Britain's dirty trade in arms and hypocrisy

Posted on: 24 February 2011 by Alexander Hay

The UK arms industry sustained monsters like Gadaffi

British Industry - merchants of death and tyranny?

A columnist recently claimed that all Britain was good for these days is drinking, finance and selling guns. Such a bleak prognosis probably does rather hold true, our 'Managed Decline' seemingly hell-bent on making us all look as dreadful as possible. But a fourth thing we're good at, which the article forgot to mention, is a gobsmackingly shameless, two-faced hypocrisy.

Take Prime Minister David Cameron's current tour of the Middle East. Opportunistic as it is, complete with approving nods in Egypt's Tahrir Square and Cameron somehow keeping a straight face in Qatar as he claimed his dog-whistle speech on 'the evils of multiculturalism' a few weeks ago wasn't about Muslims, it was also strictly for business

The real aim of the tour was to shill for the UK arms industry, worth over £1 billion a year and keeping 1.2 million people directly or indirectly in jobs. In the wake of the many Days of Rage that have befallen the Middle East, he was there - of course - to keep the flag flying for our arms dealers, and to make sure that arming ex-dictators wouldn't be a bar for flogging weapons to their aggrieved subjects after they've gone.

And who have we been selling these arms to? Ask a Libyan. Many of the weapons and 'crowd control' equipment currently being used by Gadaffi's thugs in his doomed attempt to put down the protests were made in the UK. Or the Bahranis, who no doubt sleep well in their graves after being shot with ammunition made in the UK. Or Saudi Arabia, where three quarters of our military exports once ended up, not to mention tear gas.

The irony of it all is that UK military gear isn't exactly top of the range. Apart from the bodge job that was the SA-80 assault rifle, much of what is manufactured in the UK is of poor quality or simply second best in comparison to the alternatives. Arguably, the UK arms trade is our last great nationalised industry, given the often cosy relationship it has with MOD civil servants and politicians, and as a means of promoting soft power by currying favour with despotic regimes.

Buying superior equipment from abroad, or at least the licences to manufacture them here, is out of the question because it challenges this snug arrangement and also because it's not seen as the done thing to jettison one's own arms industry.

And so we reach the point where we worry about the harm to national prestige if BAE stopped making subpar helicopters and yet care little for supporting sadistic, obscene theocratic dictatorships. We made these monsters.

This corruption runs deep and is both shameless and craven. Take what happened to WPC Yvonne Fletcher. Shot dead by a Libyan embassy worker in 1984, the investigation into her death was quietly shoved aside, along with any criminal prosecutions by the ugly necessities of Realpolitik (aka 'selling rubber bullets to the Libyan police').

Then there was Lockerbie. The release of convicted bomber Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi by the Scottish government with collusion by Whitehall was of course part of a back-room deal with Libya as the price for securing business interests and ensuring Gadaffi stayed onside with the 'War on Terror'. (Those with long memories will no doubt either laugh or cry at this point.)

Those British citizens presently waiting to be rescued from Libya may well ask why the government was so slow to arrange a rescue. Being from the UK, they ought to know the answer. Our fifth export is, after all, a complete inability to care.

But they should also ask themselves whether they and their government have in fact helped make this chaos inevitable by supporting such repulsive dictatorships. Cameron and his apologists may at this point argue that we have to live in the world as it is and not confuse principles with necessity.

But this is disingenuous in the extreme. Either decency and human rights apply to everyone or they don't apply at all - or are simply luxuries only for those that can afford them. In which case, we are far less deserving of our freedoms than the brave TunisiansEgyptians and Libyans.

Sometimes, ideals should come first. Our national decline lies not in retreating power or influence but an increasingly grubby, contaminated national soul, embodied by Cameron himself, the PR man, dressing up thinly veiled begging letters with platitudes and spin.

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Alexander Hay

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