Tuesday, 4 February 2014


Wikimedia / Creative Commons

UK defence secretary Philip Hammond is reported to be encouraging his junior ministers to lobby the shipbuilding unions, in order to put some backbone into a Labour party said to be going soft on the replacement of the Trident nuclear deterrent.

The idea is that the unions, who are leading the Keep our Future Afloat campaign for the future of naval shipbuilding at Barrow in Furness, will use their influenced in the Labour movement to maintain cross party support for the £80bn Trident renewal.

But what is the value of those jobs the unions are so worried about? How should we measure all the economic activity to be generated in the yards and bases where the new boats will be built and maintained?

It all depends whether the new submarines and their missiles are considered as a "good", or a "cost". Are they a good thing that those of us paying for them really need and value for their own sake, in which case are they something that, ideally, we would like more of? Or are they merely the whopping cost of a ticket to the top table at meetings of the United Nations?

Opinion polls over the years suggest no great enthusiasm among the British public for Trident or its replacement, while defence chiefs and at least one Conservative MP have questioned it relevance to the UK's defence.

GDP doesn't care about the usefulness or otherwise of economic activity. If there's money involved, GDP measures it, useful or not. But the unions, at least, should care, because work producing the things that people really want and need has stability and longevity built into it, whereas work viewed merely as a cost is vulnerable to retrenchment.

This distinction is crucial. Most jobs in Britain are now a cost rather than a benefit to the economy, in that the work done just circulates wealth round and round the system rather than producing any new wealth in the form of "goods" that people want and need. If the Trident replacement is lining up as a cost rather than a good, then the unions would be wise to think of swords and plough-shares: how can all the skills represented in the work force they represent at Barrow in Furness and elsewhere be re-applied in a more productive and life-enhancing way?

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