Universities and the arms trade

Campaign Against the Arms Trade's Tim Street on the links between British universities and arms comp

In recent months, students and staff across the UK have been lobbying their universities to sell their shares in arms companies and invest ethically.

When University College London students discovered that their university had £900,000 invested in Cobham (which manufactures components for Hellfire missiles- used widely in both Afghanistan and Iraq)they formed Disarm UCL in order to bring this relationship to an end.

In a meeting with student campaigners, UCL Provost Malcolm Grant received a petition signed by over 1,200 UCL students, staff and alumni calling for UCL to ditch the arms shares. Such overwhelming support for the campaign led him and UCL Council to announce that the university would invest its money ethically.

UCL is by no means the first university to recognize the importance of ethical investment.

Campaigners at Manchester University held die-ins and other high-profile events, culminating in 300 students passing a Union motion for ethical investment. This has led to the university engaging directly with students concerning the future of university finances.

Furthermore, protests, petitions and student journalism have caused SOAS, Bangor (University of Wales), St Andrews and Goldsmiths to take real steps towards ending their financial ties with arms companies.

Progress towards transparency and accountability on campus has occurred because activists have used persuasive moral and financial arguments to explain why investing in the arms trade is unnecessary and wrong.

For example, they have shown that universities can fulfill their financial duties whilst investing ethically and maintain a good rate of return.

Ethical investment funds that preclude arms company shares are among the most profitable. In the past decade the Church of England’s £4.3 billion ethically-managed fund was the second best performer of more than 1,000 funds.

Furthermore, the fact that the majority of university arms investors hold less than 2% of their overall investments in arms companies means that divestment will not have a significant impact upon their portfolios.

So why is it that some universities try and cling on to their arms company shares?

Perhaps an answer can be found in the burgeoning number of research projects at UK universities which are conducted in collaboration with arms companies.

At a committee meeting in 2006, Malcolm Ace, Director of Finance at Southampton University, told students that it would be ‘hypocritical’ to sell his university's shares in BAE Systems when it receives hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of research funding from them year on year.

Research collaborations provide substantial funding for university departments – but in return for them becoming outsourced research facilities for private companies. Universities' science, engineering and technology agendas are inevitably shifted from independent research to the stimulation of particular industrial sectors: like the guided weapons technology centres at Cranfield University and Imperial College London, part-funded by arms company Qinetiq; or the 20 University Technology Centres funded by military aerospace giant Rolls-Royce. (See "Soldiers in the laboratory: Military involvement in science and technology," Scientists for Global Responsibility).

Arms companies are already subsidised by public money to the tune of £890m annually, yet universities are expected to provide research for these already over-protected companies.

Whether or not students and dons regard the commercialisation of higher education as financially necessary, they shouldn't be made to contribute to commercial interests which involve not just corporate profit, but the development of products designed to maim and kill; nor to collaborate with companies whose core markets include conflict zones and human rights abusers

Campaign groups such as Disarm UCL, which are prepared to highlight the gap between an institution's professed commitment to “tackle humanity's most pressing problems,”3 and the economic reality, are thus vital if public money is to cease being channeled into the pockets of arms company CEOs.

For without anyone questioning the status quo, institutions renowned for their commitment to internationalism and human progress will continue to support companies whose profits rest upon proliferating weapons and sustaining international tension.

You can find out more about Campaign Against the Arms Trade by clicking here

Tim Street is the director of UK Uncut Legal Action

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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change