On March 17th, BBC TV’s prime-time magazine programme The One Show aired a report about Nottinghamshire’s hidden arms companies.
In the wake of revelations about the UK selling arms to repressive regimes such as Libya and Bahrain, the One Show decided to do a report looking at the UK’s arms trade. The report was based around the Map of Militarism produced by Notts Anti-Militarism. Kirk Jackson, from Campaign Against Arms Trade and Notts Anti-Militarism, took One Show reporter Simon Boazman to a few of the local arms 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 Kirk saying that “jobs that were shed from the arms industry would be soaked up by other industries” was presented in the report as his own view and then dismissed by Simon Boazman as “wishful thinking”. However, Kirk 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, following unfounded concerns that the programme might risk a libel suit. That company, which deals in small arms and ammunition, is called Easy Tiger International and is based at 10 Kingston Drive in Cotgrave.
- 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, campaigners 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. This is because Britain still wants to “punch above its weight” – to exert a disproportionate influence on world affairs.
In order to keep our seat at the top table, we need to be a major military power, and that means having our own hi-tech arms manufacturing base. However, maintaining this capability is extremely expensive, so to try to offset the cost, the government helps British arms companies to sell as much as possible to other countries.
When arms trade apologists like Francis Tusa point to the economic importance of the industry, we need to challenge the militarist policies that caused it to prosper at the expense of other more positive endeavours.
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. Our strongest argument is the moral argument.
Back to the One Show report and studio guest Lorraine Kelly expressed concern that weapons sold to a foreign country may subsequently be used to kill British soldiers sent to fight in that country. While it’s nice that she questioned the wisdom of arms exports, her comment carried the assumption that any such UK invasion would be justified. As anti-militarists, we are opposed not only to arming other countries, but also to equipping British forces to wage imperialist wars like the one in Iraq.
However, despite its shortcomings, the One Show report was valuable in raising the issue of the UK’s immoral trade in arms with an audience of millions who may not normally be aware of it.