Shifting priorities: from arms to renewables

Stevenston and wind turbines

Oliver Clarke under a Creative Commons Licence

What would happen if the government put peace and social justice ahead of militarism and war? What would happen if the level of resources currently being put into promoting military might were used to make the world a better place?  

This year alone, Britain will spend $57 billion on arms and the military. What if a similar figure was invested in promoting social and environmental justice and creating jobs in the renewable sector?

It seems like such an obvious solution, especially at a time when there is a severe skills shortage in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. However, at present the government spends 25 times more on Research & Development (R&D) for the military ($2.24 billion) as it does on R&D for renewable energy ($90 million).

This is only one example of how the government provides arms companies and the military with a completely disproportionate level of political and financial support.

The close connections between the arms trade, politicians and civil servants were revealed earlier this month at the ADS (Aviation, Defence and Space Industries) dinner, which saw over 40 MPs joining high-level civil servants and hundreds of arms dealers for a luxurious £250($385)-a-head dinner at the Hilton hotel in Mayfair.

Every year, taxpayers subsidize arms companies to the tune of hundreds of millions of pounds to export their wares into war zones and to arm oppressive regimes around the world. These weapons don’t just provide military support, they provide political support too, and give a sign of British support for atrocities taking place across the world.

Meanwhile, at home, billions of pounds are being spent on bloated procurement projects and military technology we do not need, like trident and aircraft carriers. BAE Systems, for example, has long-term contracts that guarantee a minimum income of $353 million per year from the public purse. All the while, vital public services that we all rely on are being cut.

The government justifies its support for the arms trade by arguing it needs to protect high-skilled manufacturing jobs. However, despite all of these resources, and despite the deep well of government support, the number of jobs in the arms trade is on a long-term decline that doesn’t look like changing any time soon. The prospects for the industry have been described by a former President of its own trade body as ‘flat-lining at best’.

We believe there is an alternative.

Our research shows that a move towards offshore wind and marine energy could benefit us all by providing greater security from environmental threats and by producing more jobs than the entire arms industry. Our estimate is that the right levels of investment and government support could help to create over 300,000 jobs in offshore wind and marine energy alone. This estimate is based on building the domestic supply chain for renewable energy, including placing obligations on companies to locate and develop skills in local communities.

The transition could be made without any large-scale job losses. Like the arms trade, the renewable-energy sector is highly skilled, and actually has a very similar breakdown across broad categories of skill levels, employing many of the same branches of engineering. There would also be appropriate work available in most areas where arms workers are located, with tens of thousands of supply-chain jobs that could be located anywhere in the country.

This point is acknowledged by the arms companies themselves. For example, Sandy Wilson, the President of General Dynamics UK, has told the Parliamentary Defence Committee that alternative energy is just one of the industries that stood to ‘mop up’ arms-trade jobs if there was a cut in military spending.

By changing directions, Britain can take a leading position in technologies that will be in high demand, will have major export potential and will also help other countries cut their carbon emissions. Shifting priorities would secure green jobs for the future and improve human security rather than threaten it. But this potential won’t be realized without action.

It will take real action from the government, and at least the same level of investment and support that is currently enjoyed by arms trade. It will also need engineers with the kind of skills that are currently being applied to making weapons and other instruments of death.

Even more than that, it will require all of us to take a stand. As George Monbiot recently wrote, ‘society moves from the margin, not the centre’. We all have a role to play in convincing the government to shift its priorities and create more and better jobs that can help to build a safer and greener tomorrow.

Andrew Smith and Matthew Burnett-Stuart are spokespeople for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.

The March issue of New Internationalist, The Great Green Energy Grab – corporate renewables vs people’s power, is out now.