In the town centre of Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria, between McDonald’s and Carphone Warehouse, there is an unusual statue. Four firm-jawed figures in factory clothes stand back-to-back. One wears a flat cap, one wields a sledgehammer, one has a welder’s visor. All of them are in purposeful poses, idealised workers cast in bronze. Around the statue base run the words “labour”, “courage” and “progress”. Its structure feels like something from the Soviet Union in the 30s.
But the statue is British and only eight years old. Its subject and design, slightly startling in a country that stopped celebrating most factory workers decades ago, is explained by a small plaque. Part of the statue was “donated by BAE Systems Submarines”.
Barrow is a defence industry town. It builds Britain’s nuclear submarines. And in defence the way of doing things – culturally, economically, politically – is different from other British industries. In defence, 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 theTyphoon, was threatened with cancellation in the 90s, even the Socialist Workers party protested (“No Closures. No job losses. Stuff the Tories.”) This week, David Cameron’s much-hyped trade visit to India is promoting the Typhoon as one of its key objectives.
Robin Cook, the late Labour minister, a rare defence industry critic in Westminster, wrote in his 2004 diaries that the then chairman of BAE, Dick Evans, seemed to have “the key to the garden door of No 10”. Roger Johnston, a defence analyst at Edison Investment Research, says: “As an industry, it is reasonably unique in how it’s viewed within government.”
In this business, in defiance of the past three decades’ free-market orthodoxies, the state is pivotal. Accompanying Cameron in India are representatives of a dozen British or partly British-based companies – the industry is clever at blurring such definitions – with defence interests: Rolls-Royce, Serco, BAE, EADS, Thales, Atkins, Cobham, JCB, Strongfield Technologies, MBDA, Ultra Electronics.
The British state is also the industry’s biggest customer, with our armed forces accounting for four-fifths of its annual sales; the provider of an “export support team”, including “serving British army personnel”; the provider of export insurance, for a fee, in case foreign customers fail to pay for products. Above all, the state is the provider of the wars that act as the industry’s best showcase.
“The Typhoon fighter jet performed outstandingly in Libya,” said Cameron in December, before an official visit to the Middle East. “So it’s no surprise that Oman want to add this aircraft to their 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 strikingly unashamed.
“The PM has done a fantastic job,” says Howard Wheeldon, director of policy for ADS, a defence trade body. “He has picked up the value of defence to the national economy. Other PMs haven’t, necessarily. Mrs T was very supportive of defence exports … Brown wasn’t, but Blair was …”