An arms sales ban would cost us nothing

A few days ago, the Foreign Office - and let us at least give it credit for increased transparency - issued its annual report on arms control. It reveals that licences were granted for £992m-worth of arms exports in 2003. The recipients included Indonesia and Colombia, which are involved in what amount to civil wars; India and Pakistan, which periodically go to the brink of war with each other; Iran and China, both supposedly under arms embargoes; several Middle Eastern countries, including Saudi Arabia, despite the threat that they may fall to Islamist fundamentalists; and Israel, where the likely use of military equipment is all too clear. Nepal, also involved in civil conflict, has not even had to pay. It has received a gift of military equipment worth £3.53m, including aircraft, from the satirically titled Global Conflict Prevention Pool. At least there is no sign this time of Zimbabwe, to which Britain sold arms in the late 1990s.

The truth is that banning the sale of weapons - except to our closest and most trusted and stable allies - is the best contribution Britain could make to the "war on terror". Terror has not so far been conducted through chemical, biological or nuclear arms, but through conventional explosives, pistols, machine-guns, mortars and hand-held missiles. These are all made in large quantities in Britain and exported, as the manufacturers cheerfully admit, with little knowledge of where they may end up. It is estimated that some 150,000 shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles are in unauthorised hands.

The worldly-wise insist that geopolitical realities demand we supply friendly regimes with arms, even if they are careless of human rights. Some governments need our arms if they are not to fall to Islamist fundamentalists, it is said. But this is a fool's game. Today's allies become tomorrow's enemies, as the cases of Iraq and Iran amply demonstrate. The proliferation of weapons does not make us safer (small arms alone kill 500,000 people a year): it makes the world more unstable.

It is argued that the British arms industry is a vital export earner and creator of jobs. This is nonsense. Defence exports account for just 3 per cent of exports and for about 90,000 jobs, or less than 0.4 per cent of total employment. Unlike coal miners, who lost 180,000 jobs between 1985 and 1993, the large majority of defence workers have transferable skills and, on past experience, about 90 per cent would find new work within a year. Their present jobs are heavily subsidised: through government-funded research; through the sales support of the armed forces, the Defence Export Services Organisation and UK embassies; through the free promotional work done by ministers and members of the royal family, and through the Export Credits Guarantee Department. Some studies estimate that the subsidy amounts to £8,500 for every job in the industry. As Sir Samuel Brittan, the Financial Times columnist and dedicated supporter of competitive markets, has observed, official support for the arms trade is just a hangover from the corporatist old Labour policy of picking national champions. Moreover, arms sales are riddled with corruption, as the recent allegations surrounding BAe Systems show. Such firms may even be an economic disbenefit to the country, because they use human and financial capital that could be better deployed elsewhere.

It is often said that if we don't sell these arms, someone else will. This argument could equally be used to justify selling one's daughter into prostitution. Here is a case where the British government could set a moral lead and do the right thing at insignificant and perhaps nil cost. Labour MPs and voters should demand to know why it hasn't.

How to rise above sleaze

As John Pilger points out on page 11, Ronald Reagan, who died on 5 June, was the president who secretly diverted arms to his right-wing allies in Nicaragua and supported the notorious National Guard and its death squads in El Salvador. Perhaps less well known is his backing for a regime in Guatemala that killed 100,000 Mayan Indians and for Jonas Savimbi and his murderous Unita organisation in Angola. Even more forgotten is the extent of illegality in the Reagan administrations: according to one estimate, 138 officials were investigated for misconduct or criminal violations. Many escaped conviction because they were pardoned by Reagan's successor, the first President Bush.

Not only did numerous officials commit perjury during congressional investigations of the Iran-Contra affair, but also a number of domestic departments were involved in large-scale fraud. One of the worst cases involved the department of housing and urban development where billions of taxpayers' dollars which should have helped the poor with low-cost housing went to the administration's friends and fixers. James Watt, Reagan's secretary of the interior, admitted in the 1990s that, after he left government, he got $500,000 in kickbacks for arranging favourable contracts for private firms with his contacts in the department. He got five years probation, 500 hours of community service and a fine.

So why is Reagan remembered, even abroad and even among Americans who suffered grievously from his policies (see Robert Chesshyre, page 16), with more affection than any other president of the past 40 years? The answer is that, if you run a sleazy government, you need a folksy but slightly bemused manner, as if you were an ordinary Joe who accidentally finds himself running the country and doesn't quite know what is going on. (Contrast Richard Nixon, who was far too obviously clever and devious.) The second Bush also has this talent and it may, alas, save him in November.