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Correspondent Sunday, 28 April, 2002, 14:41 GMT 15:41 UK
Addicted to arms: a Will Self investigation
Will Self - Addicted to Arms
As growing concerns about human rights around the world help push arms sales up the political agenda, and New Labour continues to preach an ethical foreign policy gospel, reporter and novelist Will Self goes in search of the truth behind Britain's continuing addiction to the arms sales fix.

Dr Robert Le Fevre, one of the country's pre-eminent experts on addictive illness, puts Britain on the patient's couch.

Dr Robert Le Fevre
Dr Le Fevre: addiction is addiction even with a country

Although Le Fevre is more used to treating those addicted to drugs, alcohol or gambling, he does not hesitate in addressing the problems of Britain's apparent addiction: "Anything which is progressive and destructive can be an addiction.

"So if the process of our arms manufacture and sale is that we're putting up the budget the whole time, we're selling in a progressively more indiscriminate manner...then these are addictive characteristics."


Since World War II, Britain has become one of the world's leading arms exporters.

Britain's arms exports
1975 470m
1995 4.7bn

Under New Labour, and despite the rhetoric, the country has managed to consolidate its position as the second largest exporter behind the US.

Arms exports rose from just 470 million in 1975 to 4.7 billion in 1995, even accounting for inflation. So, decade-on-decade, our "dependency" on arms - if that is what it is - is certainly progressive.


Britain's record of arms sales to war zones is long and, for some, inglorious.

Tank in action
Lebanon was in the firing line in 1982

It stretches back well over a century, and includes sales to South Africa - British-made Saracens were used at Sharpeville for riot control; Israel - British-made Chieftans were used in the 1982 invasion of Lebanon; and Indonesia - British Hawk aircraft were reportedly involved in the genocidal campaign against the East Timorese.

All of these conflicts were destructive - some on the grand scale.

Le Fevre's initial description of an addiction seems to fit our apparent arms fix.

But are there other ways in which Britain demonstrates an addictive personality in its sales?

Did East Timor experience the wrath of the Hawk?


An addict rarely admits to the true nature of their addiction. And, patient Britain seems to be in denial too.

The whole business of arms is shrouded in euphemisms when you meet industry representatives and study their publicity material.

In opposition, Labour constantly berated the Tories for the excesses of their arms exports.

In office, even though they may have inherited problems, they seem to have ditched their strongly held principles.

Mark Phythian is the academic author of one of the most authoritative recent works on Britain's arms exports policy. He said: "The problem was that Labour went into the 1997 elections with irreconcilable aims really.

Cook was told to turn down the volume on arms exports, and focus on something else

Mark Phythian

"While Robin Cook was being feted by anti-arms trade groups on the one hand and promising control, Tony Blair was reassuring British Aerospace and employees of British Aerospace that Labour was a friend to the defence export industry.

"And once these came into conflict of course, Downing Street carried the day, Cook was told to turn down the volume on arms exports, and focus on something else."

Secretive Behaviour

For Le Fevre, secrecy is another key attribute of addictive behaviour, something that seems to be integral to the business of arms exports in this country.

The government's annual report on arms export licenses allows the public to find out how many individual licenses have been granted, but not how much of what goes to whom and when. This information is solely about licenses that have already been granted.

Will Self sees it all as further confirmation of his "addiction" metaphor.

There is an implicit understanding between government and industry that secrecy is essential to arms sales success. But the secrecy at work today goes beyond requirements set out in legislation.

Al-Yamama arms deal

One stark example of this is the behaviour of the government, past and present, over the 25bn Al-Yamama arms deal with Saudi Arabia, negotiated by Lady Thatcher, when she was Prime Minister.

It was described in the mid-eighties as "the biggest sale ever of anything to anyone by anyone."

The National Audit Office
The NAO - their report is still unpublished

By the time John Major took office, there were persistent allegations of bribery and corruption surrounding the deal.

The National Audit Office, a supposedly independent national body that audits government's finances on our behalf, wrote a report on the deal. But the Major government suppressed it.

Despite Labour's claims that they would publish it once in office, they too have withheld publication.

Ann Clwyd
"The NAO is an independent organisation"

Ann Clwyd, an indefatigable back-bench campaigner who has monitored Britain's arms trade for years, says she has been trying for a long time to have it published: "We continue to try to table questions about the report's publication but there's actually no minister you can table that question to because the National Audit Office is an independent organisation."

For Will Self, there's something very ironic about a department producing a major report on the world's largest arms contract and then hiding it away.

Dishonest Behaviour

According to Dr Le Fevre: "Addicts will pretend to themselves they are not capable of doing things that are 100% honest." For him, dishonesty is endemic to addictive behaviour.

So what about our government's approach?

In their manifesto, and since coming to power, Labour has stated categorically their "pledges for a responsible arms trade".

These include a firm commitment to not issue export licenses for the sale of arms: to regimes that might use them for internal repression or international aggression.

Tony Blair travelled to India earlier this year on a peace mission, after the two nuclear powers India and Pakistan had again been squaring up over Kashmir.

The trigger of an SLR
True government transparency could trigger interesting results

But as he spoke about Britain exerting "a calming influence" his government was simultaneously attempting to seal a massive 1bn sale of Hawk jets to India.

No one in the British Government agreed to speak to Will Self for the Correspondent programme. So he decided to call on the Indian Defence Minister, George Fernandez.

Fernandez was asked what he makes of the attempts in Britain to control arms exports and limit the states to which British arms are being sold?

"I don't think one can be absolute about the conditions and guarantees and so forth. At what point in time, what will erupt where, one never knows. In a matter of life and death you can't go in for absolutes."

Whether or not you agree with him, what marks him out from British officials is that he was prepared to talk on camera.

For seven weeks Will Self approached four government ministries and the prime minister's own department and asked them if they'd be prepared to appear on the programme.

They all declined.

Will Self
"It's all about joined up government"
Will Self is disillusioned. "I am forced to the conclusion that this is what joined up government means. All the relevant government departments joined up to frustrate the public interest in a matter of pressing and paramount importance."

And Le Fevre is pessimistic about the immediate future. "How much pain is 'Addict Britain' in? You don't change an addict's behaviour unless they are in pain. 'Addict Britain' has got to look at himself and say, I'm not actually very proud of this at all, I need some help."

Click here for full programme transcript

Addicted to Arms

Reporter: Will Self
Producer: Amir Amirani
Series Producer: Simon Finch
Editor: Fiona Murch

Will Self
"Well, we all knew that..."
Tony Blair
"The left hand doesn't know what the right hand's doing"
Will Self
"It's all about joined-up government"
See also:

18 Apr 02 | Business
18 Apr 02 | UK Politics
12 Jan 02 | UK Politics
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