Tribune leader, 4 December 1992

This Wednesday, 300 trade unionists from Royal Ordnance, the arms com­pany privatised in 1987 and now run by British Aerospace, lobbied Parliament in a last-ditch attempt to stave off factory closures that will put up to 2,500 workers on the dole.
It is unlikely that their campaign will succeed. Royal Ordnance workers are just the latest in a long list of arms indus­try supplicants, for, in the wake of the ending of the cold war, the market for Britain’s arms industries has collapsed. Aerospace, shipbuilding, fighting vehicles and fefence electronics have all been hit. Trade unions estimate that, since the Berlin Wall came down, some 120,000 workers in the defence industries have lost their jobs, half of them in aerospace alone. Another 120,000 or so in related in­dustries have lost their jobs as a result. Many thousands more redundancies are in the pipeline.
Unlike miners, defence industry work­ers do not readily command public sympathy for their plight. The arms industry is generally considered a nasty business. On the left, anti-militarism has often proved more deep-rooted than concern for workers losing their livelihoods.
Yet the crisis in the defence industry is not something that can be shrugged off or ignored. The military sector has taken a disproportionate role in the British econ­omy since the industrial revolution; in re­cent years, it has been the single most im­portant British manufacturing sector. Be­tween 1980 and 1990, the share of indus­trial production taken by the defence in­dustries grew from 6 per cent to 11 per cent.
Most crucially, the defence sector has been an oasis of high technology in the desert of “low-tech, no-tech” Britain. The defence jobs that are being lost are highly skilled: in aerospace, three professionally qualified engineers have been made re­dundant for every blue-collar worker. There is a real danger that the collapse of the defence sector will shrink for ever the skills base of the British economy.
Labour’s response to all this has been entirely inadequate. Instead of arguing forcefully that the defence industry crisis shows the desperate need for an interven­tionist industrial policy, Labour front­benchers have done little but refer apolo­getically to the party’s proposal for a de­fence diversification agency to manage the transition from military to civilian production.
The reason for this sorry story is simple: no substantial detailed work has been done on the policy for nearly a year and the Labour front bench knows it. The unions are quite right to be telling the party that it is time to get its finger out.
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