In this blog post Dr Steve Wright, Reader in Politics and Applied Global Ethics, reflects on his long-term and varied engagement with the arms industry.
Half a century ago, believe it or not, I used to work in an arms factory. It wasn’t just any arms factory but the famous Vickers-Armstrongs on the banks of the Tyne, in Newcastle, seen by many as the original template for factories mass producing weapons, from 1842 .
Lord Armstrong was an entrepreneur inventing hydraulic cranes to power the business of mass producing large guns and tanks. His German style chateau, Cragside in Northumberland, entertained other arms dealers like Krupps in style – it was the first building on Earth to have electric light – pioneered by the first lightbulbs manufactured just up the Road by Swann, The factory is part of Geordie legend featuring in the 1862 Anthem of Tyneside, ‘the Blaydon Races‘.
Last month I went back. Actually during my time there, I was just a kid, and no; I wasn’t a junior arms dealer! My original job was rising at dawn and selling morning papers to the wraith like assembly workers, making tanks. For them it was hard, dirty engineering work. And thirsty – there were more pubs along the Scotswood road then anywhere else in Geordie land.
5 decades later, I am attending a briefing by Pearson Engineering. Two years ago because of a loss of MoD contracts, the then BAe systems owned factory went bust. Then in August 2015 there was a phoenix-like resurrection of tracked vehicle fitting out on the banks of the Tyne. This time the factory is ultra-clean, machine tooled production, high precision assembly by the Reece Group of companies. It is a much smaller workforce of over 100 a far cry from the 25,000 people who worked there at its peak. Indeed, almost everyone I spoke to on my journey to the factory had a close relative who used to work there.
Nowadays, the markets for this kind of arms production are seen as very volatile. My interest is in the impact of the associated sub-component business on the North East economy. Was this the answer to the Government’s claim to be building new Northern Powerhouses?
Sadly not. Coinciding with the rebirth of the Armstrongs site was the demise of the Five Quarter energy Plan which would have created over 500 new jobs in the region which had been promised government support to produce cheap energy. But the government subsequently welshed on the deal.
How different the North would look if government investment and industrial support in the South was matched pound for pound in the North. What is really needed is a new form of Marshall plan to finance, train and reinvigorate Northern Industries and not just ones working in the defence and security sectors. The same engineers making tanks have vast experience in marine engineering and are situated in a region which has the densest concentration of wind energy in the UK.
So much could be achieved If only we had more joined up thinking and political leaders with vision and ambition.