The UK Arms Industry

When campaigning against the arms trade, I’ve always found it interesting how few people disagree with the moral case we’re making. Discounting those few rare souls who see the production of weaponry, in itself, as a morally worthy activity, the general opinion tends to be one of resigned acceptance. That there is a demand for such weaponry is seen to be a sad fact of life and that supplying this demand benefits our economy an unfortunate boon. After all, if we didn’t do it, surely someone else would?

Yet the initial perception of inevitability demands examination. Certainly, leaving aside more utopian aspirations, we can accept armed conflict as a sad fact of global politics. Yet the vast industrial and commercial machinery which exists to service this demand is no such given. The arms industry is not just supported by government (as, perhaps, one might expect to happen with regards to any major industry) but is in fact subsidised to a rather considerable degree. The full extent of the subsidy is estimated to stand at up to £890 million per year. Given around 65000 people working in the arms trade within the UK, this roughly amounts of each job costing the tax payer over £13000 a year in subsidy. Until this year when, hopefully as a sign of things to come, Gordon Brown announced the decision to close it, the defence export service organisation (DESO) existed within Government solely to market and sell UK arms. Employing nearly 500 civil servants within the Ministry of Defence, the head of DESO was a post always filled by an arms industry executive with a portion of his salary ‘topped up’ by the arms industry. Could you imagine the outcry if the department of health had a similar organisation working within it at the taxpayers expense to promote pharmaceutical sale? Yet DESO was sadly indicative of the connections between government and arms industry and they extend far beyond it.
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The name Blackwater first seriously entered the popular consciousness on September 17th 2007 when 17 Iraqi civilians were shot dead by Blackwater employees, working as ‘security contractors’, in an affluent neighbourhood of Baghdad. The Iraqi government’s investigation found that, contrary to the claims of the Blackwater corporation, the security contractors had not been attacked. A parallel US congressional investigation, presumably quite well disposed towards the corporation given that it was the US government who had contracted out defence work to Blackwater, found that their use of force had been “excessive” and “pre-emptive”. Quite reasonably the Iraqi government asked that Blackwater and their men be held to account. Yet this was impossible because the US occupying forces had granted government contractors immunity from prosecution under Iraqi law. However as subcontractors, rather than US government employees, they’re not subject to military discipline. In effect they operate in a complete legal vacuum.
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