Global university without a global conscience

A UCL student calls on her university to stop investing in the arms trade

Why is London’s global university, University College London (UCL), so desperately clinging on to its investment in arms companies?

UCL currently has shares worth over £900,000 in the arms trader Cobham PLC. Cobham produces parts of weapons systems which have been used in Israeli bombing raids in Lebanon last year, and in many other conflict zones around the world.

To me, and to at least 1,253 other students and staff members at UCL, the question of ethical investment is a no brainer: education and research just do not go together with a business that kills.

UCL has a proud liberal tradition. Philosopher Jeremy Bentham, the college’s founding father, famously said that "war is mischief upon the largest scale". Surely UCL should stay away from investing in arms companies?

UCL Provost Malcolm Grant seems to disagree. In a meeting with student campaigners last week Grant received a petition signed by over 1,200 UCL students, staff and alumni calling for UCL to ditch the arms shares. He also heard the personal story of UCL alumnus Richard Wilson, whose sister Charlotte was killed by a militia in Burundi. Her killers told her that she was dying because of "the white people supplying the weapons in Africa".

Despite the overwhelming support of the Disarm UCL campaign, Grant refused to genuinely engage with the issue of divestment from Cobham. Instead he concentrated on criticizing students and suggested we were campaigning against UCL.

We told him that we identify very strongly with our university. Grant said he was reassured by this. He can't have been that reassured: five days after the meeting he wrote a letter to UCL alumni saying again that it was "odd for the major campaign to have been commenced against UCL."

By campaigning for UCL to adopt an ethical investment policy, we want what is in UCL’s best interest. Ethical investment brings good financial returns. According to a survey published by the Financial Times in 2005 the Church of England’s ethical investment fund performed second best out of 1000 funds surveyed.

The continued investment in Cobham shares and the refusal to adopt an ethical investment policy (beyond excluding tobacco products) is bad for UCL's reputation. Instead of London's global university, UCL has now become known as "the Gower Street gunrunners".

Last Friday, Reed Elsevier, a leading academic publishing company decided to pull out of organizing arms fairs. According to Reed Elsevier CEO Crispin Davies, the company had made this decision after listening closely to the concerns of important customers and authors who "believe strongly that our presence here is incompatible with the aims of the science and medical communities".

All that is left now is to hope that the UCL Council, which meets again on Wednesday, 13 June, will take the issue of adopting an ethical investment policy seriously. If not, well, we shall all catch our breaths before the next academic year and be back in September with lots more clever and creative campaigning to disarm UCL.

Sara Hall is a PhD student at University College London (UCL). She is Amnesty International UK country coordinator for Russia, campaigns for ethical investment at UCL, and tries to save her friend Guy Njike from deportation.
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Why Jeremy Corbyn’s evolution on Brexit matters for the Scottish Labour party

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, an ideological ally of Corbyn, backs staying in the customs union. 

Evolution. A long, slow, almost imperceptible process driven by brutal competition in a desperate attempt to adapt to survive. An accurate description then by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, of Labour’s shifting, chimera of a Brexit policy. After an away day that didn’t decamp very far at all, there seems to have been a mutation in Labour’s policy on customs union. Even McDonnell, a long-term Eurosceptic, indicated that Labour may support Tory amendments when the report stages of the customs and trade bills are finally timetabled by the government (currently delayed) to remain in either “The” or “A” customs union.

This is a victory of sorts for Europhiles in the Shadow Cabinet like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. But it is particularly a victory for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. A strong ally of Jeremy Corbyn who comes from the same Bennite tradition, Leonard broke cover last month to call for exactly such a change to policy on customs union.

Scotland has a swathe of marginal Labour-SNP seats. Its voters opted voted by a majority in every constituency to Remain. While the Scottish National Party has a tendency to trumpet this as evidence of exceptionalism – Scotland as a kind-of Rivendell to England’s xenophobic Mordor – it’s clear that a more Eurocentric, liberal hegemony dominates Scottish politics. Scotland’s population is also declining and it has greater need of inward labour through migration than England. It is for these reasons that the SNP has mounted a fierce assault on Labour’s ephemeral EU position.

At first glance, the need for Labour to shift its Brexit position is not as obvious as Remainers might have it. As the Liberal Democrat experience in last year’s general election demonstrates, if you want to choose opposing Brexit as your hill to die on… then die you well may. This was to some extent replicated in the recent Scottish Labour Leadership race. Anas Sarwar, the centrist challenger, lost after making Brexit an explicit dividing line between himself and the eventual winner, Leonard. The hope that a juggernaut of Remainer fury might coalesce as nationalist resentment did in 2015 turned out to be a dud. This is likely because for many Remainers, Europe is not as high on their list of concerns as other matters like the NHS crisis. They may, however, care about it however when the question is forced upon them.

And it very well might be forced. One day later this year, the shape of a deal on phase two of the negotiations will emerge and Parliament will have to vote, once and for all, to accept or reject a deal. This is both a test and an incredible political opportunity. Leonard, a Scottish Labour old-timer, believes a deal will be rejected and lead to a general election.

If Labour is to win such an election resulting from a parliamentary rejection of the Brexit deal, it will need many of those marginal seats in Scotland. The SNP is preparing by trying to box Labour in. Last month its Westminster representatives laid a trap. They invited Corbyn to take part in anti-Brexit talks of opposition parties he had no choice but to reject. In Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon has been ripping into the same flank that Sarwar opened against Richard Leonard in the leadership contest, branding Labour’s Brexit position “feeble”. At the same time the Scottish government revealed a devastating impact assessment to accompany the negative forecasts leaked from the UK government. If Labour is leading a case against a “bad deal”,  it cannot afford to be seen to be SNP-lite.

The issue will likely come to a head at the Scottish Labour Conference early next month, since local constituency parties have already sent a number of pro-EU and single market motions to be debated there. They could be seen as a possible challenge to the leadership’s opposition to the single market or a second referendum. That is, If these motions make it to debate, unlike at national Labour Conference in 2017, where there seemed to be an organised attempt to prevent division.

When Leonard became leader, he stressed co-operation with the Westminster leadership. Still, unlike the dark “Branch Office” days of the recent past, Scottish Labour seems to be wielding some influence in the wider party again. And Scottish Labour figures will find allies down south. In January, Thornberry used a Fabian Society speech in Edinburgh, that Enlightenment city, to call for a dose of Scottish internationalism in foreign policy. With a twinkle in her eye, she fielded question after question about Brexit. “Ah…Brexit,” she joked. “I knew we’d get there eventually”. Such was Thornberry’s enthusiasm that she made the revealing aside that: “If I was not in the Leadership, then I’d probably be campaigning to remain in the European Union.”