what actually makes us safe.

As you join protests against the DPRTE arms fair, be encouraged by recent history. Some years ago, DPRTE was held in Bristol – before protests chased it out of Bristol and it was moved to Cardiff. It was not long before it was chased out of Cardiff too. There was an attempt to hold it in Birmingham, but even the news of planned protests led the organisers to abandon the venue before it had taken place. They retreated to Farnborough, home of BAE Systems, perhaps hoping for a lack of opposition. Local people in Greater Rushmoor Action for Peace have other ideas. Members of the Peace Pledge Union and CAAT will turn up to support local resistance.

Resistance can work. But to defeat an increasingly militaristic government, the British left as a whole must draw the links between militarism and other issues – and make a priority of resisting it.