Police watch as demonstrators protest the killing of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Photo: Getty
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Britain should not look at the militarised police in Ferguson and congratulate itself

The UK may not have a police force that is equipped like an army, but through our arms trade we export death to some of the most volatile regions of the world. It has to stop.

As the fires rage in Ferguson, Missouri, it can be tempting for a British person to feel proud that guns are so much less a part of our culture. Night after night the world has watched as demonstrators have protested against the shooting of a black teenager by an officer in their local police force. Violence perpetuated by these citizens of America has been met with the force and harshness of a military occupier because the United States has armed its civilian police forces like it were an army complete with tanks, rockets and battle gear for its police personal. In an attempt not to be outgunned by a freely armed populace, the St Louis police force has seemingly lost all sight of the fact that these are citizens to serve and protect not enemies to be defeated.

Though we should be mindful that we have started to militarise our police – see the recent purchase by London’s Mayor Boris Johnson of water cannon to be used in the event of municipal unrest by the citizenry – Britain should be justifiably proud of our stringent gun control laws that keep our citizen safe from gun violence. But we should be equally ashamed at how we export death to volatile regions. We sell more weapons of war abroad then Russian or China and the British arms industry accounts for 15 per cent of total armaments purchased by foreign governments. When it comes to precision guided missiles or ordinary rifles, Britain is like a sweet shop to countries that feel threatened by political or military unrest. We sell death to our allies and to fair weather friends with abandon. We sell everything, from fighter planes that can strafe both armies and civilians with impunity, to machine guns that can dispatch both the good and bad into unmarked graves, to missiles that can obliterate city blocks, city streets and city apartments where ordinary people like you and me live and work.

I learned a long time ago that war is carnage, chaos, fear and that it kills, maims or hurts both combatants and innocent civilians. I was a young man of 22 when I saw first-hand the torrent of shattered, starved and brutalised civilians pour from the carnage of battle along the roads of Belgium, Holland and Germany at the end of the Second World War. The look on their faces is something that will never leave me. I felt sure that it was something the world would never again see on that scale.

I was, however, sadly mistaken because this year the UN reported that across the globe there were more than 50 million refugees who had been dispersed from their countries because of war, totalitarianism, religious or sexual persecution. Moreover, as Europe, Britain and America are on vacation and summer wends its way with sluggish ease through August it becomes more difficult to rest because the guns of war, some of which are nation provided to belligerents have breached Europe’s threshold in the Ukraine and turned the Middle East into a charnel house. We cannot escape it because the blood of young war victims drips from our TV screens and pools in our subconscious as we try to escape it with holiday chatter at the seaside or down at the pub.

It is all the more disturbing to know that the bloodshed or the forced migrations of entire communities are always caused by the barrel of a gun and we in Britain share some responsibility for that turmoil. Since 2010 our government has approved 27 countries with 3,000 arms export licences which has grossed £12bn in sales. Each one of those 27 countries according to Germany’s Deutche Welle News agency was cited by our Foreign Office for human rights abuses.

Our war on terror, our war in Iraq has not yielded peace. Instead it has sown death and fear across that region along with giant swaths of Africa. The Middle East from Gaza to Tikrit is awash in cluster bombs, homemade rockets and spent gun casings.

In too many countries, the innocent crouch in the rubble of their neighbourhoods fearful of death, of rape or enslavement. Today, everywhere the concept of justice or dignity lies eviscerated and rotting on the roadside with the rest of the dead from these wars whose justification might have been once been sound but lost the plot when civilians, when children when mothers and fathers were extinguished in the pornography that is modern warfare.

The crying mothers in Ferguson, or Gaza, or Baghdad are only drowned out by the ringing tills of the world’s arms industry.

This government and former governments have always said that it is impossible and economically punitive for Britain to stop being a country that manufactures weapons of war for export, despite the fact that our British Armed forces purchase 75 per cent of the weapons manufactured in our country. By precluding sales abroad we won’t destroy the industry merely put a leash on it.

It is sometimes difficult for modern political parties or governments to see past the election cycle and daily polling results that shape policy more than vision or common sense but to be a nation of depth and valour our politicians must. Over 200 years ago Britain led the way among enlightened nations when it outlawed the slave trade despite the fact that it was a highly profitable enterprise for many companies and high born families. Yet our ancestors enacted legislation to end that abomination because it was our moral duty to cease trading in the misery of others. We can follow history’s example and put an immediate moratorium on sales to all foreign governments. Naturally the industry will complain and have their lobbyist knead the notion into our MPs that the arms trade is essential to the British economy, where upon they should be reminded that not so long ago, so was the slave trade.

Harry Leslie Smith is a survivor of the Great Depression, a Second World War RAF veteran and an activist for the poor and for the preservation of social democracy. He has authored numerous books about Britain during the Great Depression, the Second World War, and post-war austerity. Join Harry on Twitter @Harryslaststand.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.