Labour needs a programme for nuclear and conventional disarmament: Dr Steven Schofield

Dr Steven Schofield is a researcher who seeks the demilitarisation of the British economy. He surveyed the Barrow shipyard workers in the 80s with Peter Southwood*. They found that the vast majority had no strong preference for military work and simply wanted skilled jobs and reasonably good wages.

He comments on ‘loaded’ questions:

“. . . either work in the arms industry or face a future of unemployment and crap jobs (What sort of choice is that?) After all, aren’t we all complicit in being part of a capitalist system that is destroying the planet?”  

The arms trade is, in fact, a very small part of the British economy

He points out that the usual political/industrial warning about the loss of jobs in arms manufacturing being ‘devastating’ is challenged by Andrew Smith from the Campaign Against the Arms Trade who explains that the arms trade is, in fact, a very small part of the British economy – but “Arms companies enjoy a huge influence in the corridors of power, which has bought them a lot of power”. According to the Oxford Economics Group, BAE in 2013 exported £3.8bn worth of weapons, including missiles, naval systems and jets – just 1% of all the British economy’s exports.

A memorandum submitted to parliament by the Aerospace, Defence & Security group, a trade body and lobby group that represents arms companies, reports that arms exports accounted for 55,000 jobs, only 0.2% of the UK workforce, accounting for around 1.4% of export. It added that the UK’s Defence industry as a whole directly ‘sustained’ only 142,000 jobs – far less than the Cadbury-Mondelez chocolate factories.

Restriction of exports is being called for by CAAT, releasing skills and finance for the rebuilding of economic, social and environmental security. As Schofield says: “We want to see an industrial strategy that puts the skills of industry workers to good use”.  

There have been far greater job losses and serious dislocation for local communities in the steel, coal and textiles industries, Schofield reminds readers, noting the range of policies brought into play to help those localities diversify their employment base and reduce dependency on any one particular sector.  

As Schofield writes in an earlier paper, Arms Conversion – A Policy Without a Purpose: “Turning swords into plowshares remains one of our most evocative images of peace, reflecting the universal desire to bring an end to war and to use skills for productive rather than destructive purposes.” He recalls the massive and rapid restructuring of the economy after World War Two when companies temporarily involved in arms production simply brought their tools and equipment out from storage and returned to civil work.

But the context is now different: since the 1950s, Schofield points out, a permanent military-industrial complex and highly specialised arms corporations in aerospace, shipbuilding, engineering and electronics has emerged “to satisfy the byzantine demands of the MoD”. There is no pent-up demand for goods made effective by wartime savings and sectors with a similar skills base such as civil aircraft, communication satellites and cruise ships, already have well-served mature civil markets.

Points for the Labour Party to consider:

At present, the arguments put forward by arms conversion advocates are not persuasive since they rely on active government policies and a massive public investment programme in the civil sector which looks increasingly difficult in an austerity economy. There are other questions:

  • Are the peace movement and local MPs over-anxious to reassure sectional interests in the trade unions about loss of employment in the arms industries?
  • Is there any real enthusiasm and support for conversion in the trade unions who have been effective lobbyists for the retention of jobs in the arms sector, promoting aircraft carriers, the new Astute nuclear submarine and Trident?

Would a Labour government take a different approach?

‘I am strongly saying, ring-fence that £100billion that would have been spent on Trident, to invest in high technology manufacturing industry jobs, to invest in an Arms Conversion Agency, and a National Investment Bank, so that we don’t lose those brilliant skills of those people, instead they are making something less dangerous to the world and more socially useful.’ – Jeremy Corbyn, Coventry rally, 2 August, 2015

Schofield pointed out in an earlier report, Making Arms, Wasting Skills:

“[C]entral government has a vital role to play in developing a radical, political economy of arms conversion and common security. By moving away from military force projection and arms sale promotion, the UK could carry out deep cuts in domestic procurement including the cancellation of Trident and other major offensive weapons platforms, as well as adopting comprehensive controls on arms exports, including the suspension of weapons exports to the Middle East. The substantial savings in military expenditure could help to fund a major arms conversion programme.

“Here the emphasis would be on environmental challenges, including a multi-billion-pound public investment in renewable energy, particularly offshore wind and wave power, that would substantially cut the UK’s carbon emissions and reduce dependency on imported oil, gas and uranium supplies. These new industries will also generate more jobs than those lost from the restructuring of the arms industry. In this way, the UK would be taking a leading role in establishing a new form international security framework based on disarmament and sustainable economic development”.

Will the Labour Party, the peace movement and unions heed this message? 

*Southwood, Peter, and Stephen Schofield. 1987. Warship Yard Workers: A Survey of Attitudes to Defence and Civilian work at VSEL, Barrow. Report, Arms Conversion Group, Bradford School of Peace Studies, Bradford University









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