Mersey balladeer Elvis Costello once asked: ‘What’s so funny ‘bout peace, love and understanding?’
For all the friction about just now – international travel bans and bad-tempered, jingoistic nationalists filling the airwaves – there are examples of people getting together across borders and making a real difference.
Earlier this year, Green councillors in Liverpool were alerted to plans to stage an arms fair in the city’s prestigious riverfront Exhibition Centre.
The alarm was raised by Green Party members in Scotland working with Campaign Against the Arms Trade. Later, the campaign would spread to Andalusia in southern Spain.
Liverpool Green councillor Lawrence Brown, who set up the local campaign, said: “It is an example of grassroots international cooperation taking on and defeating the negative forces tearing our societies apart. We really need this just now.”
In Scotland two years ago, campaigners had tried – but failed – to get a Glasgow exhibition selling the latest in underwater weaponry cancelled. However, the lessons they learned from that experience – build the broadest possible local coalition, get national organisations on board early and target those with decision-making power – were quickly shared with activists in Liverpool.
In Liverpool, weapons manufacturers, military buyers and dubious government were to be brought together by Electronic Warfare Europe to showcase and sell the latest technological advances, available to be deployed in armed conflicts around the world.
Like Glasgow, and many cities that have seen UK Government grants cut through a decade of austerity, Liverpool’s Labour-controlled council has pursued a policy of investing in local infrastructure, like exhibition centres, that offer employment, attract tourists and earn money to support cash-strapped services.
Liverpool’s Exhibition Centre is owned by the council, but managed by The ACC Liverpool Group Limited – an arrangement that would expose legal and moral tensions as the campaign against the exhibition rolled out.
Cllr Brown linked up with former Green Party parliamentary candidate Martin Dobson to form Liverpool Against the Arms Fair and bring together local activists from peace groups, political parties, faith groups and anti-war groups.
He explained: “We knew that the council had to be the focus of the campaign because it had already used its influence on the Exhibition Centre to get other controversial bookings cancelled. However, legally the centre makes its own decisions, even though the Council Leader and Deputy Leader both sit on the ACC Board.
“That lack of direct accountability means that councillors, minded like myself to get the council to take responsibility for banning these types of arms jamborees, run up against opaque procedural tactics to prevent us getting straightforward changes in the hiring policy made.”
The Glasgow campaign had kept running after the exhibition there went ahead and eventually forced the council to create an ethical hiring policy for Scottish Event Campus, which it owned, preventing similar exhibitions taking place there in the future.
Cllr Brown says the same process is now underway in Liverpool, but the Covid-19 pandemic has seen fewer council meetings and holding the authority to account is proving more difficult than ever.
Over 40,000 people from across the UK emailed the council as the local campaign gained publicity through the autumn and linked up with national organisations like CND, Campaign Against the Arms Trade, Stop the War, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and the BDS National Committee.
Andrew Smith of CAAT said: “Events like this are used by arms companies to showcase their deadly weapons and equipment to anyone who will buy them, regardless of the consequences. The companies in attendance don't care about the rights or lives of the people their arms are used against, all they care about is profit.”
The exhibition was pulled just days before a mass Covid-compliant demonstration, featuring socially distanced ‘campaign islands’, was due to take place across the city.
In the face of the growing protests, exhibition organisers blamed Covid restrictions for the cancellation and insisted that the exhibition would go ahead in Seville, Spain in the spring of next year.
Following the cancellation, Liverpool City Council Mayor tweeted a promise to establish ‘an Ethical Charter for LCC and the ACC in the future to make sure we set restrictions on what events we can and should have’. He concluded: “We can still make a profit but also make a stand.”
Cllr Brown explains that he and other Green Party councillors have since tried to press for action on the Mayor’s promise at council meetings, but have been met with procedural delays and new hurdles claiming that the ACC’s legal duty was to run on commercial lines free from council interference.
“We will continue to press for the Exhibition Centre and other Council-owned buildings to be run on proper ethical lines,” says Cllr Brown. “The ACC is an international showcase for the city and owned by the council on behalf of the people. We deserve better than to have the name of our city linked to some of the most repressive regimes in the world.”
Liverpool campaigners were, in turn, quick to alert peace and environmental activists in Seville to the new plans and share the experiences of Scotland and England with them.
Again, a local, broad-based coalition of peace and environmental campaigners linked up with sympathetic local councillors to press for cancellation of the exhibition planned for the Palace of Exhibitions and Congresses of Fibes in Seville in May 2021. This time, the exhibition organisers also claimed the support of Spain’s Ministry of Defence.
The Platform Stop Feria de Armas en Sevilla brought together over 20 organisations to lobby the Mayor of Seville, organise a public webinar on militarism, and gain widespread coverage in the local and national media.
A spokesperson explained: “We do not want to be complicit in the weapons used to repress oppressed peoples such as the Palestinians or the Yemenis. Spanish institutions must not allow arms fairs in their spaces.”
Within weeks, the exhibition was cancelled, with the Councillor of Urban Housing, Tourism and Culture Antonio Muñoz blaming the ‘inconvenience of linking the city's image as a major congress venue to a controversial event with national and international repercussions’.
As in Glasgow and Liverpool, campaigners in Seville are now pressing for this cancellation to be followed up with a lasting ban on any more warfare exhibitions at the exhibition centre.
Cllr Brown says: “This is a story of real hope in a year that has been so difficult for so many people. Friendship, co-operation, grassroots activism, determination and commitment to peace and goodwill still have a place in our world.”
Paul Corry is the Press Officer for the Liverpool Green Party