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Leading article: A crude mercantilist doctrine stands exposed

The Prime Minister is deluded if he think he can preach democracy while bolstering autocrats

David Cameron made a speech in the Kuwaiti parliament yesterday calling for governments across the Arab world to meet their people's legitimate aspirations for freedom. The Prime Minister also conceded that Britain had been wrong, in the past, to support repressive regimes for the sake of stability.

But actions speak louder the words. Mr Cameron's address cannot conceal the fact that he is seeking to arm those very Arab leaders who would deny the people of the region their liberty. Senior executives of the British defence industry have accompanied the Prime Minister on this regional tour. And while Mr Cameron was hailing freedom in Kuwait, his Minister for International Security Strategy, Gerald Howarth, was attending an arms fair in Abu Dhabi, where 100 UK companies are exhibiting their wares.

Mr Cameron denies he is in the business of arming oppressive tyrants, arguing that Britain has some of the world's toughest rules on arms exports. Yet last year these rules allowed tear gas and military hardware to be sold to Bahrain and Libya, both regimes that have savagely attacked unarmed protesters in recent days. Mr Cameron also referred to the first Gulf war to justify arms sales, pointing out that Britain came to the defence of Kuwait in 1990 when it was invaded by Saddam Hussein's Iraq. That might be so. But the plain fact is that Kuwait is not a regime that recognises its population's desire for freedom; the emirate launched a violent crackdown on freedom of association last year. Mr Cameron is deluded if he imagines he can credibly preach democracy while bolstering autocrats. The Prime Minister could very easily have cancelled this trip in view of the sensitive situation in the region, or told the defence industry executives to stay at home. That he did not suggests either arrogance or immense ignorance about how his conduct would be judged. Either way, hawking weapons around the region at a time when Western-armed dictators are assaulting their own populations is a terrible error of judgement.

The roots of the mistake lie in a fundamental wrong turning in the Government's approach to foreign relations. In the early days of the Coalition there was an impressively balanced approach to foreign policy. Last July, the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, gave a speech carefully distancing the Government from both the gung-ho interventionism of the Blair years and the European hostility of many Conservative activists. But this pragmatism rapidly gave way to a zealous mercantilism. Diplomats were instructed to put the promotion of British trade at the heart of their work. Mr Cameron flew to China and India last year with planes packed with business leaders. The Government rejected the idea that Britain's engagement with the world should have any ethical content. The objective could be summed up in three worlds: trade, trade, trade.

It was always a dangerously crude doctrine, and now its shortcomings stand exposed. When Tony Blair embraced Gaddafi so enthusiastically after 2003, he was motivated by trade considerations. As a result of that embrace, Britain risks being associated with Gaddafi's monstrous violence now. It remains to be seen whether Algeria and Saudi Arabia will have cause to use their British-manufactured military equipment against their own people. This is not only a disaster for Britain's reputation in the region: it is likely to be harmful to our trade prospects if the autocrats are ultimately removed.

The Arab world has been transformed over the past month. The world has seen nothing comparable since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Unless Mr Cameron wakes up to the new reality, his hypocrisy risks inflicting permanent damage on Britain's national interest.