The Big Society that David Cameron trumpets so loudly does, despite appearances, offer very real opportunities for public-spirited individuals and groups to help to save the country billions of pounds.
I am a member of the Bridport Peace and Justice Group, and while I have not discussed it with my fellow committee members, I am fairly sure I can persuade them to take over the running of the Ministry of Defence.
I look forward to hearing from someone in the Ministry or the government.
In the July newsletter we reported on the letter written by Noel Hamel on behalf of Kingston Peace Council/CND to the local MPs - Vincent Cable, Ed Davey and newly elected Zac Goldsmith & Dominic Raab. Noel has had replies from Zac Goldsmith & Dominic Raab, and Ed Davey came to speak to KPC at our July meeting (see report below).
Zac Goldsmith directed us to his website www.zacgoldsmith.com which did not really address the points made about Trident. We assume he is happy with government policy. He refused to criticise the Mavi Marmara killings until the outcome of an inquiry.
Dominic Raab endorses the statement in the Government White Paper of 2006 which described the nuclear deterrent as “an essential part of our insurance against the uncertainties and risks of the future”. He considers that “the acquisition of nuclear weapons by North Korea and their attempted acquisition by Iran present real threats to international security” and is “deeply concerned by the proliferation in South Asia and beyond”. He therefore believes that “it is a strategic imperative that we maintain, update and replace our independent nuclear deterrent”. He states that the Government have agreed that the renewal of Trident should be scrutinised to ensure value for money and will play a strong role in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference and press for continued progress on multilateral disarmament.
Concerning the attack on the Free Gaza flotilla he says that “the loss of life was certainly tragic” but “naval blockades are a legitimate means of maritime warfare – set out in the 1994 San Remo manual” and “Israel has a right of self defence against Hamas – a terrorist group ……… There have been previous attempts to ship in heavy weapons to attack Israel” (quoting President Arafat!!! and the Katrine A in 2002). He suggests that the flotilla was provocative. However, “none of this excuses the serious Israeli failings that led to their disproportionate response”. He believes that “Britain must do all it can, within the international community, to support a resolution of the conflict through a two state solution” and he will “continue to argue the case for a lasting settlement on that basis”.
Ed Davey, MP for Kingston & Surbiton, is now part of the government as Minister for Employment Relations, Consumer and Postal Affairs and reports to Vincent Cable. We had written to him in advance to say that we would particularly like to hear his views on Trident replacement and the refusal of the Coalition Government to include Trident in the strategic defence review. We also wanted him to speak about his views on the arms trade, and its relationship to his new job with responsibility for the Export Credit Guarantee Department (ECGD) which underwrites losses when foreign buyers default on payments. The third area we wanted to discuss was British involvement in Afghanistan. When he came, he made some comments on Gaza too.
Not surprisingly, Ed Davey felt that the Liberal Democrats are having a positive influence in the Coalition and, considering there are only 57 Lib Dem MPs, they’ve got more of their ideas included than might have been expected, with some areas where Lib Dems will be allowed to abstain when it comes to voting.
The previous government believed that upgrading the Trident submarine nuclear weapons system was essential, and although the Lib Dems’ election manifesto policy was to defer the decision on renewal, the new coalition government has declared that nuclear weapons are to be ‘ring-fenced’ against the intrusion of defence and spending reviews in the autumn. EDM 110 seeks to get it included in the Defence Review, and some constituents had asked Ed to sign this EDM.
Ed explained that, as a government minister, he is not allowed to sign Early Day Motions (EDMs), because they are in effect motions against the government, so he will have to refuse any such requests. Lib Dems wanted Trident included in the defence review but have failed to achieve that. However, they have got the ‘value for money’ test accepted. He recognises that there are members of the government who take a hard line on Trident, but as part of the negotiations on the formation of the coalition it was agreed that the Lib Dems do not have to ‘toe the line’. He is impressed by William Hague’s strong statements on multilateral disarmament and says that Britain has gone further towards this goal than the others of the ‘Big 5’ nuclear weapons states. He admitted that he had not had a chance to catch up fully with the outcome of the Non Proliferation Treaty Review Conference held in New York in May, but offered to find out the inside details from Nick Harvey and Jeremy Browne and come back to talk to us on this.
UKTI DSO is the government department of UK Trade & Investment dedicated to promoting the interests of UK-based arms traders, employing 160 civil servants at taxpayers’ expense. Arms sales are 1.5% of exports and engage 0.2% of UK workforce. Arms traded may not be UK made but get more support than other UK manufacturing sectors. The DSO sponsors arms fairs, overseas sales ambassadors and briefs royalty for promotion tours. Sales are often to areas of armed conflict, even to both sides, including countries where the Foreign Office says human rights abuse is a problem.
Ed said that his main responsibilities in the Business Department cover Employment, Trade Policy, Competition Policy, Company Law, Consumer Affairs and Postal Affairs (including Royal Mail and Post Office Limited). Currently there is no minister with responsibility for UKTI – this appointment usually goes to a Lord. We had a wide-ranging discussion on government support for and subsidy to the arms trade. Ed has not yet seen CAAT’s recent report, Private Gain, Public Pain, although KPC/CND delivered a copy by hand to his constituency office recently, together with a covering letter. He very willingly accepted another copy and will be interested to read it.
He said that no public policy statement on ECGD has yet been issued so he was limited in what he could say about it. He stressed that the Export Credit Guarantee is not a subsidy to the Arms Trade, but a means of guaranteeing payment if the purchaser defaults, and the guarantee will only be made if applied for. He has been arguing for more support for low carbon technologies, although low carbon firms are not applying. He is pushing for the defence industry to have its full share of the cuts in the forthcoming spending reviews.
Ed said he agreed with Rosemary’s analysis that local people will always try to get rid of invaders but, nevertheless, he spoke of NATO forces ‘making some progress’ in their strategy of winning hearts and minds. He spoke about the paranoia of the Pakistan security services, about the use of drones, about the varying motives for Taliban support, and the effect of the lack of Pashtuns in the Afghan army. He believes there will be a lot of soul searching on Afghanistan in the British parliament during the next few months.
On the recent Israeli attack on the aid flotilla, Ed dwelt on what he viewed as positives: he felt that Hague’s statement to Parliament condemning the action and calling for an independent enquiry was the strongest government statement he had heard against Israel since becoming an MP; Obama had humiliated Netanyahu (but it’s a pity he won’t demand an end to building in the occupied territories); Germany rarely speaks out against Israel but is condemning this action. Ed has a lot of time for Senator Mitchell and believes he can make progress. He quoted him as saying that he was a failure every day in Northern Ireland until the Good Friday agreement was settled.
In spite of his heavy workload, Ed stayed with us for one and a half hours and with apparent honesty assured us that having spent all these years in politics trying to achieve what he believes in, he’s not going to abandon his principles now. We felt that, although of course he hadn’t said exactly the things we would have liked to hear, a useful discussion had taken place.
We reported in the July newsletter that KPC was trying to organize meetings with Vincent Cable and Edward Davey to discuss the arms trade, as part of CAAT’s Stop the Arms Trade week. Ed Davey came to KPC’s July meeting, a report of which is above.
Vince Cable, MP for Twickenham, is Business Secretary in the new government and is therefore responsible for the UK Trade and Investment Defence Services Organisation (UKTI DSO), the government department which exists to help (at tax-payers expense) arms companies sell their products worldwide. Seven supporters of Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) met with him by arrangement on Friday 25th June. The group of Twickenham constituents included members of Kingston Peace Council, Amnesty and UNA and a Quaker.
It was predictable that during a 30 minute appointment before Vince Cable’s general surgery began, we would probably not have time for a full discussion of the issues surrounding UKTI DSO, so two priorities were decided upon:
1. To find out if he is still sympathetic to the former Lib Dem view that arms exporters receive a disproportionate degree of taxpayer support, with many more civil servants being allocated to promote and assist weapons exports than are allocated to all other exports combined, even though the arms trade accounts for only 1.5% of total exports. And, if he is of this opinion, whether he plans any changes to UKTI DSO.
2. To present him with a copy of the new CAAT report Private Gain, Public Pain which details how the government actively promotes arms sales, even to repressive regimes with bad human rights records. The report also carefully refutes the justifications often put forward for this trade and clearly describes the failures of the controls which are supposedly in place to stop weapons getting into the wrong hands.
Dr Cable began by stating that he isn’t against arms trading, provided it is properly regulated and carefully monitored, and he believes this to be the case now. It is an area which has been of great concern to him in the past and he has been jointly responsible for instigating the tightening of arms control legislation. He also believes that under the anti-bribery legislation brought in by the last government, corruption such as that involving BAE Systems should not recur. He mentioned that he has set up an investigation into the work of DSO but the impression given was that this was perhaps more in an attempt to inform himself than to look into the type of complaint which CAAT supporters are making. He was rather dismissive of the idea that the Export Credit Guarantee Department (ECGD) provides much in the way of subsidy to the arms trade. Otherwise, he was fairly noncommittal and reluctant to discuss issues in detail since he feels he hasn’t yet fully mastered the complexities of his new job. Thus, our original questions were left unanswered. However, he willingly accepted the copy of Private Gain, Public Pain and promised to read it and write a critique of it.
One member of the group raised the issue of arms industry influence on universities and their research programmes and in this connection Dr Cable referred us to the article Defence research must be protected from cuts by Alison Wolf in the Financial Times of 20th June 2010. Another asked whether, bearing in mind Britain’s assets including an international language, a pioneering history in the fields of agriculture and engineering, important contributions to medical science, IT, economics and the arts, UKTI couldn’t give a bit more support to British industry in general and a bit less to the arms industry.
Time was very limited (although, to his credit, Dr Cable didn’t try to pressurise us) and the office was filling up with constituents waiting to see him, so we just had time for a photograph before leaving. Because he is so new to his job it seems unlikely that, even if more time had been available, we would have achieved a great deal more. However, the really positive outcome is that he agreed to read the report and comment fully on it. This may not happen quickly but we will follow it up and it should open up a very valuable dialogue.
The illusion of democracy we live with, and promoted by the free press, has only ever operated on a basis of party manifesto promises, many of which are ditched after the election. Even if a party promised a referendum on major issues, the free press and media generally would use their expertise to cloud the issues, lie through their back teeth, bring in Euro MPs to say the NHS (or whatever they wanted to denigrate) is a sixty year mistake and, as in Ireland on the E.U. constitution referendum, if the wrong decision is made there'll just have to be another vote and another vote until the right one is arrived at. A simple issue like ditching Trident to fund the NHS would really get the treatment from the media.
Behind all of this is the power of wealth and vested interests which is so entwined in government contracts and involving ministers, senior civil servants, and the secret service - remember how the BAE bribery case was dropped? I know, I know, but they still got away with a measly fine. The makers of bullets, shells, and all kinds of armaments have a vested interest in continuous war, so it seems that targeting the arms industry by the Peace Movement is of vital strategic importance.
I nearly choked on my Sunday morning breakfast porridge on reading your editorial comment headline ‘We must not abandon our principles abroad’ (25.07.10). What principles, one wonders, are those? We are fighting two unjust and gratuitous wars; one in Iraq which has resulted in the deaths of more than a million civilians and one in Afghanistan where civilian deaths are counted in the tens of thousands. We are colluding with our ‘special relationship’ (‘junior partner’) ally in attacking the villages of West Pakistan with flying robots which sacrifice civilians at the altar of protecting the lives of combatants. Our previous government stands accused of colluding in kidnap and torture (‘extraordinary rendition’) and obstructing the course of justice in the matter of arms dealing and bribery (Al Yamamah deal). Our prime minister is engaged as salesman for our largest arms company (BEA Systems) in promoting the sale of fighter jets to the government of India. Previously our government has promoted the sale of arms to both sides in conflicted India and Pakistan (see CAAT ‘Briefing’). Today’s Observer has a major news item headed ‘How Britain’s ‘deep state’ is covering up the mistakes that led to Iraq war’.
The moral of all this? Have your porridge before you read the Observer.
(Continued from Part 1)
In the second part of his essay Civil Disobedience, Thoreau outlines what he considers should be the duty of a citizen. He is uncompromising, asking that individuals should make more of a fuss than merely voting against a government that demands they act against the promptings of their conscience.
The question is a difficult one, familiar to KPN readers. How far ought one to go to combat a law or an action of leadership that one believes is immoral, issues that involve one’s conscience? In Thoreau’s day it was state-sponsored slavery, and a pre-emptive war in Mexico his government had embarked upon, that provoked his refusal to pay tax, resulting in a short spell in the local jail.
Today there are issues even greater and more urgent that affect the future of the whole planet. Most of us do no more than vote against the party responsible for the objectionable measures, once every four years, and make our views known solely amongst our circle of friends. Others campaign more actively for change, support organisations such as CND, Friends of the Earth, Amnesty International, CAAT etc, go on demonstrations, write to their MPs, and to the press. Some devote their whole lives to campaigning, working tirelessly and refusing to be discouraged – we have all known such people. And some very few with uncomfortably tender consciences do provoke arrest non-violently and go to prison, where they feel they have made a good bargain, trading physical freedom for freedom of conscience.
Perhaps there is no universal answer to Thoreau’s questions that fits everyone: how far are we responsible in a democracy for decisions made by our government, and what should we do when decisions are offensive?
Below follow quotes from Part Two of Civil Disobedience.
Those who, while they disapprove of the character and measures of a government, yield to it their allegiance and support are undoubtedly its most conscientious supporters, and so frequently the most serious obstacles to reform.
How can a man be satisfied to entertain an opinion, merely, and enjoy it? Is there any enjoyment in it, if his opinion is that he is aggrieved?
Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavour to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? Men generally . . . think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them.
Why does (the government) not cherish its wise minority? Why does it not encourage its citizens to be on the alert to point out its faults . . .
If (government) is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law.
It matters not how small the beginning may seem to be: what is once well done is done forever.
Reform keeps many newspapers in its service, but not one man.
Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also in prison.
Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence.
Final part of Civil Disobedience next month.
VIETNAM. For those of us of a certain age the word conjures up memories of a heroic David and Goliath battle, a small and poor country fighting and eventually defeating the mightiest military power on earth. But was that really the end of the story? Len Aldis, founder and Secretary of Britain-Vietnam Friendship Society, our guest speaker at a public meeting on Tuesday 22nd June, gave us a chilling reminder of the continuing suffering – 35 years and three generations on – of a people who were the victims of the “largest chemical warfare campaign in history.” [Spectre Orange Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy – The Guardian 29-03-2003]. (Step aside Saddam; you were but a small fry in this evil game).
Millions of litres of defoliants such as Agent Orange were dropped on Vietnam. Agent Orange was contaminated with one of the most virulent poisons known to man, a strain of dioxin called TCCD, which remains in the soil to this day. A small vial of 80 gm of TCCD, if dropped into the water supply of a city the size of New York, would kill the entire population. The US sprayed 170kg of it over Vietnam. It has contaminated the soil, the water and inevitably the entire food chain. “Once TCCD has entered the body it is there to stay due to its uncanny ability to dissolve in fats and to its rock solid chemical stability” [ibid]. People ingest the invisible toxin, pregnant women pass it through the placenta to the foetus and then through their breast milk, doubly infecting newborn babies. An estimated 500,000 Vietnamese have died as a result of contact with Agent Orange, and another one million suffer today from conditions attributed to exposure to the toxin.
We were shown graphic photos and a video of just a few of these innocent victims. A child with a hydrocephalic head as large as a melon, another with distended eyes like table-tennis balls popping out of his face, a 30 year old in the body of a 10 year old, matchstick limbs, no limbs..... indescribable horror after horror. But what was even more poignant was the care and love lavished on each one of these individuals by family members who had so few resources. They lacked almost everything you and I would see as ‘necessities’, but there was no lack of love or devotion.
This horror story is not one of those accidental unknown by-products of a war. There is plenty of evidence that in spite of US government denials over the years, it knew just how toxic this weapon of mass destruction was. US scientists from the National Institute of Health warned of its lethal effects, and media reports that the chemical agent was destroying lives in Vietnam were officially denied. 5,000 US scientists, including 17 Nobel laureates signed a petition against “chemical and biological weapons used in Vietnam”.
The Vietnamese health service cannot cope with the huge demand on it and the Vietnamese Red Cross has sufficient funds to help only one fifth of the one million they have registered as victims of Agent Orange. They pay out an average of £3 a month. The United States signed a peace treaty at the end of the war which committed it to pay Vietnam $3.5 Billion in reparations. Vietnam has yet to see the first cent of what it is owed. (BP – are you taking note?)
An attempt to try to get justice via the US courts against the companies which manufactured and supplied Agent Orange failed when the Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal, without so much as providing a reason. Justice Clarence Thomas who was part of this decision was a lawyer for Monsanto, one of the major companies in the law suit. No conflict of interest it seems.
So it is that this tiny country which inspired so many of us in the past has slipped down the ladder of our consciousness. Len Aldis has been a devoted and inspiring friend of Vietnam working to re-awaken all of us to an ongoing tragedy. He is living testimony to the fact that every one of us can make a difference.
Len Aldis is editor of Vietnam Report, a quarterly publication (subscription £3 per annum) of the Britain-Vietnam Friendship Society - see www.lenaldis.co.uk . Payment and donations can be made by cheque payable to BVFS, to Len Aldis, Flat 2, 26 Tomlins Grove, London E3 4NS.
Roshan Pedder (Thanks to Harry Davis who kindly shared his notes of the meeting with me)
Newsletter Editor for this issue was Gill Hurle.
Disclaimer: It is the nature of a newsletter like KPN that views cannot be sought on everything that appears herein, so views expressed are almost never the agreed opinion of the group.