The great (neck breaking) debate

The death penalty debate is one of personal agendas, desperate publicity, and is an inevitable dialo

I am falling into a trap. I know that by talking about the newly ignited debate over restoring the death penalty, no matter how it is discussed, it gives credence to something that I might not think deserves credence.

But here it is: it's unavoidable, given that I've seen it on television, heard about it on the radio and read about it everywhere, from newspapers to Twitter and beyond. So I think you have to talk about it, even if that means giving certain people the publicity they so desperately seem to crave.

Sometimes, you have to fall into one trap, to avoid falling into another trap. The other trap, in this instance, is to imagine that by not talking about the newly ignited debate over restoring the death penalty, that somehow it will go away. And those of us who don't believe the death penalty should be restored should be prepared to debate it. If we don't, we run the risk of being the political elite, looking down on the plebs and dismissing their views as being unimportant from our lofty perches - and that won't do at all.

That's exactly how some people would like to portray the kind of people who don't think it's a good idea to bring back the rope, or lethal injection, or whichever humane or inhumane method of terminating the life of an undesirable person is proposed. An impression can be created in which our political masters and the detached elite are unwilling to talk about issues that matter to ordinary people, creating anger. You may argue that this kind of detachment is not limited to matters of lawful homicide and applies to a great deal of the business of government - but on such an emotive issue as this, it can benefit one side of the argument to portray their opponents as deliberately ignoring the wishes of the 'general will'.

The problem faced in this particular debate right now, I think, is one of momentum. This whole business came about because of newly relaunched epetitions to the Government; those proposing a return of state-sponsored neck-breaking were obviously quicker out of the blocks than those arguing for the status quo. Of course they were: who launches a petition to keep things as they are? If you don't agree with the petition wanting to restore the right of the Government to kill those citizens it deems unworthy, then you just ignore it. The active position defeats the passive one, in this instance.

Which is why I've seen petitions started to retain the death penalty. Again, you could argue that these people are allowing the other side of the argument to win, by acknowledging that there's a debate to be had in the first place, but it's probably a debate worth having, if enough people are going to be shouting about it from one side. If no-one is shouting about it from the other, it could create a false impression that more people are in favour than actually are. I suppose it seems strange for anyone to want to sign a petition to retain the lack of a death penalty, as it is to sign a petition to retain the lack of killing every first-born male child, but doing so might, perhaps, reveal that this debate - if we must have it - is not as cut-and-dried as it's being portrayed in some quarters.

In the meantime, the debate - if we can call it a debate -is carrying merrily on, during the summer recess and the silly season, providing an easy subject matter for radio phone-ins and struggling columnists alike (oh look). It gives the opportunity for those with an agenda to pursue it, and beyond that, to appear on television and radio and in print with increasing regularity - which may not be desperately disappointing for their egos, one suspects.

Is this all just a lot of fuss about nothing? Do people really, really want to bring back the Rope to sort out who deserves to live and who deserves to die, particularly at a time when so much police corruption is being investigated? It will be interesting to see if the debate has legs, or whether it's just a handy distraction from phonehacking, the miserable economic situation and other questions of competence during the summertime. Regardless, it's important to take it seriously, and not dismiss it, I think, whatever your view.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Saudi Arabia is a brutal and extremist dictatorship – so why are we selling it arms?

With conflict in Yemen continuing, it’s clear that we’re failing to moderate the actions of “our despots”.

This year, during Pride week, I noticed something curious on top of the Ministry of Defence just off Whitehall. At the tip of the building’s flagpole hung the rainbow flag – a symbol of liberation for LGBTIQ people and, traditionally, a sign of defiance, too.

I was delighted to see it, and yet it also struck me as surprising that the governmental headquarters of our military would fly such a flag. Not only because of the forces’ history of homophobia, but more strikingly to me because of the closeness of our military establishment to regimes such as Saudi Arabia, where homosexuality is a sin punishable by jail, lashing and even death

That relationship has been under the spotlight recently. Ministers writhed and squirmed to avoid making public a report that’s widely expected to reveal that funding for extremism in Britain has come from Saudi Arabia. The pressure peaked last week, after a series of parliamentary questions I tabled, when survivors of 9/11 wrote to Theresa May asking her to make the report public. At the final PMQs of the parliamentary term last week, I again pressed May on the issue, but like so many prime ministers before her, she brushed aside my questioning on the link between British arms sales and the refusal to expose information that might embarrass the Riyadh regime. 

The British government’s cosy relationship with Riyadh and our habit of selling weapons to authoritarian regimes is “justified" in a number of ways. Firstly, ministers like to repeat familiar lines about protecting British industry, suggesting that the military industrial complex is central to our country’s economic success.

It is true to say that we make a lot of money from selling weapons to Saudi Arabia – indeed figures released over the weekend by the Campaign Against Arms Trade revealed that the government authorised exports including £263m-worth of combat aircraft components to the Saudi air force, and £4m of bombs and missiles in the six months from October 2016.

Though those numbers are high, arms exports is not a jobs-rich industry and only 0.2 per cent of the British workforce is actually employed in the sector. And let’s just be clear – there simply is no moral justification for employing people to build bombs which are likely to be used to slaughter civilians. 

Ministers also justify friendship and arms sales to dictators as part of a foreign policy strategy. They may be despots, but they are “our despots”. The truth, however, is that such deals simply aren’t necessary for a relationship of equals. As my colleague Baroness Jones said recently in the House of Lords:

"As a politician, I understand that we sometimes have to work with some very unpleasant people and we have to sit down with them and negotiate with them. We might loathe them, but we have to keep a dialogue going. However, we do not have to sell them arms. Saudi Arabia is a brutal dictatorship. It is one of the world’s worst Governments in terms of human rights abuses. We should not be selling it arms.”

With Saudi Arabia’s offensive against targets in Yemen continuing, and with UN experts saying the attacks are breaching international law, it’s clear that we’re failing to moderate the actions of "our despots".

The government’s intransigence on this issue – despite the overwhelming moral argument – is astonishing. But it appears that the tide may be turning. In a recent survey, a significant majority of the public backed a ban on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and just this weekend the Mayor of London denounced the arms fair planned in the capital later this year. When the government refused to make the terror funding report public, there was near-universal condemnation from the opposition parties. On this issue, like so many others, the Tories are increasingly isolated and potentially weak.

Read more: How did the High Court decide weapon sales to Saudi Arabia are lawful?

The arms industry exists at the nexus between our country’s industrial and foreign policies. To change course we need to accept a different direction in both policy areas. That’s why I believe that we should accompany the end of arms exports to repressive regimes with a 21st century industrial policy which turns jobs in the industry into employment for the future. Imagine if the expertise of those currently building components for Saudi weaponry was turned towards finding solutions for the greatest foreign policy challenge we face: climate change. 

The future of the British military industrial establishment’s iron grip over government is now in question, and the answers we find will define this country for a generation. Do we stamp our influence on the world by putting our arm around the head-choppers of Riyadh and elsewhere, or do we forge a genuinely independent foreign policy that projects peace around the world – and puts the safety of British people at its core?

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.