Glasgow's arms fair reflection was needed

Written by Tom Freeman on 3 July 2018 in Comment

Glasgow City Council's actions around a recent arms fair reveal a need to ask ourselves if we're part of the problem or part of the solution as the world becomes more unstable

Protesters outside Glasgow arms fair - SinkUDT

Last week, the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre was abuzz with the excitement of a major trade conference. Among the topics on the agenda were new lightweight torpedoes which can skirt through shallow waters at great speed and the future of unmanned submarines.

Glasgow hosting an arms fair proved a controversial moment, with protestors gathering outside the area, angry that Glasgow City Council could have allowed it to happen.

Glasgow City Council have since said the event would be the last such arms fair held in the city.

Leader Susan Aitken blamed the previous administration for booking it, but she has sat on the board of the Scottish Events Campus for months. It will not have come as a surprise to her.

Undersea Defence Technology (UDT) was an event hailed as “the most relevant exhibition” for the military and defence industry. It reflected the “community’s desire for continuous learning in dealing with the world’s increasing diversity of threats and challenges”.

Of course, the world’s diversity of threats and challenges is good for business, and “dealing with it” means capitalising on it, as lead sponsors Babcock and BAE Systems know all too well.

At the same time as delegates were gathering in Glasgow, the Commons Defence Select Committee was recommending the UK step up its spending on arms of its own in the wake of “a renewed threat from Russia”. The army, the report said, was “at serious risk of being outgunned by its Russian counterpart”.

In other words, an arms race.

Committee member Madeleine Moon MP told the BBC: “Influence is really important because unless you can back it up with capability, you have no credibility.”

But the question is capability to do what? The UK has the biggest defence budget in Europe already. What exactly does the UK hope to do with more weapons? The Defence Committee’s report contains a clue. “Both the UK armed forces and HM Treasury benefit from our close relationship with the US,” it says.“However, that will continue to be true only while the UK military retains both the capacity and capability to maintain interoperability with the US military and to relieve US burdens.”

There we have it, then. Amid the world’s “increasing diversity of threats and challenges”, we choose Trump, a man who is demanding his European allies spend more on defence. And while he made these demands, he also kicked off a trade war with Europe. 

UK weapons help Turkey to bomb Kurds, Saudi Arabia to bomb Yemen and Israel to suppress unrest in the Gaza Strip. Israel uses British sniper rifles. In fact, British arms exports to the 35 countries considered “not free” by the US think tank Freedom House have increased by at least a quarter since the Brexit vote.

These include Equatorial Guinea, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan.

The new UK Department for International Trade, created to prepare Britain for Brexit, explicitly lists defence and security as areas Liam Fox will focus on expanding.

The department says it reviews the licensing of sales carefully and on a case-by-case basis, but an FOI by the Observer recently revealed thousands of bombs and missiles have been sold to Saudi Arabia under Open Individual Export Licences, designed for the export of “less sensitive goods”.

If the arms manufacturers and dealers who gathered in Glasgow last week are right, and the geopolitical landscape has an increasing diversity of threats and challenges, then it is time for Britain to come to terms with the fact it is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

And councils like Glasgow, which has adopted the moniker ‘government’ in an attempt to give itself gravitas, also need to accept responsibility for the part they play in it.

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