On March 17th, BBC TV’s prime-time magazine programme The One Show aired a report about the UK’s hidden arms companies. For CAAT this report was a valuable opportunity to present our message to a mainstream audience of millions, and I was excited to be involved in making it.
The One Show’s report was prompted by news coverage of the UK’s arms sales to repressive regimes such as Libya and Bahrain. The programme’s makers contacted CAAT and decided to base the report on a map of arms companies around my home county of Nottinghamshire. I took One Show reporter Simon Boazman on a short guided tour of a few of the companies, including small arms manufacturer Heckler & Koch, the target of a long-running local campaign.
It’s almost inevitable that in media reports such as this, there will be a few inaccuracies and omissions:
- Contrary to the report, campaigners do not claim that Nottingham is a “key player” in the arms industry. There are other areas of the country that have a bigger arms industry. The point is that wherever you are in the UK, you’re never far from an arms company.
- The soundbite of me saying “jobs that were shed from the arms industry would be soaked up by other industries” was presented in the report as my own view, but I was actually quoting Sandy Wilson, Vice President of the trade organisation that represents the UK arms industry.
- The One Show cut out the name of the last company in the report, presumably being over-cautious about libel. That company, which deals in small arms and ammunition, is called Easy Tiger International Ltd.
- The arms fair mentioned by Simon Boazman is actually called Defence & Security Equipment International (DSEI) and it takes place every two years. Campaign groups are already gearing up to take action against it when it returns to London this September.
Of course, a brief report on a light-hearted magazine programme like The One Show is never going to have the time to examine the issue in depth. Hence we didn’t get the chance to respond to government assurances that the UK arms industry is tightly controlled.
In fact, the licensing system is a façade that gives the image of control while allowing companies to export weapons to repressive regimes. It is obvious that belatedly revoking arms export licenses to Libya is a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.
Furthermore, while the One Show report repeatedly stressed the economic importance of the arms industry, it stopped short of asking why the UK has such a large arms industry.
The UK arms industry is so big because successive UK governments – Labour and Conservative alike – have protected and nurtured it with a variety of subsidies even as they allowed other domestic industries to be lost to globalisation. When arms trade apologists like Francis Tusa point to the economic value of the industry, we need to challenge the policies that caused it to prosper at the expense of other more positive endeavours.
However, we mustn’t get bogged down debating the economic value of the arms trade – to do so would be letting its supporters set the terms of the argument. The arms trade is no more important to our economy than the slave trade was in the 18th century. Back then many people defended slavery on the basis of its economic importance, but now no-one would say we were wrong to abolish it. I believe that our strongest argument is the moral argument.