Gordon Brown has abandoned a lifetime's principled opposition to formal dress and will wear a white tie at the Royal Banquet for the state visit of the king of Saudi Arabia. I have no problems with dressing up for royalty. But I do object to the Saudi state visit and have therefore declined an invitation to attend.
The British government should not have offered the accolade of a state visit to the head of a regime which is authoritarian and deeply corrupt. Our own Foreign Office has described Saudi Arabia, without hyperbole, as follows: "Women are subject to discrimination. Prisoners suffer maltreatment and torture. Capital punishment is imposed without adequate safeguards and often executed in a cruel way and in public. Amputations are imposed as corporal punishment ... We also have concerns about freedom of expression, assembly and religion." British expatriates have been tortured to extract false confessions of involvement in terrorism.
Why, then, should the Government involve the Queen in a public display of friendship and respect for the head of the House of Saud? It will argue that Saudi Arabia is a key strategic ally in the "war on terror" and an important trading partner, using its oil revenue to buy British goods, especially arms.
Saudi Arabia has intelligence to share and help us combat terrorism. Genuine two-way co-operation is, of course, welcome. But earlier this year, Parliament was told by Tony Blair that unless the British government dropped a criminal investigation into alleged corruption involving BAE systems and leading Saudi princes, the Saudis would cease co-operation. It is a dubious ally which tries to blackmail us over terrorism to save their royal blushes.
Trade, too, is beneficial but not at any price and not if it is lubricated by bribery and government subsidy. The massive Al Yamamah arms contract, spanning two decades, has left a deep stain on British public life. Conservative and Labour governments have been complicit in large-scale corruption. Our legal system has been compromised by a refusal, under Saudi pressure, to pursue fraud investigations. Parliament has been compromised by the suppression of a Public Accounts Committee inquiry, which could embarrass the Saudis – the only such report thus suppressed in the history of parliament.
Often Britain needs to have a dialogue with representatives of unpleasant regimes. A pragmatic case could be made for dialogue and economic relations with the Iran of President Ahmadinejad or the Libya of Colonel Gaddafi. But such leaders should not be paraded in a coach through the streets of London to Buckingham Palace.
A cynic would argue that the institution of the British state visit has been hopelessly devalued. Past invitations to such appalling characters as President Mobutu of Congo and President Ceausescu of Romania reduced its value. I had hoped that Gordon Brown's government would have higher standards. It seems not.
Vince Cable is acting leader of the Liberal Democrats