Made in Britain

Elliot Murphy

The share prices of BAE Systems, Qinetiq and other British arms firms rose in November as the likelihood of Britain launching airstrikes against Syria increased. After the House of Commons voted in favour of military action on 2 December, there were three sorties in five days, then nothing until Christmas Day, when a Reaper drone hit an Isis checkpoint south of Raqqa. The much lauded Brimstone missiles were at last deployed on 10 January, to destroy a small supply truck. The Telegraph recently quoted a military aviation expert saying that Britain’s air campaign is ‘a non-event which can have had little, if any, impact on the balance of power on the ground’. A Reaper attacked another checkpoint in Syria on Monday, and yesterday evening Typhoon FGR4s from RAF Akrotiri dropped Paveway IV bombs (manufacturer: Raytheon UK) on a compound in Mosul.

Paveway IVs are also used by the Royal Saudi Air Force. Save the Children said in early December that Britain was putting arms sales before humanitarian concerns. According to the charity’s Yemen director, Edward Santiago, Britain is acting as if ‘diplomatic relations and arms sales trump the lives of Yemen’s children’. Nearly 3000 civilians have been killed, most of them in Saudi-led airstrikes, since the conflict in Yemen began last March; three Médecins Sans Frontières hospitals have been bombed. But Britain continues to license arms sales to Saudi Arabia. According to the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), the UK has sold more than £5.6 billion of arms to Saudi Arabia since 2010, including combat aircraft worth £1.7 billion last May.

The arms trade also receives generous state backing. The UK Trade and Industry Defence and Security Organisation, which exists to promote arms sales, gets far more funding than other UKTI sectors, even though the arms trade is responsible for only 1.5 per cent of UK exports.

Public money is also funnelled via universities. According to the CAAT, the University of Liverpool gave £17.5 million to military projects between 2001 and 2006. Portsmouth University has strong ties with the arms trade; a Freedom of Information request in August 2014 revealed that since 2011 the university had received £490,000 from BAE Systems and £23,000 from GKN Aerospace for ‘industrial consultancy and industrial research’. BAE Systems and Qinetiq are working with the university and Portsmouth City Council to establish a new technical college in September 2017. The University of Glasgow has invested £1.3 million in BAE Systems; the University of Sheffield received almost £30 million from arms companies between 2010 and 2015, according to a Freedom of Information request by the Free University of Sheffield campaign.

After the Saudis executed the prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr (and 46 other people) on 2 January, David Cameron and Michael Fallon remained steadfast in their conviction that supporting the Saudis is an effective way of supporting Britain’s arms industry. The Foreign Office defended its decision to omit the Kingdom from a list it drew up in 2011 of states it aimed to challenge over the death penalty. But Saudi Arabia remains on the ‘priority markets’ list of the UKTI DSO, and there is little sign of Whitehall budging on the matter.


  • 14 January 2016 at 8:21am
    cufflink says:
    No mention in this timely blog of the 'Save the Saudis Fund'. It is unique in that it is self supporting and administered largely by all the arms manufacturers of the world. No financial accounts are ever published because it is based upon the old Masonic type association of scratching backs. There are of course many black lists and prohibitions against joining this charity but they are published in such a mode that only a post graduate linguistic academic genius can or would want to look them up. Elliot's next book must surely be 'Unmaking Berlin' then a follow up with 'Unmaking the the World Wide Bed of Roses'.
    UCL is just round the corner from Little Russell Street so an LRB Editorial march might be on the cards; if we are to be serious about this.

  • 15 January 2016 at 3:13am
    farthington says:
    France is of course now a fully paid up member of the Save the Saudis Fund.
    In an economy racked by de-industrialisation, Dassault Aviation (maker of the Rafale, etc) is going gangbusters.
    So much so that Le Figaro (owned by the Dassault family), for whom the Parti Socialiste has always been a bête noire, is brandishing Hollande and his arms salesman Defense Minister Le Drian as the greatest thing since sliced bread.
    Hollande, playing the obedient Atlanticist, cancelled the contract with Russia for the two almost completed Mistral warships, a decision that is going to cost the French exchequer well in excess of a billion euros; add the ongoing jobs lost, etc.
    But Hollande et al have no problem with the Saudis, the Qataris, Sisi's Egypt, etc. A man and a Party of principle.
    Too bad Chalmers Johnson isn't alive. That principled Conservative would feel it necessary to update his Blowback thesis.