It is a truism to say that we live in a time of economic difficulties. The UK government’s austerity programme has not improved the lot of the ‘squeezed middle’, it has not restored growth to the economy, and it has not created jobs. It is not surprising then, that the economy is a chief concern of most people, just as it is for the government.
But what price can we expect to pay to improve the economy? Investment in infrastructure, manufacturing, and services are all needed for sure, as is the development of an innovative, dynamic economy. But this is not a proposition entirely removed from ethics. For David Cameron’s latest attempt to stimulate these things appears to be by urging foreign countries to invest in a very shameful business: the arms industry.
Mr Cameron is currently doing a tour of East Asia with a number of business leaders, with the express intent of winning foreign investment in British weapons. The British government appears to have been particularly hurt by the decision of the Indian government (now the single largest importer of arms in the world) to plump for French Rafal fighter planes, rather than the part-British Eurofighter Typhoon. This may have catalysed Mr Cameron into action, but it is not the first time he has played a role as the head of a trade delegation that includes British arms manufacturers. And his is hardly the first government to do so anyway: think of the notorious Al-Yamamah arms deal signed by Margaret Thatcher, a fraud investigation into which was controversially halted by Tony Blair on the grounds of public interest. Still, as the incumbent Prime Minister, Mr Cameron must have felt acute embarrassment when Saudi Arabian troops were transported to Bahrain in British trucks to crush the popular uprising there. It also emerged that British military personnel had been training Saudi special forces.
Despite the inherent dirtiness of this business, Mr Cameron still seems intensely relaxed about lobbying on behalf of British manufacturers in order to win weapons contracts. This is in keeping with his foreign policy aims. Mr Cameron appears to be more comfortable when dealing with domestic affairs, but when it comes to foreign policy, he seems to have primarily one objective in mind: trade. Indeed, in a speech at the Lord Mayor’s banquet in 2010, he told the audience that he aimed to place “our commercial interests at the heart of our foreign policy”, so that Britain could “earn its way in the world”.
In itself, it does not seem to be such a bad idea that the Prime Minister is grappling with globalisation and appreciating the need for strong commercial ties with other countries. But the weapons industry is not just any old business. For weapons are either used in war or repression, and Britain should wish for neither. To be sure, selling weapons to a constitutionally pacifist democracy like Japan, is not the same as selling them to a Middle Eastern autocracy. But the news that Mr Cameron is visiting Burma with his arms gang, does not bode well. As well as possibly flouting EU sanctions (technically side-stepped by the fact that the businessmen are officially – and laughably – visiting as tourists), it would be highly unethical to sell weapons to a regime that, despite the hopeful breakthrough of the recent elections, remains repressive.
Mr Cameron’s ‘commercial foreign policy’ is at best confused, and at worst amoral. In Libya, he seemed to really believe in doing the ‘right’ thing. And yet, when ethics and economics come into conflict, he seems to turn a blind eye to the former, believing that his winning a big arms contract will ‘create jobs’, as though that is the true ideal worth striving for.
As the economist David Ricardo said, all countries have their comparative advantage. If Britain’s is in selling weapons, then it is not enough to say we live in a time of economic difficulties. For it seems we may be losing our ethics too.