Militarism examined

An interview with Andrew Smith

Andrew Smith is a spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade. Here Matt Kennard of AOAV interviews Andrew about his work on the arms trade.

Firstly, could you introduce yourself and explain a bit about what you do at CAAT.
I’m Andrew Smith, I work for Campaign Against Arms Trade; an organisation that is trying to stop U.K. arms exports to human rights abusing regimes and dictatorships.

Can you give a general overview of where Britain stands in the league table of arms exporters around the world?
The U.K. is one of the biggest arms exporters. I shall start by discussing the government’s role; the U.K. government is one of the biggest exporters of arms in the world.  By its own reporting, it is the second largest exporter in the world, behind the U.S. – therefore it is definitely among the biggest in the world.  The largest buyer of U.K. arms is Saudi Arabia, with over two-thirds of U.K. armaments going to the Middle East every year.  The U.K. market is very Middle East driven, and Saudi Arabia has been at the heart of this for decades, with fighter jet sales being introduced by Margaret Thatcher; then lobbied for by Tony Blair; and currently fighter jet sales to Saudi Arabia have underpinned the brutal bombardment of Yemen.

And obviously, there are checks in place regarding arms exportation, such as the export licensing system.  Can you explain how this works? And whether these checks are enough, for example in Saudi Arabia, where British exported weapons are being used in the attacks on Yemen?
Well, on paper U.K. arms export laws are very clear and appear very tough.  They say that if there is a “clear risk,” that arms might be used in a serious violation of international humanitarian law, then arms exports should not go ahead.  Saudi Arabia has been widely accused of some of the most serious violations of international humanitarian law, not just by Campaign Against Arms Trade, but also by Amnesty International, Oxfam, the United Nations, and almost every reputable NGO with people on the ground in Yemen.  And yet, despite the overwhelming evidence of U.K. arms being used in attacks on civilians and infrastructure; arms companies have seen this terrible bombardment as a business opportunity, and there has been significant increases in arms exports during this war. We know that U.K. fighter jets are flying over Yemen right now and that U.K. bombs are being dropped from the sky. This has been underpinned by strong and uncritical support from the government.

Can you talk about the ways in which the government supports the arms industry? For example, the DSO, is a whole government agency set up to promote private business arms companies around the world. Why does the government value the arms industry so highly?
The arms trade is a very political industry; with politicians right at the heart of it.  Arms exports could not happen without the full support of government, and we should always remember that government ministers play a central role in pushing for major arms sales.  When the U.K. is selling weapons to Saudi Arabia, it’s not just BAE executives involved, it is government ministers as well; and this has been the case for decades. The Defence and Security Organisation is a department within the Civil Service, with over one hundred civil servants, who are there for the sole purpose of pushing arms exports and trying to maximise profits for arms companies.  They don’t just play a role behind the scenes in terms of putting together meetings, but they are also intimately involved in the organisation of arms fairs which take place in the U.K., such as the DSEI arms fair, which takes place in London every two years.  It’s one of the biggest arms fairs in the world and brings a group of human rights abusing regimes to Britain, for the sole purpose of buying weapons.  None of this could happen without the full service of Whitehall and without the full support of Downing Street as well.  Arms companies have managed to amass huge influence in the corridors of power; there has been a well-established revolving door between Whitehall and the arms companies for years. The government spends enormous amounts on lobbying, which illustrates the level of influence which these companies have. We must remember that this is a very small sector of the economy, however it is one incredibly loud voice in the corridors of power.

Is the support from the political system bipartisan or are there differences between the two main political parties’ views on arms exportation?
Historically, the arms trade has not been a party-political issue, it has always been an institutional issue.  Previous Labour governments, such as the Blair government, have sold just as many weapons to repressive regimes around the world as Tory governments have.  It was an issue where there was a strong political consensus.  Similarly, coalition governments of Liberal Democrats have followed similar policies.  But it has been a government policy, rather than a party policy.  However, I think that it is starting to change now.  Under the current Labour leadership, we’ve seen far stronger questioning of the arms exports, and a stronger line against arms exports as well, and that has not just come from the Labour party, but also the SNP, Liberal Democrats and the Green Party. And it really does feel like there is more momentum in parliament to do something about this.  We know where public opinion is, the polling has always been very clear on this issue.  Poll after poll has shown that the overwhelming majority of the U.K. is against arms exports to human rights abusing regimes, dictatorships and war-zones; and yet that is where the majority of U.K. arms exports are going.  We know where public opinion is, and I think that is starting to shift some politicians, but historically, this has not been about parties, it’s been about government.

Can you trace the history of British arms exports. It is interesting how as a small country, population-wise, we may be the 12th largest economy in purchasing power and parity. How did we develop this huge arms exporting industry, to become the second largest exporter?
The U.K. civil service has been involved in pushing arms exports since the 1960s when it first opened the arms export promotion unit and it has played an important role in doing so since then. Throughout the 1970s, there was a significant increase in arms exports, especially to the Gulf; Iran was a particularly large buyer, ahead of the revolution in 1979. Civil servants and ministers played an active role in trying to secure these sales. It is important to recognise the short-term nature of arms sales, for example, now the government would say that they would never want to sell weapons to Iran, yet once weapons are sold into a warzone they are not going to disappear. It is a similar situation to U.K. arms being sold to Colonel Gaddafi one year, and then Libya being bombed the next; or weapons being sold to Vladimir Putin one year and then him invading Ukraine the next year. Right at the heart of the arms trade is a push for instant profits, and that has been characteristic of the U.K.’s approach to it since the 1960s. The major, multi-billion-pound deals came in under Margaret Thatcher, who played a central role in them. She also appointed a group of ministers who were very supportive of this objective. Recently some declassified documents came out from the start of the first Gulf War in the 1990s. In the week before the conflict began, government ministers toured the Middle East, trying to sell weapons to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region. This described the impending war as a perfect business opportunity. It is important to remember that war and conflict are central to the arms trade, without it businesses couldn’t turn over profits, and they have seen these conflicts as opportunities to push weapons. But the role of the government has remained largely unchanged since the 1980s. Tony Blair did all he could to push arms exports, including cancelling an investigation from the serious fraud office into allegations of corruption in major arms deals and shortly after he cancelled an investigation into corruption within the BAE-Saudi deal. As someone who is looking at this cynically, this intervention could have been to ensure that the next batch of fighter jets were sold. This demonstrates the toxic relationship between the government and the arms industry.

Can you explain how the U.K. arms industry looks, as we have only one major producer, BAE Systems. Has it always been like this? How did we end up with one big company dominating the industry?
BAE Systems has always been at the heart of the U.K. arms trade, but it’s far from the only U.K. arms company. BAE Systems, although it is a U.K. company, is also global and employs people all over the world.  It has always had a uniquely strong relationship with government.  In former foreign secretary Robin Cook’s autobiography, he describes BAE as having the backdoor key to Downing Street.  Now, I don’t think he meant it literally, I think this illustrates the political intimacy between Tony Blair’s government and BAE Systems.  He suggests in the same book that Tony Blair would never make a major foreign policy decision without knowing that BAE were onboard first.  And I think that really sums up the scale of the relationship between the U.K. government and BAE and shows the level of political influence BAE had over U.K. policy, not just at the time, but in the subsequent years. There is no reason to think that this has been reduced either, the personnel involved may have changed, but the relationship is very much the same. This doesn’t mean that the U.K. government doesn’t support other arms companies around Britain – which it definitely does, pulling out all of the stops for them – but BAE has always been the biggest company.