Inside the world's largest arms fair

Lavish food and drink sits awkwardly with the sale of gleaming weapons that are ultimately used to k

There is a sense of nervous tension outside the ExCeL centre in London's east end. It is the first day of the Defence Systems and Equipment International (DSEI) exhibition -- otherwise known as the world's largest arms fair -- and a huge line of predominantly middle-aged men in suits are queuing to get inside. Some of them are arms dealers, others government representatives and intelligence agents. Scarcely a word is spoken as we shuffle slowly forwards. Police radios puncture the silence, beeping on and off as burly-looking security guards patrol intently.

Through a set of glass doors and beyond airport-like security scanners are two massive, 145,000 square-feet halls split by a long corridor, dominated on either side by shops and cafes. Delegates from some of the 65 countries in attendance sit enjoying breakfast next to a giant tank, its rooftop gun revolving in circles -- much to the approval of passers-by, who point and take photographs.

The two main exhibition halls have previously hosted concerts by Roxy Music, Alice Cooper and UB40. But today they are crammed with around 1300 exhibits, selling guns, bombs and the latest in security technology. A handful of stalls are devoted to life-saving equipment. Most of the space, however, is reserved for displays featuring 100lb hellfire missiles, AK47 rifles, stealth tanks and even gold-plated handguns.

The quiet dissipates and is replaced by the sound of chatter. Business cards change hands, and multi-million pound contracts are being negotiated. At a large stand run by the defence arm of SAAB, a Swedish company more renowned for its cars, Håkan Kappelin is showing off a laser-guided missile system to delegates from India. It has a range of 8km and can travel at speeds of up to 680 metres per second.

"It could be deployed inside a city like London. And you can engage any type of target," he says. "Not like when you use an infra-red system, where you have problems with houses in the background. Just reload in five seconds and engage the next target."

The delegates nod approvingly. "680 metres per second," one repeats to another.

Upstairs, in a briefing room, Defence Secretary Liam Fox delivers a speech. Anti-arms campaigners have levelled criticism against the government for doing deals with Bahrain and Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of crackdowns on protesters across the Arab world. Fox is dismissive. "I am proud that the UK is the second biggest defence exporter in the world," he says. "This is fundamental part of the coalition government's agenda for economic growth, but it is also part of our strategy of enlightened international engagement."

Back on the exhibition floor, the atmosphere is carefree. A tall Arab man dressed in a pristine white Thawb, and protected by a circle of six bodyguards, is treated like a celebrity at a stand offering intelligence and surveillance systems, made by German company Cassidian. Gold buckles on his brown leather sandals sparkle in the light; people walking by stop and stare. "I think he's a Saudi prince," one says.

Nearby, two glamour models, Rosie Jones and Charlotte McKenna, joke and flirt as they sign copies of a "Hotshots" calendar in which they are pictured, scantily clad, wielding various pistols and rifles. Next to stalls selling vicious-looking machine guns, gas masks and chemical suits for use in the event of a biological weapons attack, free massages are on offer and delegates eat canapés washed down with glasses of sparkling wine.

The prevailing opinion among the delegates and exhibitors is that they are in the business to bring security to the world -- they deny claims made by campaign groups that they are peddlers of death. A representative from Pakistan's exhibit, Major Ali Asghar Mushtaq, says his country is here selling weapons to help bring about a more peaceful world.

"The aim of Pakistan's army is that everything manufactured and sold should not be for killing and terror activities," he says. "It should bring peace on the whole world, not wars." Does he really believe manufacturing arms en masse will help bring about peace? "It's obvious," he says. "Once one country and the other country both have weapons, no one is going to use the weapons against each other. So there will be more stability."

Later, Major Mushtaq and his colleagues are removed from the exhibition after it is discovered they are advertising cluster bombs banned under UK law. But his viewpoint lingers. The South African exhibit on the other side of the hall boasts that it is "securing a peaceful future through high technology defence equipment," and Condor, a Brazilian company that supplied teargas and rubber bullets used against protesters in Bahrain, says it is committed to the "reduction of violence through gradual use of force."

These apparent paradoxes litter the hall. The lavish consumption of food and drink sits awkwardly with the sale of gleaming weapons that are ultimately used to kill and maim. And the talk of security attained through the mass production of arms is reminiscent of George Orwell's dystopian nightmare in Nineteen Eighty-Four, where peace is itself a state of perpetual war.

Walking around the exhibition, it is difficult not to recall US president Dwight Eisenhower's famous 1961 farewell address, during which he warned against the perils of an "immense military establishment and a large arms industry." Although there is an imperative need for the industry to develop, Eisenhower said, it has "grave implications" for the "very structure of our society." Government officials today are keen to point out that last year defence exports generated revenues of more than £22 billion for UK industry. A question Eisenhower might have urged us to ask is: at what cost?

Leaving the ExCeL centre, police officers advise anyone wearing a DSEI pass to conceal it from view. "There are protesters about and they might not like where you've been," one warns. We take a specially ordered train from the stop outside ExCeL to nearby Canning Town, where the arms traders, weapons makers and other defence industry insiders join a crowd of rush hour commuters. Just another bunch of men in suits, they disappear into the night.

Ryan Gallagher is a freelance journalist based in London. His website is here.

Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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Conservative disunity is not all good news for Labour

The Tory leadership election could squeeze Labour out of the conversation, just like Blair and Brown did to the Tories.

The first test of opposition politics is relevance. Other key yardsticks - political plausibility, economic credibility, setting the agenda and developing a governing vision - all matter greatly. But making yourself a central part of the relentless cycle of daily politics, the terms of which are generally set by the governing party, is the first hurdle. It matters not whether you sign up to new politics or old: be relevant or wither. 

The issue of relevance is becoming a pressing issue for Labour. Take George Osborne’s favoured issue of the so-called national living wage.  Leave to one side the rights, wrongs and nuances of the policy and just consider the basic political dynamic it creates.  Osborne has, quite deliberately, set up a rolling five year argument over a steadily rising wage floor. On one side, is the Chancellor arguing that his policy is the right thing for Britain’s ranks of low paid workers. Pitted against him are ranks of chief executives of low-paying big business. With each impending hike they will holler at Osborne to go no further and the media will happily amplify the row. In response the Chancellor will quietly smile.

Sure, on occasions this will be uncomfortable stance for Mr Osborne (and if the economy takes a downward turn then his pledge will become incredible; there are always big risks with bold strokes).  Yet the dominant argument between the Conservatives and big business leaves Labour largely voiceless on an issue which for generations it has viewed as its own.

We may well see a similar dynamic in relation to the new national infrastructure commission – another idea that Osborne has plundered form Labour’s 2015 manifesto. It’s far too early to say what will come of its work looking at proposals for major new transport and energy projects (though those asserting it will just be a talking shop would do well not to under-estimate Andrew Adonis, its first Chair). But there is one thing we can already be confident about: the waves of argument it will generate between Osborne’s activist commissioners and various voices of conservatism. Every big infrastructure proposal will have noisy opponents, many residing on the right of British politics. On the issue of the future of the nation’s infrastructure – another touchstone theme for Labour – the opposition may struggle to get heard amid the din.

Or take the different and, for the government, highly exposing issue of cuts to tax credits. Here the emerging shape of the debate is between Osborne on one side and the Sun, Boris Johnson, various independent minded Conservative voices and economic think-tanks on the other. Labour will, of course, repeatedly and passionately condemn these cuts. But so have plenty of others and, for now at least, they are more colourful or credible (or both).  

The risk for the opposition is that a new rhythm of politics is established. Where the ideological undercurrent of the government steers it too far right, other voices not least those within the Conservative family - moderates and free-spirits emboldened by Labour’s current weakness; those with an eye on the forthcoming Tory leadership contest – get reported.  Where Osborne consciously decides to tack to the centre, the resulting rows will be between him and the generally Conservative supporting interests he upsets. Meanwhile, Labour is left struggling for air.

None of which is to say there are no paths back to relevance. There are all sorts of charges against the current government that, on the right issues, could be deployed - incompetence, complacency, inequity – by an effective opposition.  Nor is the elixir of relevance for a new opposition hard to divine: a distinct but plausible critique, forensic and timely research, and a credible and clear voice to deliver the message. But as yet we haven’t heard much of it.

Even in the best of times being in opposition is an enervating existence. Those out of power rarely get to set the terms of trade, even if they often like to tell themselves they can. Under Ed Miliband Labour had to strain – sometimes taking big risks - to establish its relevance in a novel era defined by the shifting dynamics of coalition politics. This time around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is up against a Chancellor willing to take risks and pick big fights: often with traditional Tory foes such as welfare claimants; but sometimes with people on his own side.  It’s also a new and challenging context. And one which Labour urgently needs to come to terms with.   

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation