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One man's death is another man's job: the great free-market thing about bombs is they blow up and you have to buy another lot

25 August 2002

Passion and enthusiasm don't come easy to New Labour. Which may be why no human being has ever uttered the sentence: "The people who really inspire me are Che Guevara and Margaret Beckett." I would imagine that Mrs Alistair Darling knows her husband is reaching the peak of sexual arousal when he mutters: "I will respond to that in a statement this afternoon but it would be inopportune to comment any earlier."

So it's encouraging to see Geoff Hoon say: "I am completely thrilled." The reason he's thrilled is that the Eurofighter was on display at the Farnborough Air Show, where it carried out "spectacular manoeuvres", proving its potential as a bombing machine. Which is an odd thing to be thrilled about, unless he was allowed to sit in the cockpit going "neeeyaaaagh pop pop pop pop da da take that Abdul".

He was probably almost as thrilled when the Government granted 200 export licenses to ensure arms deals to India and Pakistan. I suppose it's exciting to see countries like that respond to the global market with such a forward-thinking attitude as going to war. Because the great free-market thing about bombs is that they blow up and you have to buy another lot. This is probably why the Aborigines never got anywhere; their boomerangs came back.

The stock response to complaints about selling these arms is: "We stopped as soon as the conflict began." Even if this were true, which it isn't, it's irrelevant.

Did they imagine that in a war you could only use weapons bought that day? Perhaps they thought there would be a "use by" date, like on a packet of ham. So they were tricking India and Pakistan into buying stuff that could never hurt anyone, because they'd fetch their Hawk jet, then say: "Hold on, this should have been slung out on Tuesday."

Jack Straw even justified one sale that was made after the conflict began by saying it took place during a lull in the fighting. Even if it was in the middle of all-out war he'd say: "Aha, but the Indian air force was on its tea break." All of this is a linguistic game worthy of Bill Clinton. If he had any panache, Straw would look directly into the camera and say slowly: "I did not have military relations with that dictator."

They're the same when questioned about selling arms to the Israelis, expressing surprise that British Centurion tanks were used against the Palestinians contrary to Israel's assurances. So who did they imagine the Israelis would use them against? Uruguay? And what did the Israelis promise to do with these tanks? Did they say they would use them for rolling loads of pastry at once?

Another admirably inventive justification is that by selling arms to brutal regimes you "gain influence". That's certainly worked a treat with Saudi Arabia, hasn't it, which now has only the odd thing wrong with it, such as the practice of stoning women to death for adultery. But we could even gain influence over that if British Aerospace could only sell them the stones.

And then there's the favourite jobs. Politicians who routinely watch entire industries float into oblivion as "the inevitable march of progress" defend incalculable subsidies to the arms industry because it employs "200 people in my constituency". With this argument you could sell arms to anyone. What about a few tanks for Nicholas van Hoogstraten, I bet he'd find a use for them. Or even non-arms-related industries, such as crack-dealing. Surely we'll soon have an MP on Question Time saying: "It's all very well coming up with proposals for curbing the crack industry, but in my constituency over 200 dealers rely on crack for a living. Are you going to tell them that they can't have a livelihood because it doesn't fit in with your politically correct ideals?"

These people aren't even original. When the government of the French Revolution abolished slavery, a group of ship-owners made a statement to the National Assembly that began: "Bravo! Your new law has certainly had an effect on our shipping industry, relieving a great many people of their jobs. Now as they have nothing to do but sit idle all day they have plenty of time to read your documents on the ethics of abolishing slavery." And you can imagine them saying to an ex-slave: "It's all very well you no longer being whipped and chained, but I've had to lay off another eight blokes this week." Just as Jack Straw probably imagines that as peasants see their village burned down by British weapons, they'll think: "Mind you, this has kept 20 people in work at a factory in Barrow, so it's an ill wind that blows no good, ay."

So the Secretary of State for Defence has had a splendid week, because the Israeli plane that did this week's damage in Palestine was an F-16. Hoon should rush out a brochure with pictures of the dead kids and a headline "British components as seen on TV", with a picture of a beaming Hoon saying: "I'm thrilled."

Mark Steel
Published in the Independent © 2002 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd

Arms trade and military aid


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