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The word “defence” is a high and mighty term which, especially when used with a capital D, reinforces the impression that it is somehow much more important than the likes of you and me.
Whether it’s the Ministry of Defence, the defence industry or defence spending, we are left in no doubt that this is a label worthy of our humblest respect — protecting the public, boosting the economy and supplying those all-essential jobs.
Presumably that is why the people behind the Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) arms fair — coming to an end today in London’s Docklands — chose to begin its title with that particular word.
As thousands of people protested outside the ExCel Centre these past two weeks — blocking roads, climbing on tanks, dangling from bridges and otherwise trying to prevent the set-up — the organisers could hide behind the apparent legitimacy of this officially sanctified banner.
To be fair, the implication that this commercial event is connected with the official governmental kind of “defence” is not altogether misleading.
The DSEI warfest is partly funded by the British taxpayer, with the Department for International Trade and its Defence and Security Organisation (DIT DSO) jointly organising it, along with private company Clarion Events. DSEI also lists the Ministry of Defence as one of its main supporters.
Government ministers also appear to have been falling over each other to give keynote addresses at DSEI.
International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon and Security Minister Ben Wallace were all on the bill at the ExCel Centre this week.
Finally, of course, the state has provided very direct physical support for the DSEI organisers by sending its police along to the Docklands.
Showing no interest in the imminent sale of guns, bombs and, possibly, torture equipment, they arrested scores of people foolish enough to act on their moral qualms about the arms fair.
The emergence of a “military-industrial complex,” of which former US president Dwight D Eisenhower warned back in 1961, was not confined to the US.
In Britain too, the government and the arms trade have grown cosily close, with the DSO being a prime instance.
Although it is funded by the British taxpayer, its one and only goal is to help arms and security businesses make more profits by flogging their products around the world.
As Campaign Against Arms Trade says: “DSO is not interested in the human impact of the equipment it promotes. It exists purely to help the companies sell.”
DSO works hand in hand with a private organisation called ADS Group, another main supporter of DSEI, which likes to label itself the “Premier Trade Organisation for companies in the UK aerospace, defence, security and space sectors” and reckons it represents 1,000 businesses.
ADS is transparently a lobbying group for the arms industry. It boasts of the fact that it “works across Whitehall to influence ministers, government, departments and their agencies about the value and needs of our sectors.”
This leaves us wondering about the meaning of the “defence” in whose name DSEI is being staged.
What exactly is “defensive” about spending taxpayers’ money to help arms companies sell weapons to foreign governments which use them to attack their neighbours or repress their populations?
What is “defensive” about allowing government foreign policy to be influenced by the commercial aspirations of arms firms with a vested interest in fanning the flames of war?
Ethics don’t come into the equation for the companies themselves, of course.
BAE Systems chairman Sir Roger Carr has made a point of insisting: “We are not here to judge the way that other governments work, we are here to do a job under the rules and regulations we are given.”
But shouldn’t the politicians and civil servants who work hand in hand with the industry bear some responsibility for the wider implications of the sales they encourage?
In what way is the British public “defended” by a massive £45 billion per year spend which has funded direct British military involvement in the likes of Syria, Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan?
Have the displacements of populations, refugee crises and bloody conflicts made life safer or more dangerous for the average British citizen, let alone for the displaced people of those countries themselves?
In what way is Britain’s “defence” served by the Saudi bombing of Yemen, Israel’s violent militarised occupation of Palestinian territories, Turkey’s attacks on Kurdish people or Azerbaijan’s crushing of internal dissent?
By inviting hordes of dodgy arms dealers and their equally dodgy customers to London, by prioritising and subsidising the profits of the weapons industry over and above the interests of the public, the government is doing exactly the opposite of what is implied by that deliberately misleading term.
In London’s Docklands, the only action worthy of the word has been going on outside DSEI in the shape of the protesters trying to close the event down — in the defence of decency, liberty and humanity.
Paul Cudenec is a member of Shoal Collective, a newly formed co-operative of independent writers and researchers, writing for social justice and a world beyond capitalism.
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