Breaking stereotypes: finance director, census refuser (part 1)

We’ve previously published a letter from Gyles Cooper on our blog – now, here’s one part of an interview. Enjoy!

There’s a popular image of a protester which the news cameras capture at every demonstration: it’s a young student with their face covered by a scarf, and a copy of Karl Marx in their rucksack. But the anti-arms trade movement is a broad one, and all sorts of people for all sorts of reasons resist. I interviewed Gyles Cooper – fresh from receiving a guilty verdict at Highbury Magistrates court – to ask him why he decided to take action.

After a court appearance and £300 fine for refusing the 2011 census, Gyles Cooper remains unrepentant. When he found out that Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest arms company, would be running the census he was struck by how few people were aware of this. As the news broke in the national press, Gyles – an ex-finance director with a history of social justice activism – was unsurprised: “I have read quite widely about the ‘defence’ industry and the arms trade,” he recalls. “And of course, many people associate Lockheed with the Prince Bernhard scandal.”

This was one of a series of high-profile bribery scandals which almost destroyed Lockheed, and which spanned the decades from the ‘50s to the early ‘70s. It was one of several exposures which increased Gyles’s awareness. He was brought up in a Tory household and educated at Oxford. A chartered accountant who worked in Kuwait for several years before a career as a City banker and finance director, he is perhaps not your typical anti-arms trade protester. He is a freeman of the City of London and he appeared in Highbury Magistrates court to make his guilty plea in a smart suit, fresh from a City lunch at the Savoy.

But there were some turning points in his life, powerful moments which demanded action. From the lack of media balance over the 1967 Arab-Israeli war to front-page exposés of arms trade corruption, Gyles recalls how these seminal moments touched him closer to home. “Working in Kuwait, I made many Arab friends and my then wife visited Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon.” As global issues started to resonate on a personal level, he began attending demonstrations with Campaign Against Arms Trade and was the Campaign’s treasurer at a time when it was infiltrated on behalf of British Aerospace. He was among the million people who marched against the Iraq war in 2003.

And then came the news that Lockheed Martin would be running the 2011 census. Lockheed had hit the headlines again in 2009, when the F16 fighter jets they had sold to Israel were used in the Gaza massacres of Operation Cast Lead. Contending with an immense concern for the Palestinian people and the obligations of his newly-delivered census form, Gyles remembers feeling he had reached a limit. Discussing it with his wife, they took the decision to boycott the census and the hidden history of violence behind it. “We thought: ‘this is one of those important moments. We don’t want to do this. This is wrong.’”

For many months after the census there was little sign that any action would be taken against him, but in January the summons arrived.

In part two of the interview, Gyles describes taking on the Office of National Statistics, court summons, and his new criminal record.

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