I’ve just returned from the annual general meeting of BAE Systems, one of the world’s largest arms companies. I was forcibly carried out of the building after challenging the board on BAE’s arms sales to the brutal regimes of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
On 364 days of every year, BAE’s bosses are able to live in a world in which they are rarely challenged on the reality of their deadly business. But as a shareholder company, they are legally obliged to hold an AGM. They give the strong impression that they hate it. On this one day each year, power is confronted with truth.
BAE are so keen to avoid scrutiny that this year they moved the AGM from central London to Farnborough in Hampshire. Predictably, there were fewer journalists in attendance than usual. But if BAE had been hoping that their critics would be deterred by the venue, they were disappointed. The Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) hired a coach to take people from London, and other CAAT supporters joined us on site. There were at least as many as usually turn up when the AGM’s in London.
Like many other opponents of the arms trade, I own a single share in BAE so that I am legally allowed to attend the AGM and question the board (I make no profit from this share; the eleven pence I made from it last year was donated to CAAT).
The meeting began with a presentation by Dick Olver, chair of BAE. He sought to give life to a fantasy world, in which BAE are “global leaders” when it comes to “ethical behaviour”. Such absurd claims from a man who sells weapons to tyrants were interspersed with meaningless corporate jargon about “total performance” and “going forwards”.
Olver was jeered as he claimed that BAE make the world “a better place and a safer place”. Try telling that to the peaceful pro-democracy campaigners in Bahrain, who have been attacked and killed by their own government with BAE’s weapons. Of course, Olver would rather we didn’t think about BAE’s victims.
We are all responsible for what goes on in the world. When Jesus was asked “Who is my neighbour?” (Luke 10,29), he told a story about a man who saved a stranger from a different ethnic and religious group. This is a story that is meaningful to people of many religions and none. If I see someone being killed in front of me, I have a responsibility to do something about it. The fact that the killing in question is in Bahrain does not lessen my responsibility – especially when the weapons involved are manufactured and promoted on my own doorstep.
Of course, I am complicit. Of course, I do not do enough. Of course, like most people, I avoid uncomfortable truths. I do not claim to be less sinful than Dick Olver. Recognising this does not lessen my commitment to speaking out when truth and justice are distorted. It increases it.
Many of us began to challenge Olver as he talked, confronting his absurd fantasy not only with jeers but with comments about the reality of his business. When somebody criticised the “troublemakers” for their noise, I called out that the real troublemakers are those who sell weapons to dictators.
Despite ten years as head of one of the world’s most deadly companies, Olver still looks surprised when he is challenged. He has the expression of a disapproving headteacher and you could almost expect him to say “It’s your own time you’re wasting”. If only only Olver were a headteacher, he would be contributing to society instead of harming it.
He responded to the heckles by saying that he would answer “any questions” when the reports had finished. This being my seventh time at a BAE AGM, I knew very well that he would dodge most of them. He has many ways of doing this: talking about something else, aggressively criticising the questioner, waving an issue aside by saying it’s a matter for the government. He has a particular line in patronising older and female questioners while ignoring what they say.
So, like many others, I was not prepared to confine my questioning to the hour when Olver chooses to allow it. One hour a year is not enough for such a powerful person to be held to account. I had not gone to the meeting with the intention of getting thrown out. I have never been removed from the BAE AGM before. But I was not going to sit there and be ordered into silence by the chair of BAE Systems. I shouted out that we would continue to challenge him, as he is not being held accountable and is refusing to recognise BAE’s complicity in oppression in Bahrain and elsewhere.
Several shareholders tutted. There are those who are happy to arm oppressive regimes but who disapprove of interrupting the structure of a meeting. For some, it seems, morality is about order, not justice.
Dick Olver pointed at me and said “Remove that gentleman!”. Four security guards did so. They were suprisingly gentle, but resisted my attempts to engage them in conversation about BAE’s ethics. One of them, when I asked his views on selling arms to dictators, said “I don’t think it’s anything to do with me”. The others didn’t answer.
The security guards were verbally polite as they removed me, and I was (I trust) polite in return. One of them even went back to fetch my jacket. Protesters in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and other recipients of BAE weapons are not so fortunate.
Twelve other people were also removed, and I understand that many challenging questions were asked, particularly about Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and corruption. Several people staged a singing protest and others were thrown out while seeking to present Dick Olver with an award as “Whitewasher of the Year”.
As the meeting was finished, Olver was heard to say to a colleague, “That was a lot worse than usual”.
This was Olver’s last AGM as chair. His successor has yet to be announced. Having failed to avoid scrutiny by running away to Farnborough, perhaps the board will host the next AGM on the Isle of Skye at three o’clock in the morning. If they do, we’ll be there.
For more information on the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), please see http://www.caat.org.uk.
My new book, Digital Revolutions: Activism in the internet age, can be ordered from the publisher, New Internationalist, by clicking here.