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Thursday, 6 June, 2002, 18:00 GMT 19:00 UK
Arming the world
British tank
How does the sale of British arms benefit Britain?
Since the Second World War Britain has been one of the world's leading arms exporters, now, second only to the USA. A special Radio 4 documentary questions the benefits of Britain's arms trade.

Justification to sell arms to countries like Libya, Iraq, Nigeria and Indonesia has been based on protecting Britain's large arms production industry.


Based on the figures that we have been given a third of the working population are dependent on the defence industry

Robert Linfield

It was the Wilson government in the 1960s that took the decision to expand Britain's arms exports abroad.

"We had a large manufacturing base dependent on defence orders. That manufacturing base had to continue to supply the armed forces and it was then that perhaps the Labour government took the decision to promote British defence manufacture overseas," explains Carol Smithies, a historian and former tank production manager.

"Remember a lot of British defence manufacture was actually government owned in those days, so it was the government that had to promote sales overseas."

Essential arms?

Demonstrating just how vital arms exports were to the British economy, Robert Linfield, a representative of the defence manufacturers claimed that one third of Britain's population was dependent on the arms industry:

"If you take the population of Great Britain which is approximately 56m and if you take it that half make up the working population i.e. 28m, based on the figures that we have been given a third of the working population are dependent on the defence industry."

These figures given to Robert Linfield were never verified as government and industry kept their records secret.

Sir Samuel Britain
Sir Samuel Brittan claims arms exports are not economically vital

And now, eminent economic commentators like Sir Samuel Brittan from the Financial Times have started to take a hard look at the necessity of the arms industry:

"The number of people engaged in defence exports is less than 50,000 and the number of people who would have to find new jobs if defence exports were cut by that amount is much less than the number of people who change jobs in a month or two."

Commission based sales

Perhaps, while protection of jobs in the defence exports industry can be used to justify sales more than the commissions made from the sales can, it is the latter which seems to be the greatest motivator.


A great many sales were made not because anyone wanted the arms but because of commission en route

Donald Stokes

In the late 1960s, Donald Stokes, Head of British Leyland Motor Manufacturers and advisor to Labour Defence Minister Denis Healey on selling arms, says: "A great many sales were made not because anyone wanted the arms but because of commission en route."

Big time salesmen liked Rolls Royce and a gift from the makers in lieu of commission belonged to a top British salesman who found it useful to bring top clients to his London headquarters - a quiet mews in Belgravia.

Among his clients were the Saudi Arabians who arranged deals which cost King Faisal 100m.

Fuelled by these commissions - often a euphemism for bribes - the arms export industry seems to have done very little for Britain's exports and has caused much subsequent trouble and pain.

Ethics of selling arms

Anxieties about political complications and ethical considerations have been brushed aside by government claims that all exports were for defensive arms.

Robin Cook
Robin Cook announced New Labour's ethical foreign policy

New Labour has now stated categorically their "pledges for a responsible arms trade" including a firm commitment to not issue export licenses for the sales of arms to regimes that might use them for internal repression or international aggression.

Sir Samuel Brittan concludes that if Britain had exported fewer arms the British economy would not have been affected to any great degree and foreign policy would have remained ethical.

He explains with this example: "If Britain had not been involved in supporting the Saudi Arabian regime it might have been more difficult for that regime to pretend to adopt a pro-Western foreign policy while adopting a very extreme Islamic regime at home and supporting organisations like the Taleban."

You can listen to the final programme Arming the World of the Why did we do that? series on Radio 4 on Thursday 6 June at 2000 BST

See also:

28 May 02 | UK Politics
28 May 02 | UK Politics
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