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Cameron as salesman for the merchants of death

One thing is certain in British politics. Whichever party is in government the sale of arms to countries with oppressive regimes will continue unabated. David Cameron is only the latest in a long list of prime ministers acting as a salesman for an industry that deals in large-scale death.

Arms sales boomed under the Blair governments. In 2005, for example, New Labour authorised the sale of arms to 100 countries, including both Saudi Arabia and Israel. Almost 7,000 export licences were issued that year, with only 127 refused.

And while subsidies to anything that might prove socially useful or beneficial are targeted for cuts, the UK arms industry knows no such restraints. Research carried out by SIPRI, the well-known Swedish-based international institute, shows how British taxpayers unwittingly support the manufacture and export of sophisticated weaponry.

In the three years 2007-2010, over £2 billion was handed over in one form of subsidy or another to companies like BAE Systems. For example, as the report points out, overseas trips often include representatives from the arms industry. “These types of visits cost taxpayer money in the name of promoting weapons sales.”

As well as prime ministerial visits, the arms industry receives support and subsidy through research and development funding, export credit insurance and a government arms export promotion unit – the Defence and Security Organisation (DSO) – with nearly 150 staff.  

The DSO proudly announced recently that last year the UK “gained 15% of the world defence market, ahead of Russia and France”. The UK remains the second largest arms and “security” exporter after the United States.

Yesterday, Cameron was at pains to defend his bid to sell fighter planes to the Gulf states. But the hypocrisy was so overwhelming that you could smell it all the way back in London. Today, for example, Cameron is in Saudi Arabia which is, not to mince words, a feudal dictatorship where human rights do not figure.

At stake here is propping up a regime that will guarantee the flow of oil to the West is uninterrupted, whatever else happens in the region. The Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) described his trip as “morally repugnant”. Spokesperson Henry McLaughlin says:

The Prime Minister claims that he wishes to support democracy in the Middle East but at the same time sells arms to these authoritarian regimes. Despite everything that has happened in the last two years, the UK government continues to bolster authoritarian regimes with weapon sales and to spend taxpayers' money on promoting further deals. They don't just approve the arms sales, they promote them.

Quite.

What a sordid and corrupt business this is. The export of weapons designed to fuel military conflicts and keep dictatorial regimes in place – with sales promoted by civil servants funded by taxpayers – sums up British politics. Here is the state, the government and corporations all in bed together selling commodities that have one purpose – to kill.  

Some who defend the arms industry point to the fact that there are 210,000 jobs involved and that ending the manufacture and export of weapons would lead to mass redundancies.
 
This is a circular argument that justifies the status quo. Many of these workers are highly skilled engineers, whose skills could be deployed elsewhere in making things that are socially useful rather than weapons of mass destruction.

The barrier to making this switch is all to do with the reality of a society where the making of profit and the protection of oil supplies is top of the agenda. So we don’t just need to end the arms trade but also develop peaceful, life-enhancing goals for society to replace those foisted us by the merchants of death. 
 
Paul Feldman
Communications editor
6 November 2012

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