22 November 2010
If you live in East Anglia you may currently be asked to back a campaign to keep open the RAF base at Marham in Norfolk. If successful, this will probably be at the expense of the closure of RAF Lossiemouth in Moray, northern Scotland. In Scotland, campaigners are lobbying to save RAF Lossiemouth.
The intended closure of one of these bases arises from the recent review of military priorities. Closure of either base would mean a loss of many jobs: perhaps as many as 5,170 at Marham or 2,631 at Lossiemouth, which is near the Kinloss RAF base already scheduled for closure and 1810 job losses. The local economy near Marham or Lossiemouth will suffer a knock-on impact of closure - further job losses and local decline. Both areas’ economies have a high dependence on their airbase which provides quality jobs - many using high levels of skill and expertise.
There is, of course, a view that spending on welfare not warfare ought to be the national priority in a time of 'austerity' and the government should cut military expenditure instead of social and caring services which face the axe. 70 % of UK people believe the disastrous Afghanistan war should be ended now. Military expense could be scaled down accordingly.
This is a view I support, but I also think the people employed at Marham - military or otherwise - have a right to employment, quality jobs, security and a healthy local economy. Their families are no less deserving than those of council care-workers expecting redundancy or 'outsourcing' to inferior employers in Norfolk.
Nor, of course, are the families in Lossiemouth. So why should these public servants and communities be in competition with each other for continued employment?
Having failed to diversify the vulnerable economies of areas such as North Scotland and West Norfolk, successive governments and local administrations bear some responsibility for the predicament of whichever community loses this sordid, fratricidal fight.
The government says it must tackle the UK's current budget deficit by getting rid of half a million public sector jobs. The victims of these cuts, we are assured, will soon find work in a revitalised private sector - liberated by the enlightened policies of a government serving enterprise. Well ask them in West Norfolk and Moray if they believe that.
It is saddening to watch MPs from Norfolk and Scotland cynically lobbying to put each other's community out of work, feigning to be ‘champions’. The ‘Make it Marham’ petition demands no safeguards for the potential unemployed at Lossiemouth. The ‘Save RAF Lossiemouth’ petition seeks nothing to protect the people of West Norfolk. Neither petition demands any national coherence.
How easily such politicians divide and rule. How easily local fear is mobilised and abused, enabling thousands of skilled workers and their communities to be abandoned. “We did our best” one group of MPs will soon tell its shattered community - and possibly be believed and re-elected.
It is also sickening to see the same Norfolk MPs declining to make - even equivalent - campaign efforts to save the jobs of thousands of local public-sector workers: staff who care for the elderly and disabled and support the young, the troubled and the unemployed; tax collectors, postal workers, teachers and others. Nor are they challenging student fees which will deter the bright working class.
Instead – together – all of those MPs should be forcefully telling their government chums that a new economic direction must be adopted. There is an alternative. The budget deficit can be tackled both more slowly and more fairly. There should be proper collection of many tens of billions of pounds of taxes currently avoided or evaded by wealthy individuals and businesses. Witness, for example, the cosy government deal which instead let Vodafone underpay £6 billion, recently. (See Private Eye magazine http://www.private-eye.co.uk/sections.php?section_link=in_the_back ).
A Robin Hood tax on speculative transactions could raise billions more. A levy on empty properties, a curb on bankers' bonuses and higher taxes for super-earners would also help to quickly wipe out the deficit.
If the armed forces need rationalising, it should be done in a timely and considered way. Surplus workforces should be offered redeployment or reskilling and support in a transition programme which protects employment, mortgages, families and communities.
The government should have a strategy for partial demilitarisation of the economy and redirection of employment and resources to meet modern national needs. When we end our futile adventure in Afghanistan, military workforces and dependent communities should not be competing for remaining work or abandoned to unemployment and local economic collapse - they were surely fighting for more than that. Their skills should be fully employed in government backed schemes to develop new civilian technologies for transport, energy, civil emergencies and a greener economy. Workforces may have ideas of their own, as did Lucas Aerospace staff in the 1970s when developing an Alternative Plan for socially useful products.
Outside County Hall in the grounds of Norfolk County Council, a replica fighter aircraft looms in memory of staff at the former nearby RAF Coltishall. Will the council, if it proceeds to sack 3000 of its own dedicated staff, also erect a statue in memory of their vital services? It might portray a carer or youth worker. A social worker, fire-fighter or librarian perhaps? The county’s MPs would certainly come along for the picture.
I hope those seeking to defend jobs at RAF Marham will join the Norfolk Coalition Against the Cuts and its demonstration in Norwich on Saturday 4 December (assemble 12.00 at Chapelfield Gardens, http://norfolkcoalitionagainstcuts.org/ ). The right to work and dignity is not divisible: it cannot be protected at the expense of someone else’s plight. It requires us to campaign together for all communities, not just ourselves.