It is delightful to see Labour voters defy the establishment by finally electing a leader on the centre ground of British thinking. Opinion polls suggest that Jeremy Corbyn’s policies of nationalising the railways, energy companies and Royal Mail, along with opposition to the Iraq war and British intervention in the Middle East are all supported by a majority of the public.
These views stand in marked contrast to the neo-liberal, military policies of the Conservative and ‘mainstream’ Labour parties at home and abroad. These extreme positions, which are contributing to unprecedented domestic inequality, the draining of wealth from the world’s poorest countries and terrible military interventions (and not least the rise of Islamic State), have amazingly been allowed to be presented as the centre ground or ‘liberal democratic’ – an astonishing propaganda achievement for policy planners.
The threat of popular democracy is something I’ve tried to document in all my books because it comes through crystal clear in the government planning record, visible in declassified files, thousands of which I’ve looked at in my research. The threat that policies made by and for the elite could be derailed by popular opposition has long been regarded by British planners as a serious threat; in the Cold War, more serious, for example, than the Soviet threat, which was anyway rarely taken seriously in private after the early 1950s .
During the Vietnam War, Harold Wilson was terrified that public opposition would stop his ongoing private support for the US bombing campaign – something which the mainstream media still refuses to acknowledge. In various wars in the Middle East over the decades, the files are full of examples of how planners have had to resort to propaganda to counter public concerns. What elites have feared, especially during controversial policies such as military interventions, is that public opposition will become so great that they might actually have to change policy.
British elite strategy is at least consistent – abroad, Whitehall is more or less permanently opposed to democracy in regions where it has special interests, especially the Middle East where its allies are dictatorships: witness the striking levels of current support for the repressive rulers of Egypt and Bahrain, not to mention the ongoing special relationships – which are as deep as that with Washington – with the feudal regimes of Saudi Arabia and Oman.
Here, the support of any real democracy – other than the show elections promoted in Iraq and Afghanistan – is off the agenda, since it would likely yield up popular forces even more opposed to Western power. It is a great shame that the British elite opposition to democracy is still not well-understood or explained by academics and journalists. The public is continually fed the message that ‘we’ support democracy – at home and abroad – just because this is what Cameron, Blair or Brown say.
The fear of Corbyn on the part of the elite is palpable in the literally hysterical right wing and ‘liberal’ media coverage, well documented as ever by Medialens. The BBC has given up even pretending to be a public service broadcaster in its coverage of Corbyn, with virtually every news piece that I have heard or seen in recent days simply smear and propaganda. BBC Panorama’s recent attempt to character-assassinate Corbyn – which received many complaints (presumably from the loony centre) – was merely part of a campaign. Tom Mills, an incisive analyst of the BBC, notes that the Panorama programme ‘should be understood as part of a broader pattern in which the BBC’s political output has overwhelmingly reflected the interests of a political Establishment in which it is deeply embedded’.
Indeed, Corbyn and his supporters are being routinely presented by the BBC as ‘hardliners’, which, if true, makes the British taxpayers who pay for this nonsense reporting to be hardliners too. In the mainstream media, anyone who does not back the extremists’ agenda – of supporting the US, Israel, military intervention, NATO, arms exports or transnational corporations – is regarded as outside the ‘centre ground’. So flogging arms to despots, sending young British kids to die in wars and retaining the ability to destroy the entire planet is perfectly OK – anything different is extreme. To a Martian, mainstream British political culture would surely be hilarious.
The Guardian is an integral part of this. Former British ambassador Craig Murray has described ‘the panic-driven hysterical hate-fest campaign against Corbyn by the Guardian’ and he is hardly exaggerating. Guardian editorials and pieces by Jonathan Freedland, Polly Toynbee, Martin Kettle and some others, are all ridiculing the ‘unelectable’ Corbyn and helping to position him as a loony lefty. Similarly, Guardian news reporter Nadia Khomami, explaining ‘what does Jeremy Corbyn think?’, writes that Corbyn has ‘said he supports Israel’s right to exist but opposes what he describes as the country’s “occupation policies”’. The use of ‘what he describes as…’ and the use of speech marks are revealing, perhaps like writing about Al Qaeda’s ‘terrorist attack’ on 9/11.
Since Corbyn’s policies are generally popular, they are a direct threat to the elite consensus, and three stand out in foreign policy. First, the idea of holding Blair to account under international law for invading Iraq will strike terror into the minds of the Foreign Office and Ministry of Offence. These people reserve the right to bomb the gyppos every once in a while and they are not going to accept the idea of being held to account for this. The public have long been bombarded by the notion that we, as opposed to, say, Burkina Faso or Iran, have the sovereign right to intervene in other countries’ affairs. It really says something very serious about how primitive Britain is when the idea of holding our leaders to account to the law is regarded as hardline.
The second red line policy is obviously Trident. When Britain first acquired nuclear weapons in the late 1940s, the main goal, shown in the declassified files, was to ensure that Britain was seen to remain a great power, especially in the eyes of the new superpower, the US. The primary goal remains, with various largely fictional threats deployed at various times to justify it. Reducing nuclear weapons would put Britain below France (France!) in the great power league, demeaning to the chaps in Whitehall clinging on to the remnants of imperial power.
Third, Corbyn’s questioning of NATO will, along with the other two red lines, be ringing alarm bells in Obama’s Washington, which will no doubt be heavily deploying its (many) assets in the British political scene to counter them. The media regularly states that Corbyn wants to withdraw from NATO, but I have not found such a statement, and I assume this is another smear. Corbyn has, however, said that NATO should have been wound up at the end of the Cold War (more loonyism) and that NATO’s expansion eastwards contributed to the Ukraine crisis. The latter idea is surely wacky, as explained by US mainstream academic John Mearsheimer, who recently wrote that ‘the United States and its European allies share most of the responsibility for the crisis’ due to NATO and EU enlargement, and that ‘Putin’s pushback should have come as no surprise’.
Luckily, there are some exceptions to the tirade of abuse being heaped on Corbyn (including some in the mainstream media) and it is from this rational true centre ground that I am optimistic that some kind of response can be made. Along with the unions and social movements, I hope that organisations like NGOs, with whom I regularly work, see the importance of defending Corbyn’s lines of thinking, and recognise the urgency of this.
Some development charities have sadly been collaborating with the extremists, partnering with UK- based transnational corporations and participating in Whitehall’s privatisation offensives in Africa, thinking this to be normal and that there is no alternative. Britain’s ‘development’ policies under Conservative and Labour have become vehicles for promoting British big business abroad . My view is that Cameron’s support for 0.7 per cent is due to recognizing how useful the aid programme is in supporting British commercial and foreign policy objectives. Development policy has played almost no role in the Corbyn surge but this is another area where he must challenge current policies and develop hardline policies in the centre ground, and deserves to be strongly supported.
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Richard Slater (High Commissioner, Uganda) to Alex Douglas-Home (Foreign Secretary), ‘The first six months of General Amin’s government’, 6 August 1971
‘Amin’s performance as leader of the government has been patchy… As a leader of the people..he has grown in stature and his personal popularity is an important asset…the real problems are tribalism, indiscipline in the army and general lawlessness…Amin has a genuine regard for Britain and is sincerely grateful for the help given him. One purpose of his visit to Britain was to say thank you in person. Despite some obvious deficiencies he remains a net asset from Britain’s point of view… Amin is described in our pre-coup personalities report as ‘not particularly pro-British’. I think this judgement should be revised….After studying him closely for six months, I have no doubt in my mind that he has a genuine affection and respect for the British army, which rubs off on to Britain as a whole… I am sure that he is sincerely grateful for what we have done and offered to do – early recognition, help over the funeral of the ex-Kabaka, military and police training, the development loan and so on… He certainly has a capacity for self-deception; and his resistance to unpalatable truths is aided by a slow-moving mind. This, combined with political immaturity and over-confidence, makes him something of a liability. But he is at present much more of an asset. So long as he stays in power, Ugandan reactions to controversial British policies in Africa will be containable and the influence of the moderates in the OAU will be strengthened. It remains therefore a British interest to see his regime consolidated, while bringing what influences we can to bear on his policies.’
National Archives, FCO 31/1017/ JEU 1/1
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Report for Global Justice Now
Britain’s overseas aid programme is being reconfigured to promote the privatisation of education and health in developing countries. The Department for International Development (DFID) has become the world’s leading donor in spearheading a push for profit making companies to manage and deliver schooling and health care in Africa and Asia. British taxpayers’ money is increasingly being used to pave the way for private companies to access new markets in basic services and thus to profit from the current gaps in the public provision of these services. This briefing exposes DFID’s strategy and warns of the dangers to the real need – which is to ensure better public education and health services that genuinely serve poor people.
For the full report, click here
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FCO draft paper, “Longer-term elements in Anglo/US relations”, August 1968
“Even if the United States is a giant in a world where the Soviet Union is the only other giant to talk to, it [the US] feels the need for friends and Britain is probably the best friend they have… We are still the best Boswell to the US Johnson… We need the US far more than they need us but on our own we shall become increasingly unimportant to the United States – hence the need to become part of a larger European grouping…Our objectives with regard to Anglo-US relations must be twofold: (i) to slow down as far as we can and without prejudice to our European policies the changes in the UK’s relations with the United States; (ii) to ensure that the longer-term relationship between Europe (including the UK) and the United States remains as close as possible. As regards the latter aim, a major cause of US dissatisfaction with their allies is their allies’ alleged unwillingness to play their proper role in maintaining world peace, contributing to development, supporting the UN etc. There is an element of special pleading in this. The Americans are gifted at representing American national interests as noble ideals which all should follow. Nevertheless it is very much in our and Europe’s interests to prevent the United States becoming a rogue elephant. We have to persuade all the Western Europeans, including in the long run France, that a close relationship with the United States is the only way of preventing this…. If we fail to become part of a more united Europe these links [with US] will not be enough to prevent us becoming increasingly peripheral to US concerns”.
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Foreign Secretary Alec Douglas-Home, “British policy towards the United Nations in the 1970s”, 11 September 1970 (National Archives, FCO 49/288)
“Our position as a permanent member of the Security Council gives us special opportunities for using the United Nations as a forum to exert our influence. Indirectly the United Nations development assistance activities may help to preserve Western influence in the third world”.
[Paper considers this options for UK policy]: “Full commitment to the United Nations both in principle and in practice as a, if not the, major element in our foreign policy; a policy if [sic] minimum contribution to and involvement in the organisation’s affairs; adaptation of the scale of our participation in the United Nations’ activities to a realistic appraisal both of the practical limitations of the organisation and of its importance to the achievement of our foreign policy goals… There is no indication that if we were to surrender more of our freedom of action to pursue our national interests for the sake of our commitment to the United Nations that other countries would follow suit”. [Paper plumps for the third option, the “middle course”]: “It would mean recognition that it is not an organisation which we can hope to use across the board to promote our interests, but that only occasionally and in certain fields when the interests or inclinations of the majority of states happen to coincide more or less with our own can we profitably try to do so. And it would reflect the view that we should adapt the scale of our effort at the United Nations to a realistic appraisal of its importance to the achievement of the primary objectives of our foreign policy and not to the long-term hope that it will develop into a more effective world force”.
“Where we believe our essential national interests are affected by issues before the Security Council we should – subject to tactical considerations such as the possibility of obtaining sufficient abstentions to block action by concealing whether we shall veto or not – make clear in advance the limits of any concessions which we are prepared to make and the stage at which we shall be ready to use our veto”.
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Mark Curtis’ piece on British arms exports can be listened to here. (The piece begins at 38:01)
A transcript of the piece is below:
Archive of recent protests in Egypt being put down by the Egyptian military
This is the sound of pro-democracy protesters in Egypt being fired on by the Egyptian military. Hundreds of people have been killed in Egypt since the overthrow of President Mubarak in 2011 and the coup ousting elected President Morsi last July. Yet since 2011 Britain has approved arms exports to Egypt worth 65 million pounds. Assault rifles, machine guns and military communications equipment have all been licensed. Kaye Stearman works at the Campaign Against the Arms Trade:
Stearman: ‘These are weapons that can be used directly in repression but even if they were weapons that could not used in this way, it’s still wrong, you’re sending a message saying this government is legitimate, this situation is alright, human rights are not being abused. We think there should be a complete arms export embargo on Egypt’.
But British military equipment has been used to crush pro-democracy protests in the Middle East at least three times since 2011. In the Gulf state of Bahrain, scores of UK-made armoured personnel carriers manned by the Saudi Arabian military helped the Bahraini regime suppress protests in 2011. The armoured vehicles, known as Tacticas, were manufactured by BAE Systems, Britain’s largest arms company. The suppression in Bahrain was bloody – 35 people were killed and hundreds detained, with torture widespread.
The Arab Spring in the Middle East has challenged regimes that are undemocratic and which suppress human rights, but whose side has Britain really been on? British arms are exported to many of the world’s worst human rights abusers as a matter of routine. Professor Neil Cooper is an expert on the arms trade at the University of Bradford:
Cooper: This summer, the government released information showing that it had 3,000 extant arms export licences to countries that the Foreign Office listed as countries of concern in terms of human rights abuses, and those 3,000 export licences added up to a total value of about 12 billion pounds so judged in those terms obviously that would appear to represent a significant level of trade with countries that the Foreign Office itself has recognised as countries of concern.’
British arms ending up in the hands of human rights abusers is no coincidence or mistake. Last September, thousands of arms companies gathered in London for a big arms fair. The government invited delegations from 14 authoritarian regimes including Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan, and 6 countries at war, including Afghanistan and Iraq.
The government says it has rigorous arms export controls in place. Its stated policy is not to allow exports where there is a ‘clear risk’ that they might be used for internal repression. But I dont believe this is the actual government policy. The government allows military-related equipment to go to all 27 countries that it identifies as human rights ‘countries of concern’. There is a clear risk that any of these states could use British equipment for repression.
In 2012, over 7 billion pounds worth of British military-related equipment was exported around the world. All three main political parties strongly support arms exports and none has a policy of banning them to human rights abusers. David Cameron has visited over a dozen countries with arms exports on the agenda.
The royal family also plays a key role. Princes Charles and Andrew have both acted as high level salesmen for British arms exports abroad. For ten years Prince Andrew was Special Representative for Trade, making trips to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.Kaye Stearman of the Campaign Against the Arms Trade:
Stearman: This year we saw the King of Bahrain come to the UK, he was at the Royal Windsor Horse Show, the Queen was on one side of him and sitting on the other was Prince Andrew. It was just cementing this royal relationship, and what made it particularly awful was at this time there was huge repression going on in Bahrain, assisted I have to say by British arms’
The Queen appears to play a key role in promoting arms exports to repressive regimes. The Queen regularly hosts state dinners for the leaders of countries buying British weapons. I have discovered that the head of BAE Systems has been invited to the same state dinners as the leaders of undemocratic regimes such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar on at least 8 occasions since 2007.
But why is it that Britain has such a burgeoning arms trade, including with repressive regimes? The usual answer is that it’s good for the British economy. Paul Everitt is the head of ADS, a trade body representing British military exporters:
Everitt: The sector probably generates something like £22 billion of sales, obviously that employs 100,000 people or more in the UK, in what we would see as high-value, high-tech jobs. The sector is spending something like £3.3 billion on research and development, now clearly that is focused on, if you like, the needs of our customer, but there is quite significant spillover into the rest of the economy.
But government and companies have a habit of exaggerating the figures. I asked Professor Cooper about the supposed economic benefits of arms exports:
Cooper: Well, obviously at a company level, and in terms of the economic benefits for particular places where defence companies are located, clearly for those places where you’ve got significant defence companies with significant numbers of jobs, then the economic benefits in that particular locale can be quite important. But looked at from a macro-economic perspective, the benefits are not massively significant. UK defence sector jobs account for about less than half per cent of the overall workforce. UK defence exports account for about less than 2 per cent of overall British exports.
So if economics doesn’t fully explain why British governments are so keen on arms exports, what does? The sad truth is that Britain sells arms to repressive regimes in the Middle East, and elsewhere, mainly because it supports them. It wants to keep them in power, and often prefers them to democratic movements which may not support Western policies. This is not simply my view. It is what policy makers have expressed in private government planning files, which are declassified after 30 years. British arms exports have for decades helped favoured regimes maintain ‘internal security’, meaning repression. Our arms exports often go hand in hand with military training. Britain has not only sold Saudi Arabia 4 billion pounds worth of military equipment in the past five years, for 40 years Britain has trained the Saudi Arabian National Guard, the internal force that protects the Saudi ruling family.
It grieves me to hear the British media parrot the government’s line that it supports democracy in the Middle East. Where are the radio and TV programmes exposing Whitehall’s special relationship with repressive regimes? There is virtual silence on Britain’s alliance with, say, Saudi Arabia or, to give another example, Oman, which has the world’s longest serving ruler, who took control in a 1970 coup staged by Britain and who still wields absolute power. British arms sales and training to these regimes helps keep them in power but also gives them international legitimacy.
An opinion poll just commissioned by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, conducted by Populus, reveals that 58 per cent of the public are against arms exports to countries with a poor human rights record. Only 14 per cent believe this is acceptable. Kaye Stearman:
Stearman: What we’ve noticed is this shift in opinion. It’s not that we’ve got more people around who are pacifists or unpatriotic, it’s just that they do not want to see the UK selling arms to governments that are undemocratic, authoritarian, dictatorial. They want to see us having a much more ethical outlook, an ethical foreign policy.
 This is since 2011. http://www.caat.org.uk/resources/countries/egypt/. In November 2013, the British government quietly announced the resumption of exports of British military equipment, some of which had been suspended. FCO news release, 3 November 2013, http://allafrica.com/stories/201311051314.html?aa_source=nwsltr-europeandafrica-en.
In August 2013, the Egyptian military used Sea King helicopters against Muslim Brotherhood protesters in Cairo. Military components for these helicopters were supplied from Britain. 19 August 2013, http://www.itv.com/news/update/2013-08-16/fears-british-built-helicopters-used-in-cairo-operations/. In Libya in 2011, armoured personnel carriers sold to the Qadhafi regime helped quell pro-democracy demonstrations there. 21 February 2011, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/feb/21/uk-firm-defends-libya-military-sales
 Ian Black, ‘Bahrain urged to deliver human rights reforms as King visits London’, Guardian, 12 December 2011
 For confirmation of those figures, see 19 September 2013, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/senior-cabinet-ministers-accused-of-profoundly-misleading-claims-about-britains-arms-export-industry-8827620.html
 “The UK operates one of the most rigorous arms export control regimes in the world, and has been at the forefront of implementing tough international trade controls, including most recently on exports to Egypt. We do not grant export licences where there is a clear risk that goods might be used for internal repression.” 19 September 2013, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/senior-cabinet-ministers-accused-of-profoundly-misleading-claims-about-britains-arms-export-industry-8827620.html
“Once military goods are sent abroad, the exporter has no control of how, when or where they will be used.”19 September 2013, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/senior-cabinet-ministers-accused-of-profoundly-misleading-claims-about-britains-arms-export-industry-8827620.html
 For example, India, in July 2010; Egypt and Kuwait in February 2011; Saudi Arabia in January 2012; Indonesia, Japan, Burma, Malaysia and Singapore in April 2012; Brazil in September 2012; and Saudi Arabia, Dubai and Abu Dhabi in November 2012. 18 February 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/feb/18/britains-arms-trade-making-killing?INTCMP=SRCH. Much of Britain’s arms promotion is paid for by us, the taxpayer. For example, a government arms sales unit, called the UK Trade and Investment Defence and Security Organisation, has 130 staff helping British arms companies export their equipment. http://www.newleftproject.org/index.php/site/article_comments/bae_and_the_uk_a_failing_merger
 14 March 2013, http://www.caat.org.uk/press/press-release.php?url=20130314prs. The Duke of Kent, the other Prince Edward, spent over 25 years as Vice-Chair of British Trade International, making over one hundred overseas visits, some supporting arms sales. (http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/kaye-stearman/a-jubilee-bonus-end-the-r_b_1556118.html)
 refers to chair or chief executive of BAE Systems. State dinners information available at: http://www.royal.gov.uk/LatestNewsandDiary/CourtCircular/Todaysevents.aspx
 David Cameron has said that 300,000 jobs depend on the arms industry but many analysts dispute that figure. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, British taxpayers actually subsidise arms export jobs to the tune of around £700 million per year (12 Nov 2012, http://www.caat.org.uk/press/press-release.php?url=20121112prs), mainly through taxpayer support to research and development. (http://www.caat.org.uk/issues/jobs-economy/subsidies/). Spending taxpayers’ money on arms may be worse at creating commercial spin-offs than supporting other economic activities. (http://www.newleftproject.org/index.php/site/article_comments/bae_and_the_uk_a_failing_merger)
 2008-12. 20 May 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/may/20/uk-approved-arms-exports-saudi-arabia
 The question was: “Is the UK is justified in selling military equipment to governments that have a poor human rights record”. 14 per cent agreed; 58 per cent disagreed, 20% did not agree or disagree and 8% said don’t know. Eg, a poll held in early 2011 showed 77% of responders saying that the UK should not have been selling weapons to the Gaddafi regime.
Filed under: Arms, Bahrain, Egypt, Oman, UK foreign policy | 4 Comments
Mark Curtis narrates a piece on British arms exports to repressive regimes on the Today Programme, 2 January. This is part of a programme guest-edited by the singer PJ Harvey. The piece includes interviews with Campaign Against the Arms Trade and others.
The full running order for PJ Harvey’s Today programme, airing January 2nd from 6am to 9am GMT on BBC Radio 4 is as follows:
PJ Harvey spoken piece explaining her choice of contributors to the programme.
Mark Curtis: ‘Arming Repression’, followed by ‘Ladies of the World’ song recording by Flight of the Conchords.
Denis Halliday: ‘The U.N. Security Council – Dump The Wolves’.
Clive Stafford Smith: ‘Is the N.H.S. the best thing about Britain?’
Bruce Springsteen ’57 Channels And Nothin’ On’.
John Pilger: ‘Is the media now just another word for control?’
Dr. Rowan Williams: ‘Thought for the Day’ in the form of one of his poems.
Charles Simic poem, ‘Austerities’ read by Ralph Fiennes.
Giles Duley: ‘Behind The Faces Of War: the realities for injured servicemen’, followed by Joan Baez, ‘Johnny I Hardly Knew Ya’.
Phil Shiner and Ian Cobain: ‘How Britain taught the world to torture’, followed by ‘They Fight For Peace’, a poem by Shaker Aamer, read by Ralph Fiennes.
Julian Assange’s ‘Thought for the Day’ followed by Woody Guthrie song lyric ‘Ticky Tock’ read by Ralph Fiennes.
Weather Section – Tom Waits ‘Strange Weather’ acoustic demo version.
Business Section – John Rees: ‘How the city of London rules the world’, followed by the poem ‘London’ by William Blake, read by Ralph Fiennes.
Sport Section – Dave Zirin: ‘The effects of money and vested interests on sport’.
Filed under: Arms, UK foreign policy | 2 Comments