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

The Home Office made Theresa May. But it could still destroy her

Even politicians who leave the Home Office a success may find themselves dogged by it. 

Good morning. When Theresa May left the Home Office for the last time, she told civil servants that there would always be a little bit of the Home Office inside her.

She meant in terms of its enduring effect on her, but today is a reminder of its enduring ability to do damage on her reputation in the present day.

The case of Jamal al-Harith, released from Guantanamo Bay under David Blunkett but handed a £1m compensation payout under Theresa May, who last week died in a suicide bomb attack on Iraqi forces in Mosul, where he was fighting on behalf of Isis. 

For all Blunkett left in the wake of a scandal, his handling of the department was seen to be effective and his reputation was enhanced, rather than diminished, by his tenure. May's reputation as a "safe pair of hands" in the country, as "one of us" on immigration as far as the Conservative right is concerned and her credibility as not just another headbanger on stop and search all come from her long tenure at the Home Office. 

The event was the cue for the Mail to engage in its preferred sport of Blair-bashing. It’s all his fault for the payout – which in addition to buying al-Harith a house may also have fattened the pockets of IS – and the release. Not so fast, replied Blair in a punchy statement: didn’t you campaign for him to be released, and wasn’t the payout approved by your old pal Theresa May? (I paraphrase slightly.)

That resulted in a difficult Q&A for Downing Street’s spokesman yesterday, which HuffPo’s Paul Waugh has posted in full here. As it was May’s old department which has the job of keeping tabs on domestic terror threats the row rebounds onto her. 

Blair is right to say that every government has to “balance proper concern for civil liberties with desire to protect our security”. And it would be an act of spectacular revisionism to declare that Blair’s government was overly concerned with civil liberty rather than internal security.

Whether al-Harith should never have been freed or, as his family believe, was picked up by mistake before being radicalised in prison is an open question. Certainly the journey from wrongly-incarcerated fellow traveller to hardened terrorist is one that we’ve seen before in Northern Ireland and may have occurred here.

Regardless, the presumption of innocence is an important one but it means that occasionally, that means that someone goes on to commit crimes again. (The case of Ian Stewart, convicted of murdering the author Helen Bailey yesterday, and who may have murdered his first wife Diane Stewart as well, is another example of this.)

Nonetheless, May won’t have got that right every time. Her tenure at the Home Office, so crucial to her reputation as a “safe pair of hands”, may yet be weaponised by a clever rival, whether from inside or outside the Conservative Party. 

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