Despite its size, it's hard to find physical traces of the arms industry on our landscape, making us wonder what it has to hide
If Britain's industrial power is in decline, as we are now told on a regular basis, then how has it managed to remain one of the world's biggest manufacturers of arms? Fifth in the world for arms exports and first in arms development, the UK has an industrial success story that it is strangely reluctant to boast of.
Of late, failed mergers and controversies have brought the shadowy world of arms manufacturing out into the open, but weapons manufacturing giants such as BAE Systems or EADS are about as obscure as organisations employing thousands of people could possibly be – when industrial policy is talked about, it's seldom noticed that what this often means is contracts to build destroyers, bombs and fighter jets.
BAE's immense size – it is the world's third-largest defence contractor – is hidden by the fact that its factories are seldom to be found in any of the UK's former industrial centres: it has no major public presence, and no particular interest in PR, bar minimising corruption scandals and keeping itself exceptionally quiet. As this week's revelations about a "revolving door" from the defence ministry to the arms industry make clear, it is as influential as it is lucrative. Yet to try and find traces of it in the UK is surprisingly difficult – a massive big business that doesn't seem to have left a built landscape, or at least not one that is easily visited.
The success of something like BAE owes much to the indulgence of the state, which has subsidised and nurtured it to a degree unthinkable in any other sector of heavy industry, something which the UK supposedly disdained in favour of financial services and property speculation. The links have always been close as BAE is, after all, a former nationalised company – half of it was once the publicly owned British Aerospace. Smaller arms manufacturers such as Qinetiq are similarly para-state, formed out of the privatised section of the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency. Accordingly, the industry's activities are treated with the same degree of secrecy and seclusion as GCHQ or the secret services. However, much as MI6 hides in plain sight in their huge postmodernist fortress on the south bank of the Thames, at least one BAE building is very visible indeed.
Barrow-in-Furness is one of the safest Labour seats in the country, although one that elected a Conservative MP for two terms in the 1980s, almost entirely because of the fear that Labour would initiate nuclear disarmament. As if in return, the once-famous shipbuilding town, once fancifully dubbed "the English Chicago", was granted the vast Devonshire Dock Hall. This is where the Trident nuclear submarine programme is produced. The colossal complex sits near the centre of the small town, as large as several office blocks placed end to end, its white and yellow steel edifice dwarfing the sandstone tenements of Barrow Island. It's a surreal place – the highly profitable arms manufacture that goes on here somehow fails to impact on a depopulated, poor town in any positive way, other than sustaining at least some employment. But nuclear submarines still emerge from here at a rapid rate.
Another relatively visible outpost is BAE Systems Surface Fleet Solutions of Scotstoun and Govan, in Glasgow – the surviving shipyards on a stretch of the Clyde that would once have boasted dozens. It builds Type 45 destroyers. The Govan yard faces the luxury executive apartments of the Glasgow Harbour development, some of whose residents have complained about the un-picturesque sight of continued industrial manufacture. The Govan yard is actually the inadvertent legacy of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in of the early 70s, where shipyard workers occupied and eventually forced the nationalisation of the local yard, then faced with closure. It employs a handful of those it once did. Yet mostly, BAE is a matter of airfields in places far from residential areas – its major airfields are in Lancashire, on the far outskirts of Preston, and its main office is in a business park in Hampshire.
Curiously, then, given the impenetrability of the landscape of arms manufacture, the most complete attempt to reckon with it comes from a poet, Andrew Jordan. His volume Bonehead's Utopia is a fantasy set in the military landscape of Gosport, where the Haslar immigration removal centre, a prison for asylum seekers, sits near to HMS Sultan, a navy engineering base. But his most recent book, Hegemonick, is a frontal confrontation with the weird, unnerving spaces created by the army and the arms industry.
It centres on Portsdown Hill, an area on the outskirts of Portsmouth that has long been a place of forts and encampments, and became particularly notorious with the Paulsgrove riots, caused by the alleged housing of convicted paedophiles on the local council estate. It's also the site for Qinetiq's Portsdown Technology Park, where destroyers and frigates are tested.
Jordan's poetry obsessively walks and rewalks the forts, perimeter fences and archaeological sites, recalling childhood memories, obscure histories and urban myths, as a means to try and make sense of a secret landscape. In its concluding poem, How the Last of the Light is Held, he imagines the people of Paulsgrove descending upon the defence establishments and setting them on fire, as if upon realising the barbarity of the arms industry far exceeded that of misidentified innocents.
"So they had gathered for a meeting of their parliament / in the park, by the swings, as is the custom / and then they moved in procession around the estate / going from door to door, collecting money, weapons / and recruiting volunteers, and then they went / to the houses of the state operatives / and they dragged the occupants outside to interrogate them, and then to execute / revenge for what had been done to them over the years."
The violence, the killing and maiming, at the heart of what the likes of BAE and Qinetiq so profitably produce, is here brought to the fore, and turned back upon them. It's a dreamlike, apocalyptic reminder of why the arms industry keeps so very quiet about itself.