Arms trading, BAE Systems and why politicians and men from the military make a very dubious mix

Over the past few years we've had countless examples of the nexus that binds politicians, civil servants, the arms trade and despotism

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Britain’s Establishment can be a grubby, squalid affair. Over two years ago – at the fag-end of Gordon Brown’s then-collapsing administration – the unabashed greed of some of New Labour’s high priests was exposed in pitiful detail. Posing as lobbyists scouting for new talent, journalists from the Sunday Times allowed former ministers to crucify themselves on camera. One was ex-Cabinet Minister Stephen Byers, who had made the clichéd journey from Trotskyist revolutionary to Blairite ideologue. He had claimed to have shifted government policy at the request of corporations such as Tesco: he was, in his own degrading description, “a taxi for hire”.

It turns out that the taxi rank of the ruling elite is crammed – and not just with discredited ex-politicos. Some of Britain’s top military brass have now been caught fluttering their eyes at private interests. Again ensnared by Sunday Times reporters – this time masquerading as arms manufacturers – decorated generals offered up their state connections. Ex-army chief Lord Dannatt spoke of “targeting” the Ministry of Defence’s top civil servant because they went to the same school, although he says the Sunday Times was painting a “totally false picture”. But it seems that teenage friendships made on rugby pitches at public schools can still prove lucrative decades later in the upper reaches of the British elite.

Over the past few years, the sordid greed of some of our rulers – and the consequences for the rest of us – has repeatedly erupted into public view. Bankers who helped plunge the world into economic catastrophe; politicians milking taxpayers’ expenses while berating benefit cheats; media organisations corrupting democracy with their murky links to the political establishment; police officers allegedly taking bribes from Murdoch’s minions; private contractors such as G4S who line their pockets at public expense and fail to deliver what they are supposed to. Now we have a rare peek into the shady links between the arms establishment and the British state.

As the Campaign Against Arms Trade point out, arms companies are very keen to have ex-military people on their books: it is a “revolving door”, as they put it. Take Geoff Hoon, the ex-Defence Secretary caught attempting to prostitute himself to the pretend lobbyists back in 2010 alongside Byers. When he was an MP, military helicopter company AgustaWestland were awarded a billion-pound order. They were obviously grateful: now out of Parliament, Hoon earns his way as the company’s Vice-President of international business.

He joins a distinguished list. Ann Taylor, a former junior military minister, signed up to arms contractor Thales at the end of 2010. The company was part of a consortium granted a government contract to deliver two aircraft carriers that – when she was recruited – was an astonishing £1.541bn over budget. As a minister, Taylor met with Thales repeatedly: and although banned from lobbying until earlier this year, her new employers did not appear to have overlooked her connections. Or take John Reid – Geoff Hoon’s successor in Defence – who became Group Consultant to G4S, one of the MoD’s partners in Iraq. Perhaps they would all protest that they entered politics out of a sense of public service and dewy-eyed idealism – but political power has been rather kind to their bank balances.

The overlap between the military’s great-and-the-greedy and private arms companies more than merits the “revolving door” label. Just a few months after stepping down as the Ministry of Defence’s top civil servant in 2005, Kevin Tebbitt joined the board of Finmeccanica UK, which owns AgustaWestland; he is now its chairman. Admiral Sir Alan West marched out of his position as First Sea Lord to become chairman of defence technology company QinetiQ’s Defence Advisory Board in 2007. Former Air Chief Marshal Sir Glenn Torpy is now happily raking it in as senior adviser to BAE Systems.

Another example concerns Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, Britain’s former ambassador to the dictatorial tyranny of Saudi Arabia. Back in 2006, the Serious Fraud Office was investigating allegations of a slush fund provided by BAE Systems to the Saudi royal autocrats. Cowper-Coles is said to have had a “profound effect” on Robert Wardle – then director of the SFO. Two days after meeting Cowper-Coles, Wardle dropped his investigation. A lot was certainly at stake for BAE Systems: they had earned £43bn from selling arms to the thugs in Riyadh, and tens of billions more were at threat. And where did Cowper-Coles end up after leaving public services? As BAE System’s international business director, of course – with (naturally) a particular focus on the Middle East.

The links between state and arms industry are not just about personnel: the likes of BAE Systems depend entirely on the patronage and funding of the Government and civil servants. When millions of Arabs were in the midst of a life-and-death struggle for freedom and democracy at the beginning of February 2011, David Cameron toured the Middle East with arms traders in tow. The British Government routinely approves arms deals to states who torture and kill their own people, not least Pakistan and Saudi Arabia

Other than once again exposing the greed endemic among the upper crust of British society, this scandal surely should make us question the hold of the arms industry over the state. Those who challenge these links are accused of imperilling British jobs, even though the number employed in defence jobs has plummeted from half a million to about 200,000 since the early 1980s. While government provides £2.598bn for research and development for arms, it is just £42m in the case of renewable energy. There is a huge shortage of engineers, not least to help develop green energy technology.

Yet we will never be able to challenge the hold of British arms companies until their links with the British Establishment are severed. By all means, tut at the shameless greed. But don’t forget this is only part of the story. It is time that this whole intricate web – linking politicians, civil servants, arms traders and murderous despots – is taken apart.

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