THE BLOG

Shifting Priorities: From Arms To Renewables

02/12/2016 08:10

"That's all very good, but what about the jobs?" It's an argument that campaigners inevitably come across when debating Trident or arms exports to oppressive regimes. It's not limited to the usual suspects either, it comes from all angles; including the trade unions, the media and politicians from all parties.

Times are tough, as the argument goes, and the UK has lost its manufacturing base. There are few major UK manufacturers left, and the ones that are include arms companies like BAE. If the UK was to stop arming dictatorships like Saudi Arabia then the cost be thousands of skilled and well paid jobs.

Even if we cast the highly dubious morality of this argument to one side for a moment, there are still big problems with it.

For a start it's very backward looking and in the long term is likely to prove economically counterproductive. Although arms export numbers may still be booming, industry jobs are in long term decline. Official statistics show that the UK government is the second biggest arms dealer in the world, but the number of jobs created by exports has been falling steadily for years.

According to the Aerospace, Defence & Security group, a trade body and lobby group that represents arms companies, arms exports accounted for roughly 55,000 jobs, roughly 0.2% of the UK workforce with arms counting for around 1.4% of exports. This estimate is from 2010 so the total is only likely to have decreased since then.

Far from the financial powerhouse it is often sold as, the arms trade is hugely dependent on government support. A recent report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute put the cost to tax payers at over £100 million a year. This is to say nothing of the huge levels of political and logistical support that the arms companies are offered.

Meanwhile, at home, billions of pounds are being ploughed into bloated procurement projects and military technology we do not need, like Trident and aircraft carriers.

As Bob Keen, the head of government relations at BAE Systems, told the House of Commons Defence Committee "it simply is not possible to do a major defence deal without fundamental Government support."

If this money and the political capital that underpins it was redirected towards promoting better and more sustainable industries then it could create more and better jobs while offsetting the job losses that come from a dependency on the arms industry.

This would be in the tradition of Lucas Aerospace workers, who in 1976 published an extensive Alternative Plan for the future of the corporation, following threats to their jobs from management.

At the time, around half of Lucas's output was dependent on military contracts and the employees argued that as these were dependent on public funds the money could be better spent on developing more socially useful products.

The workforce put forward 150 product ideas from across six categories: medical equipment, transport vehicles, improved braking systems, energy conservation, oceanics, and telechiric machines. Many of the innovations in the plan, such as hybrid car engines, heat pumps and wind turbines were commercially viable at the time, but they were taken up by other companies and are now in widespread use.

Unfortunately the Plan as such was never implemented. With investment, Lucas could have become a leading name in these kind of modern and prosperous industries. 40 years later and the technologies that the workers were calling on the company to focus on have become successful global industries, but Lucas Aerospace no longer exists.

The Plan was drawn up by workers from 15 sites across the UK. A lot has changed since then, but their forward looking and radical plan is representative of the sort of thinking that could underpin a major re-focus of industrial policy and create tens of thousands of new jobs across the country.

Last weekend, activists and campaigners from across the country gathered in Birmingham to discuss the key lessons that can be learnt from Lucas. The well attended conference was a valuable step towards building a movement for positive investment, socially useful production and a move away from militarism.

There is no shortage of industries that would be grateful recipients of the support and investment presently offered to arms companies. The renewable energy sector in particular stands out as one that requires many of the same skills as the arms trade, employs many of the same branches of engineering and is in need of skilled personnel.

Unfortunately the government does not share this priority. It spends roughly 25 times as much on arms research and development (nearly £1.5 billion) as it does on R&D for renewable energy (around £60 million).

Although the number of jobs provided by the arms trade are routinely overstated, there are certain parts of the country, like Barrow or Glenrothes, where arms companies are major employers. To many in these communities the companies are vital employers. This would need to be reflected in any industrial strategy that focused on shifting priorities from arms to sustainable jobs.

With the right level of government intervention and support, there could be appropriate work available in these areas, with tens of thousands of supply-chain jobs that could be located anywhere in the country. But no such shift can happen without action.

Since arms trade jobs are paid for by taxpayers, resources can be redirected. Shifting priorities would secure green jobs for the future and improve human security rather than threaten it.

By changing direction, the UK can build on the lessons of Lucas by securing a leading position in technologies that will be in high demand, will have major export potential and will also help other countries cut their carbon emissions. Shifting priorities could be central to securing green jobs for the future and improving human security rather than threatening it.

Andrew Smith is a spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.

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