Arms conversion is now in a different context

Attacks on the practice of the industrial-political nexus, which has supplied many repressive regimes with a range of armaments, are no longer made only by the ‘usual suspects’, following reports from Libya and Bahrain. 

Restriction of exports is being called for, releasing skills and finance for the rebuilding of economic, social and environmental security.

As Steve Schofield writes in his latest 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.

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. 

Two questions

He concludes that the traditional approach of swords into plowshares no longer applies and questions the motives of those who continue to advocate it:

  • Is the peace movement 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? 

A parallel with the far greater job losses and serious dislocation for local communities in the steel, coal and textiles industries is drawn by Schofield, noting the range of policies brought into play to help those localities diversify their employment base and reduce dependency on any one particular sector. One of the more active projects is recorded on the Meden Valley Making Places website.

He 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.

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“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 peace movement and unions heed this message?

Read Arms Conversion – A Policy Without a Purpose here.

Background

Steve completed a doctorate on arms conversion and was co-founder of the Project on Demilitarisation in the 1990s. His most recent publications include Trident and Employment : The UK’s Industrial and Technological Network for Nuclear Weapons(Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, 2007); Making Arms, Wasting Skills : Alternatives to Militarism and Arms Production(Campaign Against the Arms Trade, 2008) and Local Sufficiency and Environmental Recovery (Local Economy Journal, Vol 24, No 6, November 2009, pp 439-447). He lives in Bradford, West Yorkshire.

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