Paul Foot

Jonathan Aitken
Weaving a tangled web

(July/August 1997)

From Notes of the Month, Socialist Review, No.210, July/August 1997, p.6.
Copyright © 1997 Socialist Review. Published on MIA with the permission of the Estate of Paul Foot. Paul Foot Internet Archive ( 2005.
Downloaded with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

As the celebrations die down for the wonderful victory scored by the Guardian and World in Action over Jonathan Aitken, the question still lingers: why? Why did such a high flying politician, a man named even as a future prime minister, gamble his entire future on a ridiculous lie? So what if he did go to the Ritz in Paris to meet rich Arabs? So what if one of the Arabs did pay his bill for one night? So what if he forgot to tell the cabinet secretary about his visit as he was, by ministerial rules, obliged to do? Wasn’t the incident itself really rather trivial? Could not Aitken, with even half the charm and poise for which he is accustomed, have owned up, apologised, explained that he was always going off to rich hotels with rich friends, some of them Arabs, and that on this occasion, damn it, he just forgot to obey the rules?

If he had adopted that approach, how long would the storm have lasted? A day, perhaps two. Anyone who objected would soon find themselves being attacked as a muckraker by the Daily Mail. Aitken would have recovered quickly. So why on earth would he go to such fantastic lengths to weave such an intricate story, and then persuade not just his wife but also his 17 year old daughter to come to court and perjure themselves too?

The answer is that the men Aitken met in that Paris hotel were no ordinary Arab friends together for a jovial weekend. They were some of the most powerful men on earth, whose power derives directly from the wealth they have swiped from the cheap oil of Saudi Arabia. The dictators in Riyadh are constantly building up their already enormous armed forces in such a way that they themselves personally benefit. They pay themselves ‘commissions’ over and on top of the cost of the military equipment they purchase.

Thus the cost of producing and supplying an average Tornado jet fighter is £20 million and the average price paid to Britain by the Saudi government for a Tornado is £35 million. The difference goes directly into the voluminous bank accounts of the Saudi royals not only in Switzerland but in tax havens all over the world.

The chief sellers of arms to the Saudis, the British and French governments, know perfectly well that the whole trade in arms between the two countries is founded on corruption. They are most anxious to keep the details quiet. This explains the curious case of Mr Robert Sheldon, a right wing Labour politician who has represented Ashton-Under-Lyne in parliament for as long as anyone can remember and has for years been chairman of the top ‘watchdog’ House of Commons Public Accounts Committee.

Sheldon has a reputation for publishing the awkward reports of his committee, and his persistent if mild reformism has won him many admirers. But in the early spring of 1992 he came across something he couldn’t publish. The National Audit Office had produced for the committee a report on arms sales to the Saudi government, and had even dared, mildly enough of course, to open the taboo question of the size of commissions. At once Sheldon agreed that these matters were too sensitive for public consumption and the report was consigned to the rubbish heap of government secrecy. The Saudi government had made it clear that they did not want precise figures and transactions exposed to the British public. So the NAO report was suddenly and inexplicably censored, confiscated and removed where no one could possibly see it.

At almost exactly the same time, Jonathan Aitken, for years a paid ‘adviser’ to the arms industry, became Minister for Defence Procurement. At long last, he told his Saudi friends, you have a friend in the place you want him most. At once earnest negotiations started to supply the Saudi government with a heavy consignment of 48 Tornados.

The most earnest part of the negotiations was about commissions. This was the debate which took Jonathan Aitken to the Ritz in Paris in 1988 to meet no less than the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. If there is anything which must be kept quiet more than any other it is the paying of commissions on the Al Yamamah arms deal between the British and Saudi governments. For a moment the entire deal was in peril. Aitken felt it was time for him to intervene. He went to Paris to meet his friends to talk about another round of unforgivable commissions.

The secrecy of those talks was crucial. Literally nothing mattered more. If word got out about the extent of the commissions or even that a minister was discussing the extent of the commissions in open conversation the result would have been catastrophic. The arms trade cannot be expected to flourish except in circumstances of the utmost secrecy. Aitken had been found out, but it was his bounden duty not to talk to anyone about his hidden fortune. Lie followed lie, hypocrisy followed hypocrisy; and so they always will do as long as the world is competing to buy the best value in the instruments of mass destruction.


Last updated on 12.2.2005