For a nation with so few private arms, we do a great trade in publicly owned killing machines. Last night Parliament voted for new, tight restrictions on guns. Dangerous weapons are to be kept safely out of civilian hands. Yet at the weekend we discovered that a British company has been cheerfully supplying Rwandan civilians with guns that would be illegal in Britain, facilitating genocide. At the same time Michael Portillo announced with pride a new pounds 500m arms deal with Qatar. Meanwhile last week Australia announced a pounds 1bn order for the Hawk training aircraft built by British Aerospace. Our Secretary of State for Defence is proud of his prowess, our trade unions applaud the retention of jobs, and our military industrial tradition continues.
British companies make serious money from arms dealing; British manufacturers, along with the Americans, build the weapons of the world. We are second only to our friends across the Atlantic for arms exports. Given how low down other international league tables we fall (in output, export and manufacturing) this is quite an achievement. But do we feel proud of it? Should we? After all, we are profiting from the production and sale of equipment whose purpose is to kill and control. The more threatening the global environment, the greater the demand for our weapons. The British economy is disproportionately oriented towards creating destructive material - far more so than the economies of any of our European counterparts. Shouldn't we be trying to concentrate our skills on something less morally suspect instead?
Three arguments are offered in defence of our defence industry: that countries need weapons to defend themselves and promote peace; that someone is going to sell weapons, so it might as well be us; and that we desperately need the work. All three are inadequate to justify the level of national resources that goes into building arms.
For a start, many of our arms contracts do not promote peace at all. Providing Hawk training aircraft for our Nato allies seems fair enough. They are on the same side as us, they are (in the main) democratic governments with good records on human rights. Supplying the Indonesian government with the equipment it needs to repress its own population is considerably more questionable. So is selling arms to Iraq, or pseudo-military equipment to Argentina. The nations we claim as temporary allies for the sake of a few contracts could well be using those weapons against our troops, or our friends' troops, a few years down the line.
Nor is it entirely plausible to claim that some other country and some other arms company would step in if we were to stop. Sure, if the Australians were not purchasing the Hawk, they would buy an American or European design instead. However, arms manufacturing is not a competitive market in which firms spring up all over the place to meet pre-existing demand. The very development and construction of newer, more sophisticated equipment creates new demand, as everyone wants the latest model. Moreover the technology and expertise needed to produce high quality, affordable armaments is concentrated in relatively few countries. International arms embargoes may not stop foreign governments getting hold of weapons at all, but they can deny them the very best and most sophisticated gear. The real reason that politicians, businesses and trade unions are all in favour of our defence contracts is because it means jobs. The people working on dockyard defence contracts or at the British Aerospace base in Lancashire are understandably keen to cling on to what they have. The world wants weapons, we want work.
But British manufacturing need not be quite so heavily geared towards defence. After 1945 other countries - notably Germany - managed to turn sword building plant into washing machine building plant. An economy geared towards war turned round to reap the profits of peace instead. Ours largely failed in that effort. It might have been better for our economic prosperity as well as for our moral conscience if we had focused a little more on civilian production and a little less on defence. Guns and boats and bombs may have helped sustain Britain's global status (a place on the UN Security Council, a seat at the bar of of the nuclear club). But they did not guarantee us conspicuous prosperity in the last 50 years, and there seems no good reason why they should do so in future, either. Perhaps, in the next century, rising tensions will boost the international demand for weaponry, and our over-emphasis on weaponry as a national talent will prove to be a good long-term gamble. But it seems unlikely. Better, surely, to concentrate on diversification, using our skills to move into new and expanding areas of technology.
To do so, we will have to change the culture of the businesses and industries that still depend on defence. The very fact that British society is so un-militant and un-militarised may have contributed to the dominance of the defence industry. The professionalism of our military feeds into the notion of an expert industry, providing top quality equipment for one of the most skilled armies in the world. But our professional military tradition, from Agincourt, through the Spanish Armada, through the Empire, to both world wars, may no longer be doing us any great favours. We should leave the longbow to history and King Hal, and build something more creative.Reuse content