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Wednesday, December 29, 2004


New Year’s Resolution – a perfectly reasonable fairytale

With the New Year approaching, and with both Gordon Brown and Hilary Benn declaring that Britain’s leadership of the G8 in 2005 must be one in which the welfare of the Third World is a priority, I feel that it is time for a modest resolution. Alas, it is simply a fairytale.

The resolution I propose is the gutting of the British arms trade, the stripping of public subsidy, and the redirection of the energies involved to less destructive ends. As with arms companies the world over, British manufacturers have a history of incorporating bribery into their standard business model, using a few hundred thousand pounds to persuade ministers of developing nations to grant contracts worth many millions using money from the public purse. If these countries needed such weapons, the bribery of individuals in government ought to be unnecessary. To take part in such bribery is to feed the very corruption that, it is argued, is the most serious obstacle in the development of the Third World.

Of course, the influence of these bribes and the arms sales they encourage goes further than this. The products that are being sold are not neutral, but act to actively change the military postures and security cultures of the client nations. This affects not only the status of freedom within the client nation, but has ripples of influence that spread to its neighbours, as their militaries must adopt a stance that reflects the changed armouries and capabilities across the border. These military adjustments may very well involve the procurement of new military equipment, and dealing with any refugee problems resulting from repression in the original client nation may trigger, with a little salesmanship, the purchase of security and paramilitary hardware. And on.

But, comes the reply, consider the effect that ending this practice would have on the British economy. Andrew Wood and Ian Pritchard (of Campaign Against the Arms Trade) point out that each British job in the export of arms is effectively subsidised by £13,000 of public money, largely in export guarantees. The economist Sir Samuel Brittan has argued that the British arms trade accounts for less than half of one percent of GDP. And GDP, remember, is product, not profit, and certainly is not a measure of desirable economic activity. But even if this resolution is economically manageable, as the French, Americans and Russian firms (amongst others) would continue their bribery, the gutting of the British arms trade would be a futile gesture. And it is here that my resolution differs from many other opponents of the arms trade.

If we assume that the ministers managing the public purse of developing nations will continue to spend the money entrusted to their authority according to who offers the largest bribes, then we can turn this to the promotion of development and human welfare. As the British arms trade is gutted, a replacement of a different kind is built, one that keeps the export guarantees, retains the Royal visits that double as salesmanship, but turns this energy and wealth to a different goal. If Britain is serious about the welfare of the Third World it must out bribe its opponents who offer only arms, obstacles to peace and welfare, and instead demand that the public purse of these nations is spent on [British] training for doctors, nurses, teachers, civil engineers and the like, on capital projects that aid the social, democratic development of these nations, building roads, railways, hospitals, schools and sustainable industry. All the while maintaining the flow of capital into Britain, but, as it is destined for the education, health and civil engineering sectors there will be a reversal in the undemocratic, secretive culture of arms development and manufacture.

Britain would borrow a business practice that has proved to be highly effective and turn it to the production of ends consistent with the goals of a socialist party. And before we forget, that is what the Labour Party claims to be. Even if they dispense with that unfashionable tag, they will still claim to be humanitarians*.

*And Tony Blair claims to be a Christian.

Sounds like a worthwhile resolution to me. Even if it's not achievable, it certainly worth aiming towards. In all the ho-ha about Weapons of Mass Destruction, there seems to be no recognition that the vast mass of destruction being done is by 'ordinary' weapons. The fewer of those being stockpiled around the world, the better. (and that's without getting into the enormous economic wastage and inefficiency of the trade)
The Andrew Bartlett commenting above isn't me - this is the first time I have been online since the 29th December. I thought that it might be someone using one of the computers I use, but the profile number isn't the same (I'm 4159881, he's 3143471). While I agree with my e-doppleganger, I would still like to know who he is.

Andrew, drop me an e-mail?
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