In an appearance on Question Time earlier this year, Wales’ First Minister Rhodri Morgan endured public humiliation as he refused to utter a word on the subject of Iraq. Now, with the award of a potential £14bn government contract to RAF St Athan in the Vale of Glamorgan, perhaps we know the reason for his silence. The contract, for a defence training academy, is the largest single award ever made by a government to Wales – or more precisely, to the public-private partnership between the Metrix consortium and the Welsh Assembly, which owns the land on which the academy will be built.
The new complex, effectively a university of the armed forces, results from an MOD decision to centralise its training. St Athan had been in competition with RAF Cosford in the West Midlands for the right to deliver ‘Package 1’: courses in Aeronautical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering and Communications and Information Systems. There is a strong possibility Metrix will also win the contract to deliver ‘Package 2’: Logistics and Personnel Administration, MOD Police and Guarding and Security, Languages, Intelligence and Photography. According to government propaganda, 4000 jobs have already been guaranteed at St Athan as a result of the contract award; with Package 2 this will rise to 5,500.
It is not hard to see why the government favoured the St Athan bid. Leaving aside the role of Qinetiq (see below), Labour’s popularity in Wales has plummeted. When the deal was announced Morgan led a minority administration at the Welsh Assembly, with the prospect of more seats falling to the Tories in the May elections – one key marginal being the Vale of Glamorgan. Local resentment had been intense since the collapse of a promised 6000-job LG electronics factory and the failure of the MoD’s last project at St Athan – the Red Dragon ‘super-hangar’, which turned into an embarrassing white elephant.
Indeed, many of the new jobs at St Athan will merely involve the reemployment of aerospace engineers and other skilled workers made redundant by the withdrawal of work on Harriers and Tornados. Aerospace workers are in any case in short supply worldwide; most of these highly-paid labour aristocrats will merely be moving back to Wales from contracts elsewhere. It is also inevitable that companies involved in the bid will seek to bring in their own staff. The ‘new jobs for Wales’ are likely to involve a host of poorly paid cleaners, catering workers and other support staff. And as for the idea that the spin-offs will solve the problems of the South Wales valleys (as Rhondda MP Chris Bryant has claimed), it should be pointed out that St Athan had 15000 students back in the 80s – did this prevent the decimation of the valleys following the defeat of the Miners Strike?
In any case, amid all the media-led euphoria about new jobs for Wales, one small matter seems to have been forgotten: the purpose of this new institution. As Metrix puts it: “Over the next 30 years the UK will deploy new capabilities and must possess the ability to deliver the appropriate effects to defeat rapidly evolving and asymmetrical threats.”
Those puzzled by this arcane terminology may be helped by the Unspeak’s definition of “asymmetric warfare”: “the term employed by the US military for fighting people who don’t line up properly to be shot at” (www.unspeak.net). In other words, the St Athans academy will prepare its students for the ‘war on terror’. They will graduate to maim or help maim the children of the Middle East and other areas impoverished by globalisation and vital to the interests of the multinationals. They will increasingly be involved in battling the ‘enemy within’ – people who disagree with the merciless project of modern capitalism.
The Metrix consortium involves some choice players in the ‘War on Terror’: Raytheon, for example, the US arms giant, who have developed amongst their murderous arsenal the Silent Guardian, a “directed energy application that employs millimeter wave technology to repel individuals or crowds”. Then there is Qinetiq, privatised arm of the MOD, led by ex-MOD man Sir John Chisholm, which has developed a device for detecting asylum seekers, and enjoys a close working relationship with the department which hands out huge sums of public money to the private sector. Due to its guaranteed income from MOD test ranges it has taken over, Qinetiq is already a licence to print money. Now its fat cats will be able to afford even more luxuries at our expense.
It was a Labour government which privatised part of the MOD, and it is strange how Labour opponents of the unpopular war in Iraq fail to make the connection with the proposed University of Death at St Athan. Julie Morgan, Rhodri’s wife and Cardiff North MP, for example, was one of the rebels who voted against the war. Yet she has been outspoken in her support for the retention of aerospace jobs at St Athan. Indeed, not one rebel MP has spoken against the academy project or the vast budget it will entail. Nor, needless to say, have any of the local media. Despite the overwhelming opposition of people in the UK to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, BBC Wales acted as it always does when discussing the UK armed forces: no more critically than a government broadcaster in a totalitarian state.
Whereas the Cosford bid could only appeal to local interests, the Welsh media and politicians have been able to employ a more powerful propaganda tool: the appeal to nationalism. The competition between the two bases for the academy has been turned into a battle for Welsh pride every bit as intense as a Wales-England rugby match. The public-private partnership promoted by that well-known opponent of PFIs, Rhodri Morgan, was known as ‘Team Wales’. The successful bid, according to Morgan, shows that “Wales delivers”. Morgan, an avowed socialist, now crows from the rooftops about how the rest of the world will be ‘green with envy’ at Wales’s success.
Leaving aside the fact that the vast majority of Welsh workers will gain nothing from the St Athan development, Morgan’s trajectory is an object lesson in how moves to devolution in the UK, far from promoting socialism, are erecting barriers between workers and diluting class consciousness. To celebrate the success of one group of workers at the expense of another is an obscenity. Would Morgan have crowed so loudly if Welsh pits had been spared in 1985 at the expense of all the mines in Scotland and England? Welsh workers have a proud history of internationalism, involving countless acts of selfless solidarity, including the defence of the Spanish republic against Franco. Now they are being encouraged to cheer the success of multi-millionaire defence contractors dedicated to bombing third-world countries back to the Stone Age – all in the name of Welsh pride.
The majority of the Welsh people have never voted for devolution. Barely a quarter voted for the Welsh Assembly, and in the cities of the south east, where workers are concentrated, they voted against. Welsh members of Permanent Revolution voted with them – against the entire left who were happy to climb onto the nationalist bandwagon. While we recognise any nation’s right to self-determination (provided this does not involve the oppression of another national minority), we do not advocate separatism when it will only serve to derail the class struggle. We predicted at the time of the Assembly referendum that the drive to nationalism in the UK would only benefit the bosses. Increasingly we are being proved right.
Our opposition to devolution does not mean we do not wholeheartedly support the defence of the Welsh language, or that we are opposed to the fight for greater democracy – far from it. But this struggle needs to be taken up at every level of society, from workplaces, to housing estates, to local and national government. It is a fight not against other nations, but against the profiteers who control our lives – profiteers epitomised by the Metrix consortium.
A fundamental aspect of that fight is the struggle against privatisation and for control of how our taxes are spent. If £14 billion is available for a Death Academy from the bottomless pot of defence spending, why are schools throughout Wales and the UK under threat of closure? Why are students subject to an ever-increasing mountain of loan debt? Why is there a desperate shortage of decent public housing? If the workers of Wales need jobs, there is no shortage of vital work to be done in building the communities, publicly-owned industries and public services we need. If Rhodri Morgan was any kind of socialist he would be fighting for jobs which serve our needs, not the gravy train of murder.