by Barnaby Pace
Originally published in Dissident Warwick Issue 6 31/4/2009
When a company breaks an environmental regulation, it shows that there is some negligence. When a company breaks a few regulations, then the company is probably knowingly not bothering. When a company breaks arms export rules selling to dictators, bribes public officials and spies on those opposing it then what should we make of it? This latter situation is one that we find ourselves in when looking at the largest arms company in the UK; BAE Systems. Sadly it is not a unique case. When investigating the dark pasts of arms companies it is easy to find dirt, but hard to stop finding more and more.
Arms companies in the UK and around the world are not like every other company, and yet they are treated at least as well. We can see a vivid example of this at University of Warwick Careers fairs where arms companies stand side by side with financial houses, telecommunications companies and railway engineers pretending to be normal engineering companies. Our University is happy to promote arms companies and not consider their background. The University believes that keeping good industrial relations brings in research funding and helps maintain their reputation.
A similar situation can been seen at the national level. In 2006, when BAE systems were being pursued by the Serious Fraud Office, the US Department Of Justice (DOJ) and the Scorpions (South African organised crime and corruption investigative unit)[i] and many other groups for six different bribery and corruption cases[ii] and had been recently caught spying on the eminently peaceful Campaign Against the Arms Trade group[iii], then you might think that as the UK government you might cut your losses and disown the company giving them up as a bad lot. However, the Blair government at the time instead chose to shut down the Serious Fraud Office investigation, cease co-operating with the US DOJ investigation[iv] and proceed to hum loudly with its fingers in its ears, deaf to accusations of foul play. In his autobiography, former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook observed “I never once knew number 10 come up with any decision that would be incommoding to British Aerospace”[v].
This single example, one of many, in which governments support arms companies, is extraordinary and stupefying. Not only are there individual instances of favouring a single company but a systemic issue of unconditional support for the industry. The UK arms export industry employs 65,000[vi] people, yet receives an estimated government subsidy of £851 million per year[vii], this works out to £13,106.30[viii] per employee per year. £13,106.30 might not seem too much if it were being spent on an needy area of society, for example employing teachers or nurses, but instead it goes to an industry run for profit whose interests are not aligned with societal good.
It is important to remember that the arms trade is not run for the benefit of society, the UK or the world. The arms industry is privately owned and run, like any other capitalist organisation, with the aim of accruing profit and accumulating wealth. This is potentially disastrous when the method of making money is by causing and exacerbating conflict and proliferating weapons, to whomever can pay. The immorality or illegality of any deal can be trumped by the opportunity for profit, profit which can easily offset any potential legal issues in the future. Therefore if it is expedient to bribe a government official to persuade them to spend their money, not on development or the fight against AIDS but on purchasing military equipment then an arms company will do so[ix].
Why, despite all the many moral, social, economic and pragmatic issues with the arms industry does our government support companies such as BAE Systems? Do they believe that they receive better equipment for the UK military, when the UK Treasury says that by biasing our military’s arms procurement towards UK arms companies a single arms deal can cost the UK taxpayer £1 billion pounds more than it has to[x]? Indeed you only have to speak to any UK military serviceperson to be told how awful the BAE Systems-made SA80 standard rifle is. If we were to cut the UK’s arms exports by half, we would lose 49,000 jobs. However, with the now available capital and skills from halving arms exports, 67,400 jobs would be created in the civil sector in five years, according to a report by the MOD and York Universityvi. This is due the relative inefficiency of the arms industry. There are few possible reasons left for why the UK government gives the treatment it does. The arms industry is seen by some as a symbol of international killing power. Think of it as top trumps for defence ministers. Both the Conservative and Labour governments have been deep enough into the murky and corrupt world of the arms trade to be unwilling to confess to their crimes now. The UK would be better off without the black mark of its arms industry; we could use those skilled workers working in the industry for purposes that help society, for example creating ways to combat climate change instead of creating the means for death, destruction and misery for people around the world.
[i] “The Arms Deal in your Pocket”, Paul Holden, Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2008
[ii] “BAE: A company out of control”, CAAT, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2007/sep/21/bae.foreignpolicy
[iii] “Martin and Me”, Mark Thomas, The Guardian, 4/12/2007,
[iv] Labour tries to block new BAE inquiry, David Leigh & Rob Evans, The Guardian, 21/9/2007, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2007/sep/21/bae.foreignpolicy
[v] The Point of Departure: Diaries from the Front Bench, Robin Cook, 2004
[vi] “The economic cost and benefits of UK defence exports”, Chalmers, Davies, Hartley & Wilkinson, Centre for Defence Economics University of York, November 2001, http://www.york.ac.uk/depts/econ/documents/research/defence_exports_nov01.pdf
[vii] Escaping the Subsidy Trap Why arms exports are bad for Britain”, BASIC, Saferworld & Oxford Research Group, 2004, http://www.basicint.org/pubs/subsidy.pdf
[viii] “As used on the famous Nelson Mandela”, Mark Thomas, Ebury Press, 2006
[ix] BAE corruption investigation switches to Tanzania, David Leigh & Rob Evans, The Guardian, 12/4/2008, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/apr/12/bae.baesystemsbusiness
[x] “Wrangling ends with order for Hawks”, David Gow & Michael White, The Guardian, 31/7/2003