As 2007 began, Robert Walsh looked into the world of arms dealing for Freedom newspaper as pressure piled up on BAE systems over their arms sales to dictators scandal.
A second major investigation into arms sales from BAE looks likely to run aground as South African government authorities have blocked investigators looking into the sale of Hawk Jet trainers and Gripen fighters to the state.
These developments come shortly after an international scandal saw investigations into deals in Saudi Arabia were called off by the UK government to ‘protect British jobs’ – effectively placing BAE above the law if the deal is big enough.
The UK is one of the world’s leading arms dealers and takes a central role in the global arms trade. When questioned about the need for such major involvement in the arms trade, we’re usually told ‘It protects British Jobs’ or ‘it’s an essential and major part of our economy and makes a lot of money for us’.
Only one of these reasons, that of jobs, bears any real scrutiny and neither explains or even mentions the real reasons for the UK being such a major player in the arms trade. One is that the pace of weapons development is such that if our arms trade were dismantled, or even severely disadvantaged, the arms companies of other nations would have a major advantage that our own arms companies wouldn’t be able to recover from.
Another is that of global realpolitik. Arms as a commodity are worth far more than money. Their supply to (or withholding from) weaker nations afford the government covert influence in dictating policy. In the event of the UK having an exclusive deal with a weaker country, either by negotiation or because no other nation will supply weapons, the government is able to force a certain degree of compliance with British interests by withholding supplies as suits their interest.
A prime example of such practice occurred during the Spanish Civil War. According to esteemed historian Antony Beevor, the Soviet Union demanded that the Republican government export it’s gold reserves to the USSR to guarantee payment for arms supplies desperately needed against General Franco. Not only did they succeed in gaining the gold reserves and agree arms shipments, they were in a position to dictate policy as no other nation, apart from Mexico, was prepared to supply the Republic with arms. The Republican government had no choice but to agree to the terms laid down by the USSR or the arms shipments would have ceased and the Civil War would have been lost. In the event it was lost anyway, and the USSR gained nearly $800 million in bullion as Spain had the fourth largest gold reserves in the world at that time. Further evidence is supplied by George Orwell who wrote in Homage To Catalonia that the policy of the USSR towards the Republican government seemed to be ‘Prevent revolution or you get no arms.’
Conversely, arms supplies can be used as a bribe for favours or a payment for services rendered. A prime example of this is the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s, in which the US government made secret arms deals with Iran, delivered via Israel, in return for the release of American hostages held there. The deals were not only illegal, but also showed that even the US government isn’t immune to having its hand forced when an opponent has something it wants. The deal was funded with drug money from the Contra rebels of Nicaragua as well as being illegal under US law. President Reagan claimed no knowledge of any such deals and on Robert McNamara and Colonel Oliver North were heavily punished for their role in the scandal.
So, arms deals offer a means for powerful nations to bribe or bully others, depending on which is needed arms deals with taxpayer’s money so that, if a deal fails or a debtor pays late or not at all, the banks and companies involved in the deal will have their losses covered by the taxpayer. But do British arms deals really guarantee British jobs and bring sizeable profits to the British economy? Answer: No, they don’t. It is at best speculative to say that arms workers could not be given work in other sectors, and the British arms industry is one of the most heavily subsidised industries in the country via the Export Credit Guarantee Department (ECGD). As far as profits go, the arms deals account for only 2% of visible UK exports, while arms subsidies account for around 30% of ALL ECGD support.
The ECGD acts as an underwriter for British arms deals, among various other industries, and it can be argued that many British arms deals would be too risky to go ahead without its assistance. The ECGD underwrites arms sales, among various other industries, in case the buyer either defaults or is late in making payments, so that the banks and companies involved have their losses covered. So, not only does the taxpayer have no choice in whether or not to pay their taxes towards illegal wars such as Iraq, we also have to subsidise the industry with our own money. A fine racket indeed, as if the arms trade generally wasn’t bad enough already.
There is also the issue of national security to consider. Having our own indigenous arms industry means that we are not wholly dependent upon other countries for a supply of weapons. That means that we can, insofar as the US allows us, pursue our own foreign and domestic policy without fear of suddenly being made defenceless by having weapons supplies cut off. We are spared the fear of having other countries dictate to us on grounds of security, but we still allow the US to effectively dictate foreign and domestic policy via the so-called ‘special relationship’ instead.
So, we’ve established that the customary defences for our having the arms trade are at best disingenuous and at worst a blatant fraud. The arms trade, like any other capitalist enterprise, is really about money and power and not about security for the British people. We are being lied to, and we are being forced to pay through the nose for the privilege.
We can do some small things to combat this trade. We can join or assist groups such as CND, CAAT, Trident Ploughshares and others to make life as hard as possible for those who profit from war and see nothing wrong in doing so. We can arrange protests outside arms fairs, arms factories and related businesses. Because not only are the profiteers profiteering, they are probably laughing at us as well.
And doing both using our money and our unwilling consent.