Prospect editorial: Masters of war

Our cover story this month starkly exposes how Britain became complicit in humanitarian crimes
March 5, 2020

It was, of all people, US Senator Bernie Sanders who recently found himself snared in the ethical thicket that always surrounds the making of arms. In 2005, no doubt with an eye on votes in rural Vermont, he had backed a law that protects gun manufacturers from being held liable for crimes committed with their products. Today, as a challenger for the presidency, “guns don’t kill people, people do” is not an argument that he can sell to the Democratic base. Instead, he concedes that he cast a “bad vote.”

It isn’t only in America that problems in the business of armaments can lead to politicians and public life being sorely compromised. In 2006, Tony Blair effectively suspended the rule of law for the benefit of a major arms dealer and a major arms customer, when he leaned on his attorney general to pull the plug on the Serious Fraud Office’s corruption probe into BAE Systems. The former prime minister did not disguise that he judged the security links with Saudi Arabia and manufacturing jobs in the UK to be of overriding importance, but the whole affair stank.

[su_pullquote]"Britain has no 'shared values' to speak of with Saudi Arabia"[/su_pullquote]

He wasn’t the first British prime minister to be tainted by cosying up to our defence sector and its premium Saudi customer—Margaret Thatcher had lavished great attention on securing the original Al-Yamamah deal with Riyadh. Nor is he the last. As Arron Merat reports from Glenrothes in Scotland, where electronic components for bombs bound for the Middle East are made, only last year the UK government was caught licensing sales while unlawfully disregarding the Saudi record of trampling on human rights. The Court of Appeal ruling named individual ministers, Boris Johnson included, but its practical bite is doubtful. Raytheon UK, a fully-owned subsidiary of Raytheon in America, is still able to supply components across the Atlantic. From the US, bombs continue to make their way to the Middle East. And there the Saudis, well-stocked with western arms, attack civilian targets in Yemen and destroy the infrastructure on which day-to-day life depends in their impoverished southern neighbour.

It is the sheer scale of the suffering in Yemen—a couple of years ago in our pages, the award-winning journalist Iona Craig forcefully argued it had become the worst humanitarian crisis in the world—that shows the perennial dilemmas of arms dealing in such a cold and unforgiving light. But there is, as Merat heard when he headed up to the hard-pressed manufacturing town of Glenrothes, more than one way of looking at a trade. Some workers and families in the industrial belt of Scotland have plenty of problems close to home. Objectively, these do not rank with the agonies of Yemen, and yet when life is a struggle it is difficult to transcend the inevitable subjective preoccupation with decently-paying and secure jobs that have become hard to come by.

As in any sort of business, at the corporate level, there is a routine—and routinely amoral—hunger for profit. From the point of view of the government, arms sales offer a number of hard to ignore advantages that commerce always brings: bolstering tax revenues and the balance of payments, plus private-sector jobs that reduce the requirement for regeneration and social security payments. Plus there are economies of scale in the production, which might—in theory at least—feed back into cheaper purchases for the UK’s own armed forces.

But in that notably secretive corner of Whitehall that both nurtures and superintends arms sales, there is another, stranger belief in the marriage of blood and treasure. By supplying weapons, it is assumed that we cement international alliances which, it is fondly imagined, in some vague sense embody “western values.” As post-Brexit “global” Britain struggles to come to terms with its newly lonely place in the world, such illusions and imagined channels of influence have a special lure.

If we must have relations with a brutal regime that blends autocracy and theocracy like Saudi Arabia, though, it is better to be clear-eyed about the reality. There are no “shared values” worth speaking of, only economic interests to be reconciled, and perhaps the grim international relations logic of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend.” More generally, if we have a manufacturing base with a historic reliance on arms, then that is not something that any government is going to find easy to shrug off. But that is not an excuse for taking the sort of chances with the law that British ministers have been doing, nor for making ourselves complicit in humanitarian crimes. And looking further ahead, the industrial strategy should surely be to avoid an economy that is so compromised. We should become industrial masters of something other than war.