In Britain’s defence sector, the way of doing things is different from other British industries. Here, manufacturing jobs still have prestige, long-term prospects and political leverage. Unions are strong but work closely with management. Apprenticeships are sought-after and numerous.
Political support for the business comes from across the ideological spectrum: when the European Fighter Aircraft collaboration between Britain, Germany, Spain and Italy, now known as the Typhoon, was threatened with cancellation in the 90s, even the Socialist Workers party protested. In this business, in defiance of the past three decades’ free-market orthodoxies, the state is pivotal. This week, David Cameron’s much-hyped trade visit to India is promoting the Typhoon as one of its key objectives.
“The Typhoon fighter jet performed outstandingly in Libya,” said Cameron in December, before an official visit to West Asia. “So it’s no surprise that Oman wants to add this aircraft to its fleet.” On landing in the wealthy Gulf state, he strode quickly from his prime ministerial plane, in front of the TV cameras, to where a pair of dart-like Typhoons had been specially parked in the perfect, sales-catalogue sunshine, barely a hundred yards away. He climbed a set of steps to the open cockpit of one of the fighters, and held a stagey conversation with its pilot. That day, it was confirmed that Oman had bought a dozen of the aircraft.
“Boosting exports is vital for economic growth, and that’s why I’m doing all I can to promote British business … so [it] can thrive in the global race,” said Cameron on the eve of his Oman trip. “Every country in the world has a right to self-defence, and I’m determined to put Britain’s first-class defence industry at the forefront of this market, supporting 300,000 jobs across the country.”
Despite leading an overcommitted, often embattled government, he has frequently found time for foreign visits with a defence exports element. He has been to India before, in July 2010; Egypt and Kuwait in February 2011; Saudi Arabia in January 2012; Indonesia, Japan, Burma, Malaysia and Singapore in April 2012; Brazil in September 2012; and Saudi Arabia, Dubai and Abu Dhabi in November 2012. Throughout, his salesmanship and justifying rhetoric have been unashamed.
This April, a Royal Navy frigate is scheduled to arrive in Tripoli in Libya, reportedly with British companies exhibiting on board for a Whitehall-backed “defence and security industry day”. Even government policy on the London Olympics has produced a pay-off for the defence business. The brand of missiles controversially deployed around the Olympic site, Starstreak, made by Thales in Belfast, was sold to Thailand four months later.
With the government desperate for economic growth, and seemingly just as quick as its recent predecessors to involve Britain in overseas conflicts, the defence industry’s position is in some ways stronger than ever. Last month, Cameron suggested that if he was re-elected in 2015, British military spending would be exempt from the austerity planned for every other branch of government.
As prime minister, like Cameron, Tony Blair travelled widely to lobby for defence sales, to India, Saudi Arabia and the Czech Republic. In 2006, he pressured the Serious Fraud Office into dropping an investigation into alleged bribes paid by BAE to secure Saudi orders.
Yet Blair’s arms industry advocacy was less public, and perhaps a little less desperate-seeming, than Cameron’s. The wider British economy was booming, and in the treasury under the chancellor Gordon Brown there were many who felt that the defence industry was unnecessarily feather-bedded.
But the real threats to the business may be less ideological. Since the coalition’s austerity programme began in 2010, defence cuts really have bitten hard. Thousands of defence workers have been laid off.
And if Britain is becoming a less certain market for the industry, then so are some of its foreign ones. Defence budgets are under pressure across the west. Cameron’s arms-related trips to Asia, South America and West Asia are partly a tacit acknowledgement that the industry will increasingly have to look to non-western markets — which are already busy with defence companies from other traditionally strong military exporters such as France and the US, trying to escape their own domestic difficulties. GNS