The Guardian | 27.04.2002 14:16
Opinion is divided as to whether Britain has prospered during five years of New Labour rule, but one sector, at least, has thrived: our arms industry. Will Self set out to discover why - and found himself in a murky world of secrets, lies and official double-speak.
The Brits at Defexpo were altogether more circumspect about what they were selling. I even had Stephen Taylor, the Marketing Director of the Defence Manufacturers Association (the CBI of the industry) tell me that most of what his members were in India to sell was "humanitarian" equipment. Nevertheless, it was disconcerting to see serving British soldiers demonstrating this "humanitarian" equipment to Indian military top brass (such as humanitarian night scopes that enable a soldier to pinpoint a target with accuracy, presumably so he can stick a plaster on in the dark). The way in which your taxes are deployed was brought into sharp focus at this "fair", where the Defence Exports Sales Organisation (which is part of the Ministry of Defence) had its stand tightly configured with those of BAE Systems and the DMA.
I eventually became slightly crazed under this barrage of evasion, and was reduced to spoofing the people offering me "more bang for my buck", as the grotesque catchphrase current in the trade puts it. I asked a South African sniper-rifle salesman whether his foul device would prove sufficiently accurate over a long range to eliminate a head of state, such as – simply by way of an example – Robert Mugabe. "Mate," he said, "we don't care what you do with these things after you buy them from us, it's just not our concern." "Good," I replied, "because he's up there in the jungle operating with no control whatsoever and we want to terminate him... with extreme prejudice."
I expect Tony Blair et al wouldn't mind terminating President Mugabe with extreme prejudice as well, because the continued supply of arms to Zimbabwe long after it was screamingly obvious that it had become a vile regime is one of the most shameful aspects of his premiership, only eclipsed by the fact that the British Government sanctioned the sale of arms to every single one of the combatant nations in the five-sided meltdown that was once the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Having said which, there have been plenty of other recent arms deals that run these examples close (military vehicles to Indonesia, radar systems to Tanzania, flogging Hawk jets to India while it is on the brink of war). Because, when it comes to selling weaponry, this is, I've found, a Government that believes that anything it does is for the best, in the best of all possible worlds – however bad the real world is.
Voltaire was moved by the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, in which thousands died, to write probably his most famous work, Candide. In this picaresque, the young innocent of the title embarks on a journey around the world with a certain Dr Pangloss. Pangloss was loosely based on the philosopher Leibniz, whose supposed view that "all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds" Voltaire felt represented the worst possible example of blinkered, doctrinal fatalism masquerading as religious faith. After many misadventures, including being tortured by the Inquisition, Pangloss was driven to recant and accept that God's hand cannot be discerned in every human tragedy.
I can't make great claims for myself as a latter-day Candide, and I certainly wasn't accompanied by a Pangloss during the two months I spent making a BBC Correspondent documentary on the British arms export trade, but the parallels are there none the less. Like Voltaire, I felt driven to question our fatalism about political events, a fatalism that has been grotesquely exacerbated by a tragedy – in this case the terrorist attacks on the United States and the subsequent military retaliation. The way the majority of Britons have allowed themselves, thus far, to be press-ganged into serving under George Bush in his "war on terrorism" is one example of our unwillingness to take control of our own destiny. But behind this lies unquestioning acceptance of our own status as the world's second-biggest exporter of arms.
It seemed obvious to me that, while an egregious trade in death metal was still being carried out, talk of this diplomatic démarche or that peacekeeping role was the worst kind of Panglossian persiflage. Yet when I began to talk to friends about the ethics of Britain's arms trade, I found that even those who were leftier-than-thou on all manner of foreign-policy issues became vague and unfocused. Yes, they acknowledged, we know Britain is a huge arms exporter; yes, they acceded, we're aware that the biggest single arms manufacturer in the world is probably a British company, BAE Systems; and, yes, they, like me, also understood that the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, often acts as a sales representative for them, together with sundry other high-ranking ministers and their officials.
But somehow no one could quite bear to make the connection between guns and war. It was as if the euphemisms that so characterise the military arena had begun to inflict collateral damage on everyone's psyche. So everyone actually believed this was all about "defence", while "arms fairs" held on British soil merely featured exciting rides and state-of-the-art coconut shies. Behind this, meanwhile, lay the weary acknowledgement, on the part of these well-informed people, that the whole subject zone of arms manufacture and export is liberally strewn with anti-comprehension mines, while being submerged in an impenetrable miasma of secrecy, lies and statistics.
While I was making the programme, the conflagration surrounding the proposed sale of a £28m BAE Systems air-traffic control system to Tanzania flared up, banked down, flared up again and then died down, without any resolution of fundamental issues. Meanwhile, in the background, the noises surrounding the £3bn arms deal with South Africa (a deal Tony Blair had interrupted his Christmas 2000 holiday in Mauritius in order to broker), continued to rumble on. This farrago, which includes allegations of vast payments being made to South African political figures and trade unionists to secure orders of British fighter aircraft, is just another stink wafting up from the same old open sewer of British arms exports.
There is almost a text-book character to these mega-deals: they're negotiated on behalf of now privatised arms manufacturers by officials and ministers of Her Majesty's Government; they involve large ex gratia payments to middlemen, agents and the officials of the buyer regime (payments that are still tax-deductible in Britain); and they mostly then become the subject of allegations of kickbacks to our side of the fence. The biggest example of this is the Al Yamamah deal with Saudi Arabia. Originally negotiated under Margaret Thatcher, this was described (by the Financial Times) as "the biggest [UK] sale of anything to anyone by anyone". The smell surrounding the deal has been persistent, if not sufficiently noisome to penetrate the sensitive nostrils of British liberal opinion.
Allegations surrounding kickbacks to people – including Mark Thatcher – have rumbled on for a decade and a half. It's alleged that some of the massive sweeteners paid to Saudi middlemen ended up in the pockets of Osama bin Laden and al-Qa'ida. While we were making our programme, Harry Cohen MP, the veteran campaigner on this and related arms exporting issues, tabled a written question about Al Yamamah and received a typical knock-back from the Government, in the person of Robin Cook. What Cohen wanted to know was why the National Audit Office report into the deal, completed in 1992, remains unpublished to this day. Robert (now Sir Robert) Sheldon, head of the NAO at the time, having read the report in 1992, pronounced himself satisfied that it revealed no corruption or impropriety; yet it, unlike the thousand-plus other reports compiled by the office, remains unpublished. Cook's slightly mocking reply to Cohen's parliamentary question was: "There is a long tradition of its [the report] not being published that he [Cohen] must displace."
It's significant that it should have been Cook who laughed off the idea of the public being allowed to learn more about this multibillion-pound deal to supply not simply weaponry but an entire military infrastructure to one of the most repressive and corrupt regimes in the Middle East. For it was Cook, of course, whose much-vaunted "ethical foreign policy" was one of the first victims of the cold wave of global realpolitik that inundated New Labour on assuming office in 1997. The export licences for Hawk fighter jet spares for Indonesia were among the first items he found in his in-tray at the Foreign Office. He dithered about supplying this materiel to a repressive regime, then picked up his pen and signed. Arguably it was the death knell of every ideal he'd fought for during the long years of exposing the Tories' complicity in the "arms to Iraq" scandal. (To this day, Cook claims he received legal advice that he would place British firms in breach of contract if he refused to sign the licences, although others dispute this.)
Besides breach of contract, "client confidentiality" is the explanation that's always trotted out to justify the obscurity within which the British Government is allowed to sponsor and subsidise gun-running. The Saudi deal was only won by the British because the US Congress (at that time) would not sanction selling arms to the regime. Yes, that's right, even the USA has a more open and accountable system of assessing arms exports than we do. Our current system of granting export licences for arms depends on prior scrutiny of applications – not by Parliament, but by the ministries concerned. The "decision tree" for who calls the shots looks like a circuit diagram for a complex piece of weaponry. On the face of it, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has the ultimate responsibility, but in practice military and dual-use exports (those big pipes that can be handily converted into super-guns) are decided on by the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence.
It is mind-boggling to think of Patricia Hewitt (Secretary of State at the DTI), having a substantial input into the control of arms exports, not least because she heads up a ministry whose principal aim is actually to promote overseas trade; but the reality is that the tripartite "decision" is now – allegedly – a quadrapartite one, with the involvement of Clare Short's Department for International Development being factored in. The Tanzanian air traffic control system was the first bull to be released into Short's corrida; and, watching the Secretary of State stick in her little swords, and knowing the background to the decision to allow the Tanzanians to make the buy, I marvelled at her ability to inflict even this limited damage while remaining on her feet in the heat and dust of government.
But the facts are that as of now the deal is going ahead, and the only result of Short's pirouetting and thrusting has been an amendment to the Export Control Bill currently before Parliament. Lauded as a great victory for the ethically minded, this boost for all those who believe a country should be able to afford ploughshares before it shops for swords is as follows: "This amendment will require all future Governments to issue guidance on how they propose to consider sustainable development when exercising their licensing powers." That's it. It is, in effect, little more than scrawling the words "sustainable development" across the front of the Bill. And, besides, what does "sustainable development" truly mean? No one has an exhaustive, or even believable, definition. From such small acorns of flannel, mighty oaks of cant and obfuscation grow. In this case it's a policy on control of arms exports that remains (to paraphrase Mark Phythian, whose The Politics of British Arms Sales since 1964 is the definitive work on the subject) "pretty much what the Government of the day wishes it to be".
The Bill may well say that "an adverse effect on peace, security or stability in any region of the world or within any country" is a prima facie reason to refuse an export, but that didn't stop Jack Straw and Tony Blair travelling to India this year for a quiet chat about the 17-year hold-up in India's purchase of 60 Hawk jet trainers; a sale – worth millions to BAE Systems – of an aircraft which Squadron Leader Bakshi (Indian Air Force, retired) told me, when I was in Delhi in February, was "ideal" for ground offensive operations in Kashmiri terrain. Not that BAE Systems was keen to speak to me itself; its people wouldn't even let us on to their stand at Defexpo.
This disturbing lack of openness is, of course, entirely characteristic of the hypocritical way the arms trade is conducted, especially where that well-known peacemaker, Britain, is involved. True, Labour has introduced a yearly "annual report" on arms exports (significantly not endorsed by Short for the last couple of years), and some, such as Mark Phythian, say that by cross-referencing this phonebook-sized document with the European Union's report on member countries' arms sales, you can get a pretty good idea about how much of what is being sold to whom. But this is all after the fact, and none of it is subject to either prior or post scrutiny by our elected representatives. So big are the sums involved, so institutionally enshrined the logrolling practices that ensure sales go ahead – with ministries, the armed forces and the arms manufacturers themselves mixing and matching the same personnel – that one can only conclude that there must be a universal delusion apparatus afflicting the entire population. The emperor processes through the streets with a huge weapon thrusting out of his groin, and the people cry, "Why, look at his delicately inlaid sceptre!"
Popular opinion would have it that this isn't the case because of two fundamental beliefs, the turtles – if you will – upon which the cosmos of arms exporting rests its feet. First, there's the economic argument: jobs are dependent on arms exports; without the significantly longer production runs they allow, factories would have to close. Furthermore, arms exports allow for an economy of scale and hence cheaper weaponry for own forces. And second, there's the foreign-policy argument; if we don't sell these things to X, then Y will instead. Because we sell them we get to influence X's regional policy instead of Y.
The most bizarre thing about these arguments is that they can be easily dismissed with the most cursory of examinations. The argument about jobs represents the most naive take on the economics of capitalist markets imaginable, and for this Government to endorse it is tantamount to an admission of ignorance. Yet the Prime Minister himself trotted out the "jobs depend upon it" argument in support of the arms trade when he was questioned on the matter by my wife, Deborah Orr, when attending a lunch at No 10 with a group of journalists from The Independent.
It's jobs, we have been told, that justify the Tanzanian sale. Everyone is aware that the Hawk production line is in the Deputy Prime Minister's constituency, and that it will shut down unless the Indian order is forthcoming. And so on. In truth, the fear that these jobs won't be replaced by others in a dynamic capitalist economy is groundless. Perhaps these same Labour ministers should look to reopen coal mines and restart steel works and subsidise the regeneration of a whole swath of manufacturing operations that have vanished in the past 20 years as global markets have become an unconstrained reality.
So rooted is this doublethink about employment in the cadres of the arms exporting party that to reprogram them was to engage in a piece of behavioural conditioning worthy of O'Brien, the torturer in Orwell's 1984. During my researches, I think I managed to build up something of a rapport with Major General Alan Sharman, the director-general of the DMA (and formerly the Head of Procurement for the British Army). Through two hours of interviewing at the DMA's Surrey HQ, and during encounters in New Delhi, we maintained civil relations. We even maintained them when I forced Sharman to acknowledge that the central tenet of the economic argument was fallacious. This we caught on tape, as we also caught Sharman denying that arms exports were subsidised appreciably more than any other products or services.
However, not only are arms exports heavily subsidised by the Government (and while the amounts involved may be disputed, no one denies that this is the case), but a report commissioned by the MoD itself (then sidelined as a University of York Research paper) proposes the hypothesis of a 50 per cent reduction in arms exports over two years, and comes up with these conclusions. There would be a one-off adjustment cost of between £2.1bn and £2.5bn (bear in mind that annual defence export sales are currently £6bn); there would be a loss of about 49,000 jobs, but this would be offset by the creation over the following five years of 67,000 jobs (albeit at marginally lower wages); there would be an ongoing structural cost to the MoD (due to higher procurement costs) of between £40m and £100m; in other words, between 0.2 and 0.4 per cent of the 2000 defence budget.
You don't have to believe this – it is after all a product of economists – but the Government who paid for the report, and which vests its faith in the soundness of its financial policies, certainly should. The only conclusion that can be reached about the economic justification for arms exports is that it's a fig leaf with which to cover the emperor's more priapic foreign-policy ambitions. Yet there's no real evidence for this either. In India I managed – at a day's notice – to get 45 minutes with George Fernandes, the Indian Defence Minister. There was the horse – there was his mouth.
This in itself was odd. For the making of this programme we approached the four concerned ministries and the Prime Minister's office. After many phone calls we got the brush-off from them all. The DTI belatedly offered us Lord Sainsbury, an unelected junior minister, but when we were unable to confirm our 30-minute appointment within 24 hours, it was withdrawn. Clare Short's press secretary even implied that her boss wouldn't wish to talk to me because I'd once suggested that she resign over a matter of principle. In India, officials from the Defence Export Sales Organisation (which is exactly what it sounds like) kept us circling around their stand like the vultures over the city, but in the end they offered not so much as a bone of contention to gnaw upon. I reached the conclusion that this was joined-up government: the whole of government joined up to frustrate any enquiry into the scuzzy trade it bankrolls.
George Fernandes was quite forthcoming. He told us that he didn't view any particular political influence accruing to those nations that sold arms to India. He pointed out that the Indian Air Force had significant quantities of French and Russian planes. He rather gave me the impression that from his point of view Great Britain was a small island off the coast of Europe. Not that he was dismissive of Labour – far from it; as a veteran socialist and unionist, Fernandes was like some Denis Healey of the subcontinent preserved in aspic. Like Healey (whose policies were responsible for giving Labour governments a good image with the defence establishment), Fernandes waxed enthusiastically about national defence and the importance of having a well-armed army in the field. He also reminisced about getting Nye Bevan to orate to Indian dock workers, and his own attendance at Labour conferences in the mid-1950s.
I wonder what George Fernandes (who is nicknamed "the Teflon minister" in India because corruption allegations against him haven't stuck) made of Straw and Blair, those student unionists of geopolitics? And I wonder what he made of their post-imperial ambition to use British arms exports as a means to enable their Government to continue punching above its weight on the world stage? Fernandes has no objection to buying the Hawks; he just doesn't think the fact that they're British planes is of any significance at all.
In the light of the USA's trillion-dollar post-11 September expansion of its own defence budget, there's a sense in which it may no longer be possible for any single nation to compete with their arms exports, given the vast economies of scale implied. This is something George Fernandes seemed only too aware of, and he viewed Britain as a viable international player only in relation to the European bloc.
Interestingly, another pro-European I discovered during my picaresque progress through the world of arms exports is Sir Dick Evans, the chairman of BAE Systems. It's Evans, with his abrasive style and no-nonsense salesmanship, who is widely credited with bringing Our Tone on to the export team. Dick got Blair to write a piece for the BAE Systems newsletter in the run-up to the 1997 election saying: "Winning exports is vital to the long-term success of Britain's defence industry." He also pledged New Labour's support for the industry. Evans is said to enjoy the PM's ear whenever he wants it. Ultimately, as the Tanzanian imbroglio reveals, it's the Prime Minister who decides on arms exports. Yes, it's the quondam Christian Socialist and sometime strummer of the Fender Strat who tools up those masters of war.
I suppose it would be Panglossian to imagine that Tony and Dick are playing a long-term game. That they're looking forward to an integrated European defence policy that doesn't see the need for member nations – such as Britain – to quadruple their arms sales to sub-Saharan Africa in five years (as Britain has). But the alternative is worse than unpleasant – it's pathological. And this is the ugly rumour that Britain's habit of exporting large quantities of arms might be just that – an addiction – and that further, the symptoms the British political class exhibit – denial, grandiosity, secrecy – are those you would associate with a drug addict protecting his supply of heroin.
'Addicted to Arms' will be broadcast on Sunday at 6.45pm on BBC2