By Ben Mitchell
I really can’t believe that whether BAE Systems should be on campus or not is still an issue. I don’t think the company should exist, let alone have a recruitment stall at our careers fair. The debate has dragged on for so long and has accumulated so much bitterness on both sides that to mention it in polite conversation with non-activists is highly inadvisable. However, I shall soldier on with my article and come to peace with the possibility of some terrible puns.
BAE manufactures weapons. BAE Systems should not be invited onto campus because of that fact alone. Weapons manufacturers facilitate the legitimised murder of civilians as well as combatants. Not only that, but BAE manufactures weapons AND sells them to states with atrocious human rights records (Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Qatar, Zimbabwe, etc.) BAE has also been found guilty of horrendous corruption by the UK and US governments , . The references provided are just a taster of BAE’s misdemeanours. I don’t want to labour this point too much as a five-minute google search will more than adequately inform the reader of BAE System’s dubious ethics.
The story of BAE and Lancaster University is best begun with the George Fox Six. On the 10th September 2004, six students (five who studied or were studying at the Uni and one student from an affiliated institution) disrupted a corporate event with invitees including BAE, Shell, GSK and the Carlyle group , . The protesters were only inside the building for a few minutes, but were nonetheless charged with aggravated trespass . After a lengthy court battle, including an appeal, the George Fox Six were found guilty, fined £600 each and given conditional discharges of three years, six months . In more recent years there have been many protests against BAE including “die-ins” and banner drops at the careers fair, where the company has a recruitment stall , .
A motion at the LUSU general meeting on 9th February last year proposed banning BAE systems from campus. The motion failed to meet the quorate of 200 despite the two earlier motions being passed successfully. I believe the motion to ban BAE failed mainly because of a lack of preparedness on the part of the LUSU exec. It was only when this motion was being deliberated that the students in attendance were informed there was a necessary quorate of 200 . However, with the large initial turnout (roughly 370) at the start of last year’s GM and the emergency meeting to oppose cuts to the music department (again, roughly 370), now seems to be a more fertile time for a union motion against BAE.
Especially since on Friday 15th March, Leeds University Union voted 826 to 804 in support of a motion banning BAE from campus , . The motion included barring BAE from careers fairs, demanding that the University sells all shares in BAE and refusing any funding from BAE in the future. The protests at Leeds University careers fairs have been in a similar vein to those at Lancaster University , and many other Universities in the UK have a history of protesting BAE’s presence on their campuses (Bristol, Edinburgh, Southampton, UCL, etc.) From what I could glean from comments on the Leeds Union comment section and the Leeds student newspaper, the circumstances surrounding the anti-BAE vote at Leeds sound similar to that at Lancaster. The campaign was supported by Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) and was very closely fought between the two sides of the issue (as evidenced by the voting record).
What is clear from both the Lancaster and Leeds experience of combating BAE is that the battle of ideas has not yet been won. Too many students are vehemently opposed to banning BAE Systems (or any other organisation) from campus. Some of the reactionary nonsense trotted out includes the “If BAE don’t make weapons, another company will” argument, which doesn’t justify weapons manufacture or BAE’s presence on campus and the “they employ students, so they should come to careers fairs” gibberish which implies that engineering and science graduates aren’t clever enough to find employment in bomb-making themselves. Finally, there’s my favourite; “There are other unethical companies at the careers fair, so why aren’t you picking on them?”
Firstly, there are other less-than-ethical companies present at the careers fair and I do disapprove of their practices. However, the question does raise a valid point; why are many companies at the careers fair engaged in unethical conduct? The answer is because they can make a profit from it. BAE Systems can turn a profit making weapons. So it makes weapons. HSBC can turn a profit laundering money for Mexican drug lords . So it launders money for Mexican drug lords. I’m at a loss as to why some students are still surprised about unscrupulous goings-on in the world of business. Lancaster University has no ethical investment policy , despite a motion from LUSU as far back as 2006  demanding the university to implement one. Given this, it is hardly surprising that the University is willing to associate with (and in the case of BAE actively invest in) companies which are unethical.
All companies exploit people to make a profit. It is just a case of how, where and who. In the case of BAE Systems the people exploited are its workers (in the extraction of surplus labour) and the victims of wars fought with BAE-manufactured weapons. I don’t view the exploitation of one group of people by another for personal profit as acceptable. The permeation of the profit motive into warfare results in the perpetuation and escalation of conflict worldwide. Not to mention the diversion of funds from beneficial public spending to destructive ends.
“Banning BAE from campus is going to end the arms trade” said no student activist ever. It’s a small step in the right direction. That’s all. We need to be making the case that the arms trade exists as a predictable eventuality of capitalism running its course. There are systemic problems within capitalism that need to be confronted by ordinary students, not explained away or ignored. BAE apologists are trying to have their cake and eat it too (something leftists get accused of far too often); the profit motive is responsible for its victims as well as its beneficiaries.
Please take a moment to sign the following petition: http://www.thepetitionsite.com/990/441/242/no-bae-on-lancaster-university-campus/.
- http://www.corporatewatch.org/?lid=185 – A damning list of BAE’s crimes.
- http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-14204115 – BAE corruption over a Tanzanian air-traffic control deal.
- http://www.lancs.ac.uk/subtext/archive/issue002.htm – An online activist magazine from Lancaster. Well worth a read.
- https://www.leedsuniversityunion.org.uk/news/article/12605/Should-we-ban-BAE-Systems-from-our-campus/ – I’d recommend anyone to read the comments from this website, as they’re pretty standard BAE apologist arguments.
- https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/university_shares – Information on Lancaster University investment.