Cameron's Gulf arms tour betrays his promises

Having once declared that "our interests lie in upholding our values", the PM now pursues arms sales without restraint.

As David Cameron arrives in the Gulf with the aim of selling at least 100 Typhoon fighter jets to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, it's worth recalling the words of his speech to the Kuwaiti National Assembly on 22 February 2011. Back then, as the Arab Spring was erupting, Cameron denounced previous British governments for prioritising commercial ties over human rights. He said:

For decades, some have argued that stability required highly controlling regimes, and that reform and openness would put that stability at risk.  So, the argument went, countries like Britain faced a choice between our interests and our values.  And to be honest, we should acknowledge that sometimes we have made such calculations in the past. But I say that is a false choice. 

As recent events have confirmed, denying people their basic rights does not preserve stability, rather the reverse. Our interests lie in upholding our values – in insisting on the right to peaceful protest, in freedom of speech and the internet, in freedom of assembly and the rule of law. But these are not just our values, but the entitlement of people everywhere; of people in Tahrir Square as much as Trafalgar Square.

But as the PM's three-day trip begins, we've heard much about "our interests" and all too little about "our values". Downing Street shamelessly declared that the purpose of the visit was "to help Britain compete and thrive in the global race." It went on: "A central pillar is our defence relationship with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia given our shared commitment to security and stability and defeating the threats we face in the wider Middle East region." Yet for the people of the Middle East, as Cameron previously noted, "stability" means autocracy.

While No. 10 went on to make a token reference to the "pursuit of political and economic reform", it made no effort to disguise the fact that human rights are now of little concern. Indeed, the trip is partly designed to reassure Saudi Arabia after the Commons foreign affairs select committee launched an investigation into UK relations with the country and Bahrain. After Cameron's laudable words on democracy, the government has reverted to type.

Two Eurofighter Typhoons take off at RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

0800 7318496