By Brittan, Samuel
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 132, No. 4656
I was tempted to begin this article by saying that if I were 20 years younger, I would have joined the demonstrators against the government-supported arms fair held this month in a closely guarded location in London's Docklands. But this would have been untrue. Twenty years ago, I held very similar views to the ones I do today about government-supported sales of arms to dubious regimes, but I did not have the courage to move away from cosy discussions about Treasury and Bank of England strategy and take the physical and career risks involved in protests. So I am certainly not going to sneer at people, whether with beards and sandals or not, who--to use an unfortunate metaphor--move into the firing line. Not all the protesters were against globalisation or even against capitalism. But even if most of them were, they would still be right when it comes to arms sales.
The promoter of the Docklands exhibition, Defence Systems and Equipment International (see Gideon Burrows, Mark Thomas and John Kampfner, NS, 8 September), boasted that it was the only one organised in association with the UK Ministry of Defence, whose secretary of state (still Geoff Hoon at the time of writing) wrote the introduction to the pocket preview. The promoters said that all exhibitors "are required to attest that their exhibits comply with English law, EU/UN legislation and the UK's international undertakings on export and arms control". But you do not have to be an expert in this area to sense the very murky problems of interpretation; nor to realise that this fair was supported by that part of the government machine concerned to promote arms sales rather than to police them. At a previous such fair in 2001, the countries invited to attend included China, India, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, the Philippines and Russia, all of which, along with others, were involved--in the opinion of the CIA--in some kind of internal or other conflict.
The case against such sales is enormously strengthened by an understanding of how a competitive market system works, which is quite different from the ersatz understanding displayed by those Third Way politicians who claim to espouse it. Indeed, official support for the arms trade is the last redoubt of the discredited industrial policy of "picking national champions", favoured by old Labour and corporatist Tories in the 1970s.
Critics of the arms promotion policy do not have to be against all weapons sales--indeed, specialisation by more countries inside Nato would be desirable. But such sales should be confined to genuine allies, and thus exclude dubious associates such as Saudi Arabia. And they should not be supported by official export credits, royal visits, prime ministerial sales drives and other pressures on governments to buy British arms.
The favourite arguments for promoting arms sales are that they boost exports and jobs. The whole export drive is a hangover from the postwar period, when exchange rates were fixed and currencies inconvertible. It is quite out of date in a world of floating exchange rates and big capital movements. Some of the anti-arms demonstrators may not like this world. But its existence is their best defence against bogus arguments for promoting the sale of machines that cause death and destruction.
The ranks of government economists are full of "realists" with a living to earn, who tell me that it is hopeless to campaign against the export drive and that it would be much better to concentrate on making government support less erratic and irrational than it tends to be. My own response is to start with that part of the export drive which is not merely a waste of resources but contributes to death and destruction of innocent human beings.
As Adam Smith wrote: "There is an awful lot of ruin in a nation." If the economic wastage were all, I would hardly bother to write articles that some of my colleagues regard as a diversion from the headline economic issues and which perhaps puzzle the usual opponents of arms sales when they see support coming from an unashamed defender of competitive capitalism. …