The idea that we can boost manufacturing by demanding the government builds its bombs in Britain is wrong on many levels writes Andrew Murray

Today, tens of thousands are marching for a change of government in the face of an escalating social crisis. The protest is backed by a range of peoples’ organisations, including the TUC, to the latter’s credit.

Yet the critical revival of the trade union movement in recent months — a revival central to any hopes of progress and change — now risks being undermined by a decision of the TUC itself.

As this paper has reported, TUC Congress last month narrowly approved a resolution instructing the general council to “campaign for immediate increases in defence spending.”

I cannot recall a more misdirected motion being endorsed by the trade union movement in recent decades.

Yes, there have been missed opportunities, unnecessary equivocations and splitting-the-differences aplenty over the years, particularly in the dead days of “social partnership.”

But with this resolution, the TUC threatens to not only align with the most right-wing forces in British politics today, but to cut the feet out from under its own members and working people at large in resisting the government offensive.

Before examining the resolution and the case against it, let two things be clearly acknowledged.

First, trade unionists in the military-industrial sector have the same right to expect their unions to defend their jobs as workers do anywhere else.

From my years working at Unite I fully understand the importance of that. It is completely understandable for unions to insist that no jobs should be sacrificed until, and unless, equivalent skilled manufacturing work is guaranteed.

A programme of defence diversification is a big part of the answer here. Such a perspective has come to seem less credible only because of the lack of any government support for it. The last Labour government actually wound up the Defence Diversification Agency. That should change.

Second, if the government is to spend money on arms, then it is right that the money be invested in Britain’s manufacturing base, rather than being sent abroad, generally to US monopolies.

The precipitate decline in British manufacturing employment, which has gone on under all governing parties for many years, lies beneath the concerns expressed at the TUC. This decline has led to well-documented devastation in many industrial communities and left the manufacturing sector as a whole over-dependent on arms production.

The TUC resolution goes much further than these two points, on which there could probably be more-or-less unity.

It explicitly repudiates a policy of defence diversification. And it stretches beyond industrial demands — some of them justifiable in themselves — to dabbling in geopolitics.

The resolution claims that “defence manufacturing cuts have hindered the UK’s ability to aid the Ukrainian people under brutal assault from Putin’s regime.” There is simply no evidence that this is true.

Britain has supplied more arms to Kiev in the course of the war than any other state bar the US. No-one has suggested that still more could have been dispatched if only Britain had a larger military industry.

Indeed, if that actually was an issue, then no doubt the Tories could have diverted some of the munitions they sell hand over fist to the Saudi regime for its aggression against Yemen instead.

Similarly, the resolution looks to exploit the opportunities provided by the Aukus pact that brings together Australia, Britain and the US in escalating the arms race in the Pacific, by supplying Canberra with new nuclear submarines.

Ironically, this position puts the TUC at odds with the Labour Party — formally, at least — since the party voted at its 2021 conference to oppose Aukus.

There are also elements of economic absurdity in the resolution. It asserts that “up to 36p in each pound spent on defence manufacturing is returned through taxation — helping fund public services.”

Maybe so, but to state the blindingly obvious, 100 per cent of every pound spend on public services would help fund them — and nobody gets killed either!

These issues only scratch the surface of the concerns aroused by the resolution however.

Most immediately, by aligning the trade union movement with the jingoistic right of the Tory Party, it compromises the campaign against the looming austerity Rishi Sunak’s government is looking to impose.

Few, if any, of those demonstrating today, will want more tanks and missiles. They know that every extra one built will pile further pressure on public finances and do nothing to ease the cost-of-living crisis.

Already, the Cabinet is looking to plug a self-made budget gap of around £40 billion. Its chosen solution will doubtless include further cuts to vital public services already impoverished to breaking point by more than a decade of a savage spending squeeze.

Even though the TUC does not specify a figure, to campaign for immediate increases in the defence budget under these conditions is incomprehensible and divisive. It pits defence sector workers against those in other sectors, public services above all, and indeed against all working people who depend on a well-funded public realm.

It might be argued that more spending on all these things is feasible. That is a delusion, detached from political reality. We have a Tory government which, if it immediately increases arms spending as urged, will also immediately cut elsewhere.

It will not mainly fund increased militarism by tax increases on the rich, but by a squeeze on welfare, health, education and local government instead.

As the Star has previously reported, independent experts have calculated that the increases the government was talking about before the recent bond market crisis would have meant income tax rises of 5 per cent, or equivalent spending reductions.

No prizes for guessing which option Sunak would go for. Can this really be what the TUC wants?

But there is a more fundamental reason for challenging the TUC resolution. Even were the public finances flush, its proposal would be wrong.

Arms spending is not just about manufacturing investment — were the latter the issue then there are many progressive ways to secure the same outcome in terms of jobs and skills, most of them in fact championed by the TUC.

But increases in armaments puts more weapons of war in the hands of the ruling class. Defence spending is the servant of foreign policy.

And — without going further back into history — this is the establishment which used those weapons to occupy Afghanistan, invade Iraq and bomb Libya this century alone. It is also, as noted, arming and funding the obliteration of Yemen among other depredations.

On what logic should this elite be provided with still more weaponry? It will be used directly or indirectly to destroy other lands and kill tens of thousands of people in the interests of advancing British-US imperialism.

That is too high a price to pay for boosting manufacturing industry — an important goal which could, to repeat, be achieved in many better ways. Giving Tories (or New Labour, for that matter) guns is not a bloodless matter.

The TUC would, rightly, scorn the idea that Boris Johnson or Liz Truss or Sunak could be trusted with our economic and social wellbeing. By what reasoning then can these same politicians be trusted with still more tanks, missiles, guns and bombs?

Of course, the shroud of “the Russian menace” will be waved. There is always a menace to hand when the arms monopolies need one to plump up their profits. Russia’s aggression in Ukraine is unjustified, but it is no more a threat to Britain requiring an arms build-up than the misbegotten “war on terror” was.

In the end, the TUC resolution expresses that outlook of class collaboration which at its worst has sent working-class people to die in ruling class wars under the banner of “national unity.”

Of course, none of the unions which voted in support wish that end. They have for the most part opposed recent wars of intervention. But the movement must realise that the price of a campaign to increase defence spending will literally end up being paid in blood around the world.

Foreign policy and defence strategy are class issues just as much as the domestic agenda is — the elite that crashed the economy in 2008, gave us years of austerity and is now trying to force ordinary people to pay for a cost-of-living crisis of capitalism’s making, can still make things worse.

Diverting more of our wealth to putting extra weapons in their hands is one sure way to help them. Trade unionists should organise now for a reversal of this policy, and build Stop the War’s trade union conference in London on January 21 as a start — it now has added urgency.

Click here to find out more about Stop the War’s 2023 trade union conference.

05 Nov 2022 by Andrew Murray

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