In these uncertain times for the post-Brexit vote economy, thank heavens Britain thrives in one overseas market. When it comes to exporting death, as a new Oxfam report confirms, the figures have seldom looked healthier.
Once upon a time, patriots like me had serious worries about the future of our splendid arms trade. In 1997, the incoming Foreign Secretary Robin Cooke pledged to introduce an “ethical foreign policy”.
But we needn’t have fretted. Who with any real power pays attention to the utopian ramblings of such an eccentric soul? Six years on, Cooke’s “ethical foreign policy” found its apotheosis in the invasion of Iraq which sent him scurrying from the Cabinet in the muddle-headed belief that it was a catastrophic error built on a colossal lie.
Anyway, however enticing “ethical foreign policy” sounded at the time, a real cynic knows that phrase for the oxymoron it always was and will forever remain. Coming second to the US in the medals table at one Olympics might be a flash in the pan. Finishing second behind America year after year in the global league of net arms exporters suggests a mildly unethical commitment to flogging the means of death to any regime, however disgusting, with the cash to buy them.
The disgusting regime in this case is Saudi Arabia. Under David Cameron, arms exports to the desert kingdom boomed spectacularly to a total just under $7bn (£5.3bn), almost half of that coming after the Saudis – our number one weaponry client – began the bombing of Yemen, which is the subject of Oxfam’s report.
The Yemeni war attracts far less attention than that in Syria, so casualty figures are even vaguer. How many hundreds, thousands or tens of thousands of civilians have been killed by the Saudi deployment of British-made weapons and fighter jets is unknown. Equally unclear is how many hundreds of thousands, or millions, they have helped to displace.
What is plain is that the British government has long known these armaments are being used in contravention of the international Arms Trade Treaty to which it is a signatory.
It has chosen to operate the arms world’s traditional dual policy of firstly denying the allegation – after insisting earlier this year it was “confident” Saudi actions in Yemen complied with international law, it corrected that, claiming this whopper was an honest mistake – and secondly sticking its fingers in its ears whenever bleeding heart ninnies mention that it is colluding in and enabling the slaughter of innocents in schools, hospitals and civilian workplaces.
If ever a minister has an attack of conscience over such horror, you may assume that a senior civil servant will nip it in the bud. I refer you to the episode of Yes, Minister (more a fly-on-the-wall documentary, in this context, than satirical sitcom) in which Jim Hacker wants an inquiry into arms exports. “No Minister, I beg you,” says Sir Humphrey. “A basic rule of government is never look into anything you don't have to, and never set up an inquiry unless you know in advance what its findings will be.”
But perhaps this is unfair to International Trade Secretary Liam Fox. Who knows, the good doctor might be so distressed by Oxfam’s report that he ignores all mandarin objections to place an immediate moratorium on arms sales to the Saudis and institutes an independent enquiry.
Yet without wanting to come over all Debbie Downer, I can’t see it myself. The neo-con Fox, before being resigned over the globe-trotting relationship with Adam Werritty – the best friend with the arms industry links – once hoped aloud that Britain retain a “healthy slice” of the Middle East defence market. Unlike Dr King, he lived to see his dream realised.
Whether or not you would style Britain’s share of this market as “healthy”, it’s certainly large. One could quibble about exactly how profitable it is, partly because the government massively subsidises the industry to protect jobs in a way it feels unable to do with steel; and partly because we have no idea how much the Saudis need in bribes these days to sign order forms. Since the Al Yamamah scandal, when Tony Blair personally shut down a Serious Fraud Office enquiry into BAE’s bribery of the Saudis, these inducements may be made with more subtlety than previously.
It would be lovely to imagine that Theresa May, in pursuance of the more moral politics she wants to represent, will act on this. The least of that would be ensuring that Fox has no deal-striking role in this field. The most of it would be a binding commitment not to sell so much as an air-gun to countries that insouciantly disregard human rights at home or abroad – or, as in the Saudi case, both.
You might have thought such a stance would be automatic for any church-attending vicar’s daughter with strong faith in Christ’s teachings. In private, no doubt it is. Whether this PM will publicly reveal a stronger moral sense than David Cameron and Tony Blair, who strove so selflessly to ingratiate their administrations with the House of Saud, time will tell. Every day she holds her tongue, more Yemenis will die and be driven to flight by instruments of war sold in her government’s name and used with her implicit approval.
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