Leading Article: The bulldogs of war

Click to follow
SCENE ONE. Thursday. Saudi Arabia. John Major secures a pounds 5bn deal under which Britain will supply 48 Tornado strike aircraft and other defence equipment. Earlier, Mr Major had called on the Sultan of Oman who had also agreed to buy British: 36 Challenger II tanks and four armoured and recovery vehicles. Back home, the Daily Express breathlessly calculated that the Prime Minister had 'secured 1,000 jobs an hour in a 21-hour period of tough negotiations'. Fine. When unemployment is passing the three million mark, nobody can possibly begrudge jobs for men and women in Chorley and Manchester and Leeds and Newcastle. When the balance of payments deficit has reached record levels, anybody must welcome a boost to British exports. And nobody should withhold congratulations from the Prime Minister for his work in promoting British business during his tour of India and the Middle East.

Scene Two. Flashback to Wednesday. Chatham House, London. Douglas Hurd, addressing the Royal Institute of International Affairs, observes that there are now 25 separate and substantial conflicts in different parts of the globe. Because Britain is so dependent on international trade, he argues, our national interest demands a stable and predictable world. 'Chaos and anarchy,' he says, 'are the enemies of commerce. They are often accompanied by grotesque abuse of human rights. They can lead to wider conflict.' Hence, the need for British involvement, albeit 'rigorously disciplined and constrained', in international efforts to keep the peace. Fine. Mr Hurd's speech was thoughtful and humane.

Paradoxes arise, however. Paradox One. While the British Prime Minister is selling arms in the Middle East, his Foreign Secretary is agonising over a world where 'disorder is spreading'. Is it too fanciful to suggest that Tornadoes and Challenger II tanks are apt to spread disorder? Neither are exactly defensive weapons. True, both Saudi Arabia and Oman are regarded as friends of the West; but so, until 1990, was Iraq.

Paradox Two. Britain's success in arms sales is based on an industry for which Tory ministers have assiduously provided investment, promotion, a secure home market, even (dare it be said?) featherbedding. Yet these same ministers have insisted that the minimum of official assistance should be available to other industries which may equally assist the balance of payments, either by exporting or by reducing the need for imports. Coal and railway track and rolling stock are among the examples; but so are more modern industries such as electronics.

Paradox Three. Mr Hurd sets much store by the United Nations which has 'unique legal authority to maintain international peace and security'. But nowhere, in his Chatham House speech, does Mr Hurd address the anachronism of the UN constitution which allows Britain and France, because they are among the victors of a war that ended nearly 50 years ago, permanent places on the Security Council. Does Mr Hurd really believe that the UN's credibility is best served by a constitution that appears to give disproportionate influence to the northern hemisphere and that also excludes Germany and Japan, two of the world's great economic powers, from the highest levels of decision-making?

To raise these paradoxes may seem, in the unoriginal words used by Mr Major in Glasgow last Friday, to sell Britain short and to join the merchants of gloom. But Tory ministers are the true short-sellers and gloom-merchants. The future they offer is not a dignified one. Britain is to cling to the remnants of its great past: nuclear weapons, a place on the Security Council and a quantity of military know-how. We shall sell arms, sometimes openly as Mr Major did last week but, more often, judging by the history of our dealings with Iran and Iraq, in a shady, hole-in-the-corner way. We shall, on the precedent of the Gulf war, hire out our soldiers for international conflicts, thus acting as a sort of mercenary world policeman. And we shall return - witness the movement of manufacturing jobs from Dijon in France to Cambuslang near Glasgow last week - to the low-wage, low-skill economy of the 19th century.