Pensions not cluster bombs: A blueprint for divesting from the arms trade

Paul McGowan from Coventry Stop the War describes the group’s successful campaign for regional divestment from arms companies. DESCRIPTION

On January 28th this year, the Scottish Herald published an article about the investments of Scottish pension funds in arms companies. This is not a new issue, but it prompted me to think about the situation closer to home.

Information from CAAT’s website about the West Midlands Metropolitan Pension Fund (WMPF from now on), dating from 2007, listed significant investments in all of the top ten arms-dealers. When I looked at the fund’s report for March 2012, I was amazed to find that the situation was even worse. Comparing the WMPF portfolio of investments with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s top 100 arms-dealers for 2011, I discovered that 40 of these companies showed up in both lists.

Put simply: everyone in the West Midlands who pays Council Tax is funding the activities of the military-industrial complex, led by the likes of Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman.

As a resident of Coventry, I was well used to hearing the place described as ‘the city of Peace and Reconciliation’, how Coventry had been the first city to be bombed in World War II, how the new Cathedral had risen from the ashes of the old in a spirit of forgiveness, how the municipal authorities had striven to build international friendship and understanding in the aftermath of 1945, and how this same attitude was reflected in more recent times by the annual Peace Festival, the Lord Mayor’s Peace Lecture, the acquisition of ‘City of Sanctuary’ status, and the establishment of the University’s Centre for Peace and Reconciliation Studies.

The contradictions between this history, reputation and achievements are made particularly acute by the realisation that Coventry is one of the seven District Councils of the West Midlands who together founded the WMPF. There are many other members nowadays, including Coventry University, but the Councils are the mainstay of the Fund and have the fundamental responsibility for its management.

April 15th was the Global Day of Action on Arms Spending. Thanks to the interactive map produced by CAAT, we knew that we had two giants of the international arms business operating in our city. (No, we didn’t know beforehand!) These were General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman. We picked on General Dynamics because it was bigger than Northrop Grumman, and closer to where most of us lived, made our placards and banners, informed the local media and set up a two-hour silent protest outside the factory. One of the free papers gave it a good write-up and a photo. General Dynamics refused to comment. A few weeks later, however, General Dynamics closed its Coventry factory. It just shows what can happen when do-gooders are allowed to get their hands on pieces of card and felt-tip pens!

In May, we sent a letter to all Councillors, explaining the background to the campaign and asking for their support. No one replied. Several members of the group wrote to their Councillors, asking for meetings. We took advantage of an upcoming event at the Cathedral, the installation of the new Lord Mayor, to hold another demonstration as the Councillors processed ceremonially into the Cathedral. Even if they hadn’t read their letters, at least they had seen us.

Over the next four weeks we collected signatures for a petition highlighting our aims – divestment from arms companies and an undertaking to work towards an arms-free city. 424 signatures were collected and presented to the Council (by a Conservative Councillor) on June 25. The petition was handled in accordance with council procedures, but because of the summer holidays, it was October 21st before it reached the relevant sub-committee.

In the meantime, we demonstrated silently at the Council House before each monthly meeting of the full Council, and individual Councillors were pressed for their views on specific questions, such as whether an investment in Textron - a company which supplies cluster bombs, among other things - reflected well on the City’s image. A further opportunity to sharpen the contradictions came on August 6th, Hiroshima Memorial Day. For a quarter of a century, this has featured a ceremony held in Coventry Cathedral attended by the Lord Mayor. This year, it contained a silent demonstration to draw attention to the financial support which the WMPF gives to companies directly involved in the nuclear weapons programmes of Britain, France and the USA.

Individuals with key responsibilities, such as the Leader of the Council, the Cabinet Member for Finance, the Director of Pensions at WMPF, the chair of the WMPF management board and the members of that committee were all pressed for answers, but only the Director of Pensions made any sort of reply. As this is not a question which Coventry City Council can deal with on its own, we have begun to spread the campaign to other areas of the West Midlands, where we have contacts, or can establish contacts.

Peace groups are permanently challenged to find ways of communicating their message to the general public. To focus on the uses of Council Tax money allows a campaign to take advantage of what is a constant concern for most people anyway. To get a positive response from the public can give new heart to long-time campaigners. The old networks and connections can be refreshed.

By drawing attention to the investments made by local councils in arms companies we automatically draw attention to the places where wars are happening. By identifying examples of particularly outrageous behaviour, for example investment in companies still producing cluster munitions, white phosphorus and depleted uranium shells, we can begin to clarify what is going on behind the headlines.

The campaign for disinvestment therefore has a clear informative and educative role. And because it operates at an immediate, local, level, it can help to restore a sense of empowerment and responsibility among a public largely disenchanted with the political process and politicians as a whole. It can help to repair the damage done to democracy by the actions of the Blair government, especially over the Iraq War. The public can begin to feel that they can make a difference, and they can see the point of demonstrations and street stalls in this sort of context.

The rather straightforward connection between local councillors and the management of pension funds to which a council might contribute, is not one, surprisingly, which many Councillors make. For most, this is a steep learning curve. Campaigners will find themselves well in the lead.

A successful campaign of this sort can bring about other changes in the political culture. A region which manages to remove arms investments will have implications for its MPs and MEPs, not just for its local councillors. Anyone standing for election in such an area will know what its voters are inclined to think, in matters of peace, war and public spending.

There are a number of funds such as the WMPF across the UK. Their combined investments in arms companies run into hundreds of millions of pounds. Examples include the funds established by most of the local councils of the major towns and cities, funded from Council Tax: West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire, Greater Manchester and Merseyside. Many of us rely on pensions built up in this way, but we can begin to dismantle the existing arrangements and build new ones. With total assets of £90 billion, local government pension schemes can exert massive influence on big business and big politics, of which the arms trade is certainly part.

As we reach the end of November, our priority is to make sure that the petition is properly considered and the results of that promptly reported back by our Pension Fund representatives – no doubt a rather unusual experience for them! More publicity for the campaign has come through local radio, further press coverage (we now get tip-offs, eg the arrival of Lockheed Martin in the city, from them) and a number of events organised under the banner of the city’s annual Peace Festival, funded by the Council, which this year contained an event called ‘Disarming Coventry’. Thank you for the grant, City Council. Credit where it’s due!

Source: Coventry Stop the War

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