The Labour Party and the arms trade

Yesterday, I was pleased to be able to speak on the arms trade at a fringe meeting at the Labour Party annual conference in Liverpool. The meeting was organised by the Christian Socialist Movement (CSM). The text of my talk was as follows (I deviated slightly from this text at times).  

It’s great to be here. Many thanks to the Christian Socialist Movement for hosting this event and many thanks to all of you for coming.  

I’m Symon Hill. I’m first and foremost an activist. I’m also associate director of the Christian thinktank Ekklesia. And I’m a member of the steering committee of the Campaign Against Arms Trade. I’m not a member of the Labour Party or the Christian Socialist Movement, although I am a Christian and a socialist. Those two words describe my approach to politics and to life.  

As a socialist and as a Christian, I believe that change is possible and that ordinary people like you and me can bring it about. I’m inspired by Jesus, who through his teachings and actions promoted a radical approach to human relationships with principles that we might now call equality and active nonviolence. I would not be a Christian if I did not believe that Jesus’ teachings were realistic. 

So let’s be real. Two weeks ago I was protesting outside the London arms fair. The government had invited some of the world’s most brutal regimes to meet arms dealers in east London. Earlier this year, ministers revoked arms exports licences to Bahrain after the Bahraini regime used its weapons against its own people. But despite this, a delegation from Bahrain was invited to turn up at the London arms fair. 

As many of us protested outside the arms fair, Liam Fox was making a speech inside. Fox told the arms dealers that he was “proud” of the UK’s arms industry – or the “defence industry” as he euphemistically calls it. Fox talked about how many jobs the arms industry provides.  

I would like to share a piece of advice that’s always helped me: Beware of Tories talking about jobs. Conservative ministers are not usually motivated by a desire to tackle unemployment. When they justify something by the jobs it provides, it’s time to be suspicious.  

So let’s look at some of the facts. 

Firstly, we have the physical effects of the arms trade. It is often argued that if people want to fight a war, they will find the means to do so. There is some truth in this. But it would be naïve to suggest that the arms industry is simply supplying a need. Violence begets violence. Violence also begets profits.

As the world watched with excitement a few months ago, the Arab Spring saw millions of amazingly brave and inspiring people standing up to tyranny. It quickly emerged that many of the regimes concerned had been supplied with weapons from the UK. When the Bahraini regime invited the Saudi army in to help suppress peaceful protest, the Saudi forces arrived with armoured vehicles made in Newcastle.

Furthermore, many of the people who die as a result of the arms trade are not killed directly with the weapons involved. Corruption is inherent in the arms trade. And as Hilary Benn has put it, “corruption kills”.

For example, the multinational arms company BAE Systems is alleged – and if there are any libel lawyers present, I hope that word will be sufficient – to have bribed Tanzanian officials to spend public money on equipment that the country clearly did not need. The money could have been spent tackling poverty or providing healthcare.

The economic effects of the arms trade are also bad for Britain. Have a look at UK Trade and Investment (UKTI), a unit of Vince Cable’s Department for Business. UKTI is responsible for promoting British exports. They devote more staff to the section promoting arms exports than to all civil sectors combined. But arms make up only 1.5% of UK exports.

Only about 0.2% of British jobs are dependent on arms exports. Every one of those people has a right to be considered. Nobody’s livelihood is irrelevant and I refuse to discuss any economic question without considering the people it will affect. I grew up in the eighties under Thatcher with my father on the dole. I know what unemployment does to people and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.

Apologists for the arms industry seem to have a much more more laid-back approach to unemployment. As controversy raged over BAE’s Saudi arms deals in 2006, BAE’s friends at the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph made increasingly wild statements about the number of jobs that would be created by the latest Saudi arms deal. The original suggestion had been 11,000 jobs across Europe. Soon, it was said there would be 16,000 jobs in Britain alone. This magically rose to 50,000 and the highest figure I saw was 100,000. Almost as soon as the deal was signed, BAE announced that most of the jobs would be based in Saudi Arabia, with few new jobs in the UK.

The arms industry receives around £700 million in taxpayer-funded subsidies every year. This is partly through the funding of research and development. Future generations will look back in amazement, unable to understand why, when faced with the threat of runaway climate change, we subsidised jobs in the arms industry instead of putting money into renewable energy and other technologies to tackle the environmental, economic and security threats that climate change is bringing.

Our economy is distorted by the arms industry. This is because our democracy is distorted by the arms industry. Sixteen years ago, I sat in Labour Party conference and heard Robin Cook promise that under a Labour government, there would be no arms sold to regimes that used them for internal repression or external aggression. I’m sure that many of you share my sadness that this change never came about. In his diaries, Robin Cook lays bare the grotesque influence wielded by the arms industry. He says that he never saw Tony Blair take a decision that would inconvenience BAE Systems.

The arms industry’s influence within government means that exports regulations are full of loopholes and worded so vaguely that they allowed Cameron’s government to attempt to sell sniper rifles to Gaddafi only months before the Libyan uprising. This influence means that the UK government can stand up at the United Nations and back an Arms Trade Treaty so flimsy that ministers have assured British arms companies that it will make no difference to them.

Many people, both within the Labour Party and beyond it, were inspired by Robin Cook’s commitment in 1995. We need a renewed commitment to ending arms exports to oppressive regimes. This cannot be done by regulations alone. A future Labour government, if truly committed to democracy, would need to reduce the power of the arms dealers by tackling the structures and cultures that give them so much influence. Robin Cook wrote in his diaries that the chairman of BAE Systems had “the key to the garden door at Number Ten”. We need to get the locks changed.


Many thanks to CSM and CAAT for inviting me to give this talk at their fringe meeting. The meeting was chaired by CSM’s director, Andy Flanagan. The other speakers were Wilf Stevenson (Shadow Trade Minister), Alan Storkey (Christian theologian and economist) and Helen Goodman (Shadow Justice Minister). Please click here for a news report on the event.

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