Skip to Content

Cooking the Books: Why the Arms Trade

Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, is the LibDem MP for Twickenham. At a meeting in his constituency on 29 November he was handed a petition signed by 9,000 demanding an end to arms sales to oppressive regimes. Among other things, the petitioners criticised the government for helping organise the two-yearly arms fair at the Excel Centre in London. According to the local paper:

‘Business Secretary Dr Cable defended his position and said the aerospace sector was helping to refuel the economy and countries should be allowed to protect themselves. Dr Cable said: “I am not a pacifist. I do accept that governments and countries have a right to defend themselves and that is done either through manufacturing or [importing] the weapons to do so”’ (Richmond & Twickenham Times, 7 December).

Actually, given capitalism (which both he and the petitioners accept), this is not an unreasonable answer. The world is divided politically into armed states whose governments preside over the operation of capitalism in the territory where their writ runs. These states are all jockeying for position over access to raw materials, markets, trade routes and investment outlets. It’s a struggle in which ‘might is right’.

In order to maintain their position, states need to arm themselves with the most destructive weapons they can afford, not necessarily to use but to show how much ‘might’ they have when it comes to negotiations over these economic matters. They need weapons for this just as much to ‘protect themselves’ in the event of invasion. In fact, actual war is only as a last resort, when a state considers that its ‘vital economic interests’ are under serious threat.

So, there is an economic demand for weapons, and where there is a paying demand a profit-seeking supply will arise to meet it. Britain has an arms-producing capacity – miscalled the ‘defence industry’ which can meet this demand. The capitalist firms concerned are not going to miss this opportunity to make profits, and the government is not going to discourage them. Quite the reverse. The Prime Minister himself has not hesitated to personally become a ‘merchant of death’:

‘The Prime Minister said Britain should support all sectors of the economy where it had a comparative advantage, including defence. He came under fire last week for pushing for contracts for Typhoon jets in UAE, Saudi Arabia and Oman. He previously led trade missions to Africa, Indonesia, China, India, Russia, Mexico, Brazil, Japan and Malaysia’ (Times, 13 November).

Opponents of the arms trade argue that it promotes war. But they have got it the wrong way round. It is economic competition in which ‘might is right’ that promotes the arms trade. As long as capitalism lasts with this built-in competitive struggle between states over economic matters there will be a demand for arms and so an arms trade. No state which has, as Cameron put it, a ‘comparative advantage’ in arms production is going to renounce this profit-making advantage on ‘ethical’ grounds. This means that, given capitalism, the opponents, despite their sincerity and however justified their objection to arms and arms trading which socialists share, will unfortunately be tilting at windmills. The only way to stop it is to join us in campaigning to end capitalism.