Paul Foot

Arms dealing
Will they get off Scott free?

(May 1995)

From Notes of the Month, Socialist Review, No. 186, May 1995, pp. 4–5.
Transcribed & marked upby Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Two extreme opinions circulate on the left about the inquiry by Lord Justice Scott into the export of defence related equipment to Iraq. The first is that the report has been a shining example of how a liberal parliamentary democracy can check itself when it slides into pusillanimity and sleaze. For such people, the noble Lord Justice has behaved like a knight in shining armour, wielding, to coin a popular phrase, the shining sword of truth and the trusty shield of British fair play against lying politicians and deceitful civil servants. No doubt, such people hope, the Scott Report will tear aside the veil behind which government pledges and arms embargoes are broken, and lambast the entire corrupt system.

Such people are in for a shock. The first section of the Scott Report, which has been widely leaked, deals with the history of arms export control. The judge, who gleefully sequestrated the funds of the South Wales NUM during the miners’ strike, is no socialist or rebel. His attitude to government control of arms exports is that it has been far too strict.

He is disgusted that the government has used a short draconian measure passed during the wartime emergency of 1939, which effectively gave ministers complete power over all arms exports. This, the Lord Justice thinks, is an appalling interference with the inalienable right of businessmen to export what they want, including the means of slaughter. He believes that, if the government wants to control such commendable free enterprise, it must move cautiously with carefully constructed statutes which allow enormous leeway for free marketeers.

Those who believe that the Scott Report will be an ideologically challenging document which might finally bring down the government are whistling in the wind.

There is, however, the second extreme view, even more absurd. This is that the Scott Report is of no significance to the course of modern capitalism, and can be safely ignored by all socialists.

This view is a profound misunderstanding of the crisis which brought the Scott inquiry into being. As Britain’s economic role has declined, as Britain has sailed down the world league of manufacturers, shipbuilders and vehicle builders, so its exports have increasingly come to rely on the arms industry.

The advantages of arms exports are obvious. They produce a high return, and can be kept utterly secret from the public. They are in constant demand all over the world. Yet their disadvantages lead to equally obvious problems. Arms are needed most where wars are being waged – wars which ‘responsible’ democratic governments such as the British government are usually trying (at any rate in public statements at the United Nations) to stop.

The big conflicts which are the real honeypot for the arms exporting industries are almost always subject to embargoes. The Iran-Iraq war was no exception. To keep up its wholly unjustified reputation as a peacekeeper, the British government had to be seen to be discouraging arms exports to either side.

Hence the notorious ‘guidelines’ to industry, announced in parliament in 1985, which banned the export of any ‘lethal equipment’ to the warring countries. Against the guidelines were ranged all those who wanted to make money by killing Iranians or Iraqis. These exporters had considerable support in the ministry of defence and the department of trade. Alan Clark, a wild Thatcherite eccentric, served in both ministries from 1986 to 1992, and went on record as denouncing the guidelines. If there was a war between two sets of foreigners a long way away, he argued, why not make some decent foreign exchange by selling both sides as many arms as they wanted?

The clash between these two views – the official respectable view represented by the then junior foreign office minister William Waldegrave and the gung-ho view of Clark and co. – constantly tore at the fabric of government. For most of the Iran-Iraq war there was an uneasy truce between the two sides. But when the war ended and the embargo remained, the hawks lost patience and insisted on busting the embargo.

Their greed was accommodated by a typical British compromise. Waldegrave and Clark agreed that the guidelines would be changed to allow a flood of defence related equipment especially to booming Iraq – but no one, not even the prime minister and certainly not the public, would know about it. Thus embargoed exports flooded to Iraq while everyone who asked about it was told that the embargo was still in force.

This compromise would have continued forever had it not been for another contradiction. Britain is a military power and may have to fight wars itself. Its government must therefore be careful not to allow the export of arms which might be used against it. One of the great tragicomic figures of the whole story is one Lt Col Richard Glazebrook whose job it was to keep warning his colleagues in the ministry of defence that they should not so recklessly agree to the selling of military equipment against which, if it were turned on British troops, Britain would have no answer.

Glazebrook was mocked and outvoted, but when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in the summer of 1990, he had the last laugh. He greatly enjoyed listing the exports which he had warned against but which now were in the hands of an army ranged against British troops.

The Gulf War quickly tore the uneasy compromise apart. The embargo had to be imposed more fiercely than ever. All sorts of curious characters were caught up in the process. Three British directors of Matrix Churchill, a Midlands firm owned by Iraqi government supporters which had been happily exporting machine tools for use in Saddam’s artillery factories, suddenly found themselves prosecuted.

Their defence was that the government and MI6 had supported them throughout. When their defence was proved by documents wrung from a reactant civil service, the case collapsed – and the government nearly collapsed too. Major survived only by setting up the Scott inquiry and giving it more powers to wrest the facts from the government machine than had ever been given to any public inquiry in British history.

As a result, Scott found himself beavering away in the cracks of the system. Since the whole ‘solution’ to the arms for Iran-Iraq problem had been based on lying to parliament and the public, Scott was horrified to discover an enormous network of deceit. There can be no doubt that his report will be a hideous embarrassment to government ministers, law officers and the civil service.

Even if, as seems likely, he lets the merchants of death off lightly, he cannot excuse, for instance, serial deception of parliament and blatant contempt for the most basic rules of fair play to defendants. The shortcomings of the whole saga quickly fade beside the altogether exhilarating prospect of at least some official confirmation of what socialists have always propounded: that lying, cheating and double talk are not just incidental to the system. They are essential to it.

Last updated on 2 July 2017