Hawks and doves in the Lightning Club

A JOURNEY AROUND THE WHOLE ISLAND OF GREAT BRITAIN: Day Seven; Preston, Lancashire
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The Independent Online
What's it like to be on the receiving end of other people's ethics? The train was full of jolly holidaymakers bound for Blackpool but I alighted at Preston and took a taxi for the 11 miles to Warton. With the geography, the politics changed too. Mention the Warton factory in most parts of the country and you raise a question of moral ambiguity. But not in Preston.

Warton is where British Aerospace makes Hawk jets for Indonesia. It was here last year that four women smashed up one of the planes with a hammer but were acquitted on charges of criminal damage after pleading that they had acted to prevent it being used in the campaign of genocide which they said Indonesia was waging on East Timor.

I did not even try to get into the factory with its heavily guarded barriers and hefty security procedures. "The company long ago took the decision to say nothing and keep its head down," said Frank Coulton, who chairs the plant's union co-ordinating committee, as he met me in the foyer. Frank, by contrast, is fed up and happy to go public.

We set out for the plant's sports and social centre, The Lightning Club, which was so full of lunchtime boozers that it seemed like stepping into a bygone era when Britain made things and the men who made them drank beer. It is, for all that, a community under siege. Hawk exports to Indonesia may have escaped a whipping in Foreign Secretary Cook's "ethical foreign policy" review. But, the workers of Warton can be excused for wondering, for how long?

"The thing about these protestors is that they don't give up," said Frank. "There's only a handful of them but they seem to wield real influence." And that is not all. "They seemed to have some inside information. They went direct to the aircraft which was ready for Indonesia, and it was not in there," he said, indicating the massive white hangar behind the club. "That's the usual place, but it was in the test-flight hangar which is miles away."

In the wrecked cockpit they left a video cassette of what they believed were Hawks attacking villages in East Timor. "We sat down with the management and studied it. You see glimpses of aircraft we have since identified as US Star fighters. It then cuts to scenes of mass panic at a massacre in a cemetery as if to suggest it was the planes which caused it."

BAe then checked with its training staff attached to the Indonesian air force. They said that the Hawks were based out of range of Timor and that the maintenance logs were incompatible with missions there.

"And, let's face it," said Frank, "if you bought a pounds 15m plane, armed with missiles that cost pounds 10,000 each, would you use it to set fire to mud-hut villages when all you need to do is send in the local militia?"

The three explanations each sounded plausible. But in the back of my mind I had the aphorism of an old schoolmaster who once admonished: "Only ever offer one justification for an action, Vallely; more than one sounds like an excuse."

But Frank was insistent. "There's no doubt Indonesia is oppressing East Timor. But putting people out of work here isn't going to solve the problem. Everybody is trying to make us the baddies. We're getting kicked to death every week in the media - and you can sense that the pressure and frustration has started to build up. When people are out socially they now find they are having to defend themselves."

After lunch I wandered around the trim, prosperous village on the edge of the plant which injects pounds 2m in disposable income into the local economy every week. It employs 10,500 people - the majority engineering graduates with average earnings of over pounds 20,000 a year.

It must have been half-day closing in Warton as the post office, the art gallery and the fitted kitchen shop were all shut. In the neat parish churchyard the name and phone number of the minister had been inscribed on a freshly painted board. Since it is the church which is at the forefront of the anti-Hawk protests, I decided to ring the vicar and plumb his definition of a moral dilemma. But it was evidently half-day for divines too, for there was no reply.

I ambled back to the Lightning Club where the first after-work drinkers were appearing. "The parish priest doesn't mention it at all except in the context of traffic disruption," said one of the drinkers. "He's certainly not always saying: Let's say a prayer for the people of East Timor," he added, a touch acerbically.

His name was Jim. "Don't print my surname," he said. You could see why. "There are no morals in this trade," he went on. "It's a case of supply and demand; morals go out of the window if you have a potential sale. As for these protestors, they don't give a stuff about the people of East Timor - if it wasn't this they'd be protesting about some other idiotic cause. I live in this village and I resent all these scruffs. The Great Unwashed is what we call them."

The eyes of the rest of his fellow drinkers - a metallurgist, a calibration engineer, and a health and safety expert - turned heavenwards. They had each set out a nuanced position, acknowledging the difficulties, then building on each other's arguments. The nation has to defend itself. We have to export to defer costs, said Brian. Without the Indonesian sales there would be no profits for R&D on things such as the European fighter, said Eddie. We need jobs for our kids and if we destroy the only manufacturing industry left in the country, where will be, asked Jan.

But for Jim, an ex-navy officer whose job was to train customers' air forces, that was not enough. He rolled chilling phrases round his mouth like a fine wine. "We make weapons which are designed to kill large numbers of people extremely efficiently." "We aim to maim, not kill." "I help in the manufacture of a military aircraft which can be used to suppress civilians - but it keeps me in a job and pays my mortgage."

Brian groaned and left before Jim got round to advancing the theory that the protestors were probably funded by one of BAe's competitors. "It's the kind of thing the French would do."

Not long after, the US government announced that it had decided to cease selling F16 fighters to Indonesia. The Russians stepped straight in to supply an alternative. I thought of Frank Coulton, and telephoned him to see what he had to say. "That's the point," he said. "Five hundred jobs lost and not one life in East Timor saved."

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