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Rockets, guns and kidney machines, 1970–83

Forty years before Covid-19, socialists in Britain campaigned so that workers could have the right to make ‘socially useful’ products, from hospital equipment to sustain the NHS to affordable heating systems for impoverished elderly people. This movement held one thing responsible above all else for the nation’s problems: the burden of defence spending. In the middle of the Cold War, the left put a direct challenge to the defence industry, Labour government and trade unions. The response it received revealed much about a military-industrial state that prioritised the making and exporting of arms for political favour and profit.

The British left and the defence economy takes a fine-grained look at peace activism between the early 1970s and Labour’s landslide general election defeat in 1983, incorporating activism, politics and the workplace to demonstrate the conflict over the economic cost of Britain’s commitment to the Cold War. Moving away from the perception that the peace movement was ‘post-materialist’ or above the crises of postwar deindustrialisation and unemployment, this book asserts that the wider left presented a comprehensive, detailed and implementable alternative to the stark choice of making weapons or joining the dole queue.

This book will be invaluable to lecturers and students studying the history and politics of postwar Britain. It challenges many widely accepted conclusions, including the ‘abandonment’ of social democracy and Britain’s inability to ‘find a role’ after the loss of its empire. This account provides a glimpse at an alternative future, one based on human-centred, environmentally friendly production with lessons for our own times.

Keith Mc Loughlin

"The influence of the left and its ability to unify behind a single candidate propelled the unlikely figure of Michael Foot to the party leadership. The left continued to occupy central positions on the National Executive Committee while the annual party conference expressed its influence by committing the party to unilateral nuclear disarmament and industrial conversion. International relations between the superpowers had entered a dangerous phase, sometimes referred to as the ‘second Cold War’. This vision for peaceful production also chimed with the lengthening dole queues that had been apparent since the late 1970s, but dramatically increased in length during Thatcher’s first few years in Downing Street as the Conservatives’ free-market ‘monetarism’ came at the cost of over three million people out of work by 1982. Despite the economic downturn during Thatcher’s first two years in government, there was evidence to suggest that a form of economic recovery was on the horizon. Then there was the so-called ‘Falklands factor’, where the Conservatives received a boost in the polls after victory in the war in the south Atlantic. Despite the attempts to make the case for a conventional defence, the left struggled to achieve a clear or persuasive narrative on national security, something that the Conservatives pounced on mercilessly. The landslide defeat in 1983 was an unedifying end to the campaign for socially useful production. With its origin traced back to the early 1950s, the 1983 general election is an appropriate point on which to conclude."

in The British left and the defence economy
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Keith Mc Loughlin

The epilogue demonstrates how the defence economy continued long after the Cold War and continues to exert an influence on contemporary affairs as the Conservatives, led by Boris Johnson, use military procurement as a way of stimulating the economy.

The epilogue concludes that the forces that cultivated the defence economy were led by an interpretation of social democracy. In the British postwar sense this social democracy saw in the defence economy a way to achieve full employment and upskill the working population while deterring the Russians and satisfying the Americans. The ‘bitterest enemies of communism’ on the right of the Labour movement were among the most supportive of the defence industry and they, combined with most of the Conservatives and the civil service, made for a powerful consensus. In his history of the British nation in the twentieth century David Edgerton asked, ‘what would it take to show that the UK could usefully be described as social democratic after 1945’ and did it follow ‘a social democratic foreign policy, or defence policy’? He concluded that ‘interestingly, it is highly unlikely anyone has ever made this claim’. Yet this is just the claim that The British left and the defence economy has made. Defence was never just a matter of military considerations; it was an economic and social imperative. If war was a tool of politics, then the defence economy was a function of British social democracy.

in The British left and the defence economy
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Labour’s defence review
Keith Mc Loughlin

In February 1974 the Labour party was elected on a manifesto to reduce defence spending by hundreds of millions of pounds. The left called for Britain’s defence spending to be set at a rate closer to a ‘European average’ and even an immediate reduction of £1 billion to alleviate the strain on the economy. The Labour government was even more divided than it was in the 1960s, with each minister guarding their own departmental budget. Defence became primarily a matter of political economy as ministers clashed over its scale and purpose. This was a point where the defence economy could have been significantly reduced – but only if the government desired to do so.

Shortly after his appointment as Labour’s defence secretary, Roy Mason commenced a review of military expenditure, just as Healey had done in the 1960s. Backed by the Ministry of Defence and the Prime Minister Harold Wilson, Mason reaffirmed Britain’s commitment to the Cold War and ensured that the defence economy emerged unscathed in a decisive victory over the left. This chapter shows how government ministers used employment to justify military expenditure during one of the worst economic crises in the postwar era. Although there was a compelling argument to reduce spending on expensive ‘prestige’ military projects and divert investment elsewhere, a combination of industry, politics and the military ensured that the defence economy survived.

in The British left and the defence economy
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Keith Mc Loughlin

This introductory chapter argues that, in Britain, the Cold War was an economic and social necessity. In contrast to the emphasis that historians place on cultural, diplomatic and military experiences, this book demonstrates that Britain’s Cold War was primarily an economic experience. During the era covered here, the 1960s through to the 1980s, Britain’s defence economy sustained thousands of workers and their communities in what was a period of seismic economic and industrial change.

But not everyone was convinced that employment should depend on military production. The peace movement has long occupied a place in studies of the period, but historians have also overlooked left-wing disarmament activists who diagnosed, opposed and offered an alternative to Britain’s military-industrial complex. The left saw defence and the failure of postwar economic management as part of the same problem and demanded a feasible and desirable solution by converting military industry into ‘socially useful’ production – swords into ploughshares, guns into butter, rockets and guns into kidney machines.

However, the vested interest of the political-industrial complex scuppered this attempt to reverse the trajectory of the Cold War defence economy. At the same time, a workers’ campaign to convert their production lines from guns to kidney machines was also halted, not only by company management but by the Labour government and the trade unions.`

in The British left and the defence economy
Keith Mc Loughlin

Having demonstrated its aptitude in helping to manage the war economy, Labour won a landslide victory in the 1945 general election on the platform that, having won the war, Britain was ‘preparing to win the peace’. But the same government that founded the National Health Service was the same one that commenced a rearmament programme when relations between the capitalist West and communism deteriorated in the late 1940s. When a £4.7 billion rearmament package was announced by Labour’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, Hugh Gaitskell, in 1951, three ministers resigned in protest, dividing the party for decades thereafter.

After a decade of bitter infighting, the election of Harold Wilson as Labour’s leader in 1963 granted the party a renewed sense of unity. But although the Wilson’s 1964-70 governments reduced defence spending not inconsiderably, his time in office was considered a failure. The promise of his ‘white heat of the technological revolution’ was not realised as Labour’s ambitious plans for economic expansion were undone by the objective of holding up value of the pound while the defence economy was sustained with costly military projects.

As global capitalism descended into crisis while a more peaceful détente characterised Cold War relations in the 1970s, the left felt that the state needed to overhaul industry by converting the defence economy to socially useful production. Within the 1970s’ ‘marketplace of ideas’ to reverse Britain’s economic decline, the left set its sights on the undoing of the military-industrial complex to achieve a socialist anti-militaristic economy.

in The British left and the defence economy
Keith Mc Loughlin

In the early 1970s the peace movement in Britain was a shadow of its former self. To ensure its own survival and adapt to the evolving climate of 1970s Britain, the peace movement gravitated towards political economy. Influenced by the Labour left and workers in the defence industry, disarmament activists focused on the military-industrial complex.

CND and the Campaign against Arms Trade (CAAT) focused on the defence economy and on the everyday worker forced either to facilitate the arms industry or to join the dole queue. By the late 1970s there was a vibrant network of activists, politicians and workers who generated a vision for an alternative future free of military commitments.

But the return of Cold War tensions, and with it the nuclear threat, restored much of the peace movement back to its more ‘traditional’ campaign issues of unilateral disarmament and opposition to American military influence in Western Europe, as the ‘single issue’ of banning ‘the bomb’ returned to the forefront of its narrative. Despite the deepening unemployment crisis, the peace movement was preoccupied with the placement of cruise missiles on British territory and the confrontational posturing on either side of the Iron Curtain. A unique opportunity to fuse materialist and moral arguments was lost.

in The British left and the defence economy
Keith Mc Loughlin

By 1975 the economic situation had not greatly improved, and another sterling crisis a year later led to an intervention by the International Monetary Fund which demanded further cuts to the social services. With domestic economy in crisis, the left felt that an alternative defence review, one much more radical than the government’s, was required to alleviate the strain on the economy and convert weapons systems into equipment for hospitals and housing in meeting the needs of society’s most vulnerable people. This chapter demonstrates how the left took on the defence economy for the remainder of the Labour government. In December 1974 the party’s international committee set up a study group to examine the economic and social implications of Britain’s defence industry.

However, just as it had during the government’s review, the defence economy survived. Labour ministers projected the defence economy as an example of sound economic management with the added bonuses of its upskilling workers, many of whom had left school at an early age, technological ‘spin-off’ to the commercial sector, a profitable arms trade and deterring the Soviet Union. This chapter shows how defence was a matter of political economy and an expression of moderate social democracy, one that sought to work within the capitalist system rather than break with it. For all its endeavour, the political left had failed to change the Labour government’s policy.

in The British left and the defence economy
The case of Lucas Aerospace
Keith Mc Loughlin

Since the late 1960s the workers at Lucas Aerospace had advocated for ‘socially useful production’, rather than the company’s reliance on civil and military aviation. The ‘Lucas plan’, announced in 1976, provided a comprehensive blueprint for military-industrial conversion, with the workers even making prototypes of kidney machines assembled from the same technology used for defence purposes. The Lucas Aerospace workers embodied the idea of socially useful production and contributed to its definition as a term in political economy.

However, the workers were rejected by the company management, the Labour government and the trade unions. Situated in the context of the defence economy, the Lucas workers and their struggle to achieve socially useful production demonstrated how entrenched the military-industrial complex was in 1970s Britain. At every step of the way, the workers were impeded by the company management, the sectional interest of certain trade unions and a Labour government that considered the workers a threat to a most valuable industrial sector. Distinct from the academic and political spheres already discussed, here was an example of factory workers challenging the profit motive from within, risking their own jobs in the process.

Availing of detailed archival resources, this case study demonstrates that despite the Labour government’s professed support for ‘industrial democracy’, the corporatist settlement of business, politics and mainstream trade unionism shielded the arms industry from an irritating intrusion.

in The British left and the defence economy
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The more things change the more they stay the same?
María J. García and Arantza Gómez Arana

This volume has shown how inter-regional relations have evolved over time, and how they have been mediated by exogenous factors, mainly US policies, economic crises and, more recently, the perceived crisis in globalisation. President Barack Obama’s approach to trade policy, with his desire to engage in mega-regional agreements in the Pacific and Atlantic spaces in order to set the global trade rules, bypass the WTO and stagnating Doha Round negotiations, and counter Chinese economic power, helped to encourage MERCOSUR states to re-engage in negotiations with the EU (Gomez-Arana 2017). Even more importantly, since the election of President Donald Trump in November 2016, the EU took on the baton of promotion of a liberal trade agenda and redoubled efforts to conclude ongoing trade negotiations with partners across the globe, in symbolic defiance of the US stance. In the 2020s EU–Latin American co-operation for a united front in defence of the liberal order, exemplified in the conclusion of EU–MERCOSUR negotiations and motivated by the need to respond to Donald Trump’s presidency, shows a renewed spirit of co-operation amongst two regions united by common values and goals. However, as in past decades, each side’s complicated domestic political and economic situations, which the Covid-19 outbreak has exacerbated, threatens to once again relegate EU–Latin American relations in the hierarchy of foreign policy priorities.

in Latin America–European Union relations in the twenty-first century