UK Arms Trade Campaign Discussion

An important development has recently occurred with regards to British arms exports to abusive regimes. MPs from six political parties recently put forward Early Day Motion (EDM) 2166 addressing the problem. It states:


“That this House notes that the arms export priority markets for the UK Trade and Investment's Defence and Security Organisation in 2010-11 included Algeria, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates; further notes that, with the exception of Libya, these sales efforts continue; is concerned by the inherent conflict between the Government's promotion of military exports and its stated desire to help protect human rights overseas; and therefore calls on the Government to end the export of military equipment to all authoritarian regimes.”[i]


The motion came as a result of campaigning by Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) and has so far received the support of 41 MPs (as off 20 October 2011). It is extremely laudable that the motion has been put forwards and I hope that it is successful.


Unfortunately, if history is anything is to go by, the government is very likely to completely ignore the motion. In 2002 over 300 MPs signed an Early Day Motion (826) for a parliamentary committee to have prior scrutiny over arms export licence decisions. The changes would have been far milder than those being currently proposed, and it seems the public would have still been kept in the dark over arms exports. However, even these changes were too much for the government, which refused the motion, vaguely stating that changes would cause “unacceptable constitutional, legal and practical difficulties”.[ii] It goes without saying that refusing to increase parliamentary oversight of the arms trade was nothing to do with “constitutional” or “legal” difficulties. Britain is what is known in political science as an ‘elected dictatorship’, which means that government decisions are, for all intents and purposes, free from constitutional and legal constraints. This leaves us only with “practical” difficulties to consider. But again, it is difficult to see what they could be. 

It appears that there were two real government concerns with increased oversight of arms exports. The first is the likely loss of revenue for BAE systems if arms exports to repressive regimes decreased. BAE bosses wield massive influence in Whitehall, exemplified by Blair’s 2006 decision to stop the Serious Fraud Office’s investigation into the BAE-Saudi arms scandal. Even before this event it was widely known that BAE held massive influence in Downing Street, to the extent that its bosses were able to see Blair at will. 

It is worth noting that the support for BAE is nothing to do with supporting UK industry. Arms exports only contribute to the profits of influential arms company heads, whilst costing the taxpayer (disproportionately the working class) millions of pounds in subsidies each year. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute puts the subsidy, conservatively, at £136 million per year if research and development are not included, and at least £700 million if they are.[iii]  Subsidies can often play a stimulating role in the economy when applied to productive goods or services (steel plants, water systems, education, healthcare etc). However arms exports do not fall into this category. Thus arms trade subsidies represent a simple transfer of money from the tax-payer to corporate heads.  

The support for BAE is also nothing to do with jobs. In 2001, a major study (the York Report) by two independent academics and two Ministry of Defence economists concluded that for every three jobs lost as a consequence of a 50 percent reduction in military exports, over a five year period approximately four new jobs would be created in other parts of the economy, as the capital released was put to other, more productive uses.[iv] It should also be noted that arms are subsidised to a unique degree. For example, part of the subsidy figure includes funding for a special government department within UK Trade and Industry called the Defence Security Organisation, which is geared solely towards maximising arms exports – something no other industry receives. If ‘jobs’ was the real reason for the subsidy it is difficult to see why arms exports are uniquely privileged in this way over other, more productive industries. 

When the government refused the 2002 EDM, a likely second concern was that it wanted to ensure that favoured abusive regimes were not left without arms supplies with which to carry out violence which Downing Street and Whitehall see as useful. One example of violence the UK government sees as useful is the military operations against local resistance to oil projects in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria. On top of being one of the most important oil resources in the world, production in the Niger Delta is important to the UK government because it is largely controlled by the British-Dutch oil major, Shell. With these interests in mind, in 2008 Gordon Brown went as far as suggesting direct British support in crushing the local resistance to the oil operations (which includes kidnap of oil workers and sabotage of pipes, as well as more traditional protests which are barely reported). Whilst this idea was abandoned, arms flows continued (as well as military training), assisting the Nigerian government in its brutal rule over the population, documented extensively by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.[v]  Increased parliamentary scrutiny would represent a risk to strategic exports such as these.  

Unfortunately it seems that the Conservative Party (the most powerful member of the current governing coalition), is even more opposed to reining in the arms trade than Labour. Out of 311 signatories of the 2002 EDM, only 13 were Conservative Party members (the majority of the signatories were in the ruling Labour Party and the motion was still rejected.)  Today, out of the 41 signatories of the current EDM, only one is a Conservative.   

Given the government attitudes to arms exports, citizens concerned with the situation have a lot of work to do if they want the new EDM to be successful. There are several steps which could increase pressure on the government to accept the EDM. The first is that more MPs need to be lobbied to sign the EDM. In this regards, on the CAAT website there is a quick form people can fill in as a part of the lobbying process. It is hoped that any readers of this article will fill out the form. Also, it is hoped that where necessary, further lobbying measures will be taken to change the stance of MPs. These measures could be as simple as requesting a meeting with your MP to discuss the subject.  

Even with a large amount of MPs supporting the EDM, it is still possible that the government will ignore it, just as the 2002 EDM was ignored despite 311 MP’s signatures. One reason it can be easily ignored is that there is very little mainstream media coverage of the issue, so the government can disregard the EDM with little public fuss. Several paths can be taken to address this problem. The first option is simply for people to pester the mainstream media with messages demanding that they cover the topic. Another possibility is a nationwide student day of action to raise awareness of the topic. Another is that any celebrities who learn about the issue could use their access to large audiences to raise awareness of the EDM. In fact the possibilities are too many to mention and are limited only by our level of ambition and effort. 

It is worth mentioning to anyone considering taking part in the campaign that they will be reaching out to a public which broadly opposes current arms exports policies.  The UK Working Group on Arms (UKWG) (whose members are Amnesty International UK, BASIC, Christian Aid, International Alert, Oxfam GB and Saferworld) carried out a survey on the topic in 2002. It was found that 82% of the population do not think the government "has done enough" to "stop the sale of arms to governments which abuse human rights" ( 9% think they have and 9% don't know). Meanwhile the vast majority (78%) feel that British arms exports are shrouded in too much secrecy.[vi]  The strong opposition is remarkable considering that there is almost zero mainstream media coverage or public discussion of the harmful aspects of UK arms exports. It appears that people are mainly keeping these views to themselves, believing that they are alone on the subject.   

It should be added that getting the government to introduce new legislation as the current EDM calls for is only the first task. The second task is ensuring that it is strong legislation. If past campaigns on similar topics are anything to go by, it is very likely that the government will agree to stop arms exports to ‘authoritarian regimes’, but will employ a very narrow definition of ‘authoritarian regimes’ so that it will still be able to permit arms exports to any abusive regime it wants.  It is too late to change the text in the EDM now so that the demands are more specific, but arms export campaigners should do their best to publicly explain exactly what they mean by ‘authoritarian regimes’. For me, a useful working definition is any country in which the military has engaged in violent abuse towards any of its own citizens within the last five years, as decided by the world’s two leading human rights groups, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. It is only if the government introduces a law preventing arms exports to regimes which match this description (or similar) that the campaign will have been truly successful. Therefore, if the government does decide to introduce weak legislation, campaigners cannot afford to sit back and be happy that they have achieved half of their goals. Instead, they must simply step up the campaign, until strong legislation is put in place. Similarly, the campaign must simply be stepped up in the likely event that the government completely ignores the recent motion. 


[i] http://www.parliament.uk/edm/2010-12/2166

[ii] http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200405/cmselect/cmdfence/145/145.pdf See pg 10

[iii] http://www.caat.org.uk/issues/subsidies.php

[iv] http://www.caat.org.uk/issues/jobs-subsidies.php. Other studies suggest subsidies are in fact larger. See for example Saferworld, 2007, The Good, the Band and the Ugly: A Decade of Labour’s Arms Exports. 

[v] http://www.hrw.org/africa/nigeria &  http://www.amnesty.org/en/region/nigeria

[vi] http://www.caat.org.uk/resources/WGA-survey02.php 

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