The coalition’s commitment to severe spending cuts makes it difficult to predict with any certainty what its foreign policy will look like, although improvements on the status quo seem unlikely. One policy that is becoming increasingly clear, however, is a determination to promote British arms exports even more aggressively than its predecessors.
Last year Conservative MP Liam Fox, now Defence Secretary, explained that one of the Conservatives’ top defence priorities when in government would be to
“preserve UK defence jobs by maximising exports. The Conservative Party will use defence exports as a foreign policy tool and we will seek to increase Britain’s share of the world defence market.”
The government’s record so far suggests that – unusually – the Tories intend to stick to their word. On 10 June, Fox declared the government’s commitment to supporting British arms exports. In a letter to MOD staff outlining the government’s “priorities”, Fox reiterated his intention
“to revitalise our approach to defence exports. This has the potential to both increase UK influence and safeguard UK defence jobs.”
In his first major speech as Foreign Secretary, William Hague repeated the theme, promising to use the Foreign Office to “support UK business in an interventionist and active manner ... prising open doors and barriers to engagement”. (If there is a contradiction between promoting arms exports and his proposed vision for a foreign policy that places “consistent support for human rights and poverty reduction at its irreducible core”, Hague didn’t address it.) In a speech today Hague went even further, pledging to “inject a new commercialism” into British foreign policy, making “economic objectives a central aspect” of international engagement and developing “strong political relationships which will help British business to thrive overseas”. For instance in the Gulf, where “we are taking systematic steps to elevate our ties”, and where human rights continue to be systematically violated, in particular by Britain’s closest allies. (If there is a contradiction between support for state subsidies for the arms industry and his passion for “free trade and economic liberalism”, Hague didn’t mention it.)
Needless to say, industry response to these declarations of intent has been ecstatic, albeit tempered with concern over proposed spending cuts. ‘LIAM FOX SPEECH COMMENDED BY UK DEFENCE INDUSTRY’ squealed the defence industry’s trade organisation, as it looked forward with anticipation to working “in partnership with the Government to drive defence exports”. The Foreign Secretary’s speech elicited a similar response, with the industry praising “the Government’s desire to support defence exports” and calling for it to “boost ... [exports] still further”. A recent press release was similarly upbeat, boasting that the industry, which derives two-thirds of its revenue from exports, remains “very competitive worldwide” and promising “further potential for growth in our sector” – on the condition, that is, that “we receive bold and high level support from the UK Government”.
The arms companies had the chance to put these demands to the new government directly at a high-level National Defence Industries Council (NDIC) meeting on 21 June. The NDIC is a forum for industry-government ‘engagement’, and its position is very clear. Praising the government’s “commitment” to the defence industry, it calls for
“total Government focus on, and commitment to the pursuit of responsible defence exports. That means real political leadership from the top down to help drive export campaigns ... It means an export credit organisation that is prepared to help and to put UK industry on a level playing field with its competitors ... [a]nd it means a defence export promotion organisation that can help co-ordinate all of this activity, with the express support of MOD, FCO and BIS.
... [W]e need a Government which makes absolutely clear its support for the defence industry in this country, and is prepared to celebrate it and recognise the contribution that it makes to the economic well-being of this country.”
“There will be a very, very, very heavy ministerial commitment to the process ... There’s a sense that in the past we were rather embarrassed about exporting defence products. There’s no such embarrassment in this government.”
Industry reaction was predictable. “We are very encouraged”, gushed a director at BAE Systems, “by the explicit support for defence exports which the new Government has set out.”
Others were less impressed. An Early Day Motion proposed by Green Party MP Caroline Lucas expressed “shock” at Luff’s statement and recalled that “the previous Conservative government ... covertly sold dual-use military equipment to Iraq under Saddam Hussein”, while under New Labour arms were sold to major human rights violators (at present the EDM has only eight signatures). The Campaign Against the Arms Trade observed that “this brazen support for the arms trade by the new Coalition Government will result in even more suffering as a result of military sales and arms companies gaining ever greater influence over government”. Rejecting Luff’s rationale for boosting arms exports – that doing so will compensate for job losses resulting from spending cuts – CAAT points out that “only 0.2% of the UK workforce is employed in arms export jobs and arms comprise just 1.5% of total exports. CAAT estimates that each arms export job is subsidised to the tune of £9,000.”
As CAAT observes, the coalition government’s commitment to promoting arms exports is hardly new. The UK has long been “one of the main players in the destructive international arms trade”, and “[f]ar from seeking to control or restrain arms sales”, the role of the government has been to “actively… [promote] them, dedicating resources to arms sales promotion far beyond that available to other industries.” Previous governments have openly defended political intervention to support the arms industry. Last year Richard Paniguian, former BP executive and then-Head of the UKTI DSO (a position he retains under the coalition government), described “high-level political interventions—often behind the scenes—in places like Libya, Oman, India and Algeria. The key here is consistent support over time, delivered at key points in a campaign. You’d expect us to deliver Whitehall support, and we are doing that.”
Throughout its time in office New Labour sold arms to some of the worst human rights violators on the planet, including Indonesia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Colombia and Israel. In 2003 the government approved a 20-fold increase in arms sales to Indonesia, despite requests by more than 80 NGOs for an arms embargo in response to widespread human rights abuses in Aceh, and between 2004-5 government-approved arms exports to Israel doubled. In the first three months of 2010 alone, the government approved export licenses for arms deals worth tens of millions of pounds to regimes with appalling human rights records, including Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Israel. In 2007 Saferworld found that of the 21 states identified by the Foreign Office as “major countries of concern”, British military equipment was being licensed for export to 18 of them. In the same year, Britain became the biggest weapons exporter in the world, controlling a third of the global arms export market thanks largely to deals with Saudi Arabia, one of the most tyrannical regimes in the world. All this during a period in which the government was “rather embarrassed about exporting defence products”, an “embarrassment” not shared by this government.
The other component of the coalition, the Lib Dems, may be feeling rather uneasy about all this. Prior to the election, the party was forthright in its opposition to arms sales to abusive regimes. In its election manifesto [.pdf] it pledged to support an International Arms Trade Treaty to “limit the sale of arms to dangerous regimes” and to “ensure that British arms are not sold to states that would use them for internal repression”. Notably, following the Gaza massacre – in which British arms were “almost certainly used” [.pdf] – Nick Clegg called for a complete halt to arms exports to Israel.
One can easily envision the party’s leadership abandoning these principles – indeed, the gulf between their pre-election rhetoric and post-election record is already so vast that one imagines they have the process down to a reflex. But what about their base? And what about the millions of people who voted for a progressive foreign policy, and who would balk at continued support for human rights violators abroad? In 1997 New Labour came to power promising to make the “protection and promotion of human rights a central part of our foreign policy”, and pledging to prohibit arms sales “to regimes that might use them for internal repression or international aggression”. Yet even prior to the election Blair was careful to assure BAE Systems that “winning exports is vital to the long term success of Britain’s defence industry”, and in New Labour’s first year in office, even as it proclaimed a new, “ethical” foreign policy, Blair used the Official Secrets Act to approve 11 arms deals with Indonesia, then engaged in heavy repression in Aceh and West Papua. A similar betrayal looms if liberals continue to apologise for and tolerate the illiberalism of this government, manifested either domestically in sharply regressive economic policies or internationally as support for aggressive and tyrannical regimes.
Email your MP to demand the dissolution of the government’s arms sales department, the UKTI DSO.
Jamie Stern-Weiner studies Social and Political Sciences at the University of Cambridge. He is a member of the New Left Project editorial team and maintains a personal blog at http://heathlander.wordpress.com