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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David Davis interview: The next Conservative leader will be someone nobody expects

The man David Cameron beat on why we should bet on a surprise candidate and what the PM needs to do after the referendum. 

“I’m tired,” says David Davis when I greet him. The former Conservative leadership candidate is running on three hours’ sleep after a Question Time appearance the night before. He is cheered, however, by the coverage of his exchange with Ed Miliband. “Which country would it be be like?” the former Labour leader asked of a post-EU UK. “The country we’re going to be like is Great Britain,” the pro-Brexit Davis retorted

The 67-year-old Haltemprice and Howden MP is at Hull University to debate constituency neighbour Alan Johnson, the head of the Labour In campaign. “As far as you can tell, it’s near to a dead heat,” Davis said of the referendum. “I think the run of events will favour Brexit but if I had to bet your salary, I wouldn’t bet mine, I’d place it on a very narrow victory for Brexit.”

Most economists differ only on how much harm a Leave vote would do. Does Davis believe withdrawal is justified even if it reduces growth? “Well, I think that’s a hypothetical question based on something that’s not going to happen ... One of the arguments for Brexit is that it will actually improve our longer-run economic position. In the short-run, I think Stuart Rose, the head of Remain, had a point when he said there would be very small challenges. In a few years probably nothing.

“The most immediate thing would likely be wage increases at the bottom end, which is very important. The people in my view who suffer from the immigration issue are those at the bottom of society, the working poor, which is why I bridle when people ‘oh, it’s a racist issue’. It’s not, it’s about people’s lives.”

More than a decade has passed since David Cameron defeated Davis by 68-32 in the 2005 Conservative leadership contest. The referendum has pitted the two men against each other once more. I asked Davis whether he agreed with the prime minister’s former strategist, Steve Hilton, that Cameron would be a Brexiter were he not in No.10.

“I think it might be true, I think it might be. When you are in that position you’re surrounded by lot of people: there’s the political establishment, the Whitehall establishment, the business establishment, most of who, in economic parlance, have a ‘sunk cost’ in the current set-up. If changes they stand to lose things rather than gain things, or that’s how they see it.

“Take big business. Big business typically gets markets on the continent, maybe distribution networks, supply networks. They’re going to think they’re all at risk and they’re not going to see the big opportunities that exist in terms of new markets in Brazil, new markets in China and so on, they’re naturally very small-C Conservative. Whitehall the same but for different reasons. If you’re a fast-track civil servant probably part of your career will be through the Commission or maybe the end of your career. Certainly in the Foreign Office. When I ran the European Union department in the Foreign Office, everybody wanted a job on the continent somewhere. They were all slanted that way. If all your advice comes from people like that, that’s what happens.”

Davis told me that he did not believe a vote to Leave would force Cameron’s resignation. “If it’s Brexit and he is sensible and appoints somebody who is clearly not in his little group but who is well-equipped to run the Brexit negotiations and has basically got a free hand, there’s an argument to say stability at home is an important part of making it work.”

He added: “I think in some senses the narrow Remain is more difficult for him than the narrow Brexit. You may get resentment. It’s hard to make a call about people’s emotional judgements under those circumstances.”

As a former leadership frontrunner, Davis avoids easy predictions about the coming contest. Indeed, he believes the victor will be a candidate few expect. “If it’s in a couple of years that’s quite a long time. The half life of people’s memories in this business ... The truth of the matter is, we almost certainly don’t know who the next Tory leader is. The old story I tell is nobody saw Thatcher coming a year in advance, nobody saw Major coming a year in advance, nobody saw Hague coming a year in advance, nobody saw Cameron coming a year in advance.

“Why should we know two years in advance who it’s going to be? The odds are that it’ll be a Brexiter but it’s not impossible the other way.”

Does Davis, like many of his colleagues, believe that Boris Johnson is having a bad war? “The polls say no, the polls say his standing has gone up. That being said, he’s had few scrapes but then Boris always has scrapes. One of the natures of Boris is that he’s a little bit teflon.”

He added: “One thing about Boris is that he attracts the cameras and he attracts the crowds ... What he says when the crowd gets there almost doesn’t matter.”

Of Johnson’s comparison of the EU to Hitler, he said: “Well, if you read it it’s not quite as stern as the headline. It’s always a hazardous thing to do in politics. I think the point he was trying to make is that there’s a long-running set of serial attempts to try and unify Europe not always by what you might term civilised methods. It would be perfectly possible for a German audience to turn that argument on its head and say isn’t it better whether we do it this way.”

Davis rejected the view that George Osborne’s leadership hopes were over (“it’s never all over”) but added: “Under modern turbulent conditions, with pressure for austerity and so on, the simple truth is being a chancellor is quite a chancy business ... The kindest thing for Dave to do to George would be to move him on and give him a bit of time away from the dangerous front.”

He suggested that it was wrong to assume the leadership contest would be viewed through the prism of the EU. “In two years’ time this may all be wholly irrelevant - and probably will be. We’ll be on to some other big subject. It’’ll be terrorism or foreign wars or a world financial crash, which I think is on the cards.”

One of those spoken of as a dark horse candidate is Dominic Raab, the pro-Brexit justice minister and Davis’s former chief of staff. “You know what, if I want to kill somebody’s chances the thing I would do is talk them up right now, so forgive me if I pass on that question,” Davis diplomatically replied. “The reason people come out at the last minute in these battles is that if you come out early you acquire enemies and rivals. Talking someone up today is not a friendly thing to do.” But Davis went on to note: “They’re a few out there: you’ve got Priti [Patel], you’ve got Andrea [Leadsom]”.

Since resigning as shadow home secretary in 2008 in order to fight a by-election over the issue of 42-day detention, Davis has earned renown as one of parliament’s most redoubtable defenders of civil liberties. He was also, as he proudly reminded me, one of just two Tory MPs to originally vote against tax credit cuts (a record of rebellion that also includes tuition fees, capital gains tax, child benefit cuts, House of Lords reform, boundary changes and Syria).

Davis warned that that any attempt to withdraw the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights would be defeated by himself and “a dozen” other Conservatives (a group known as the “Runnymede Tories” after the meadow where Magna Carta was sealed).

“They’ve promised to consult on it [a British Bill of Rights], rather than bring it back. The reason they did that is because it’s incredibly difficult. They’ve got a conundrum: if they make it non-compliant with the ECHR, it won’t last and some of us will vote against it.

“If they make it compliant with the ECHR it is in essence a rebranding exercise, it’s not really a change. I’d go along with that ... But the idea of a significant change is very difficult to pull off. Dominic Raab, who is working on this, is a very clever man. I would say that, wouldn’t I? But I think even his brain will be tested by finding the eye of the needle to go through.”

Davis is hopeful of winning a case before the European Court of Justice challenging the legality of the bulk retention of communications data. “It’s a court case, court cases have a random element to them. But I think we’ve got a very strong case. It was quite funny theatre when the ECJ met in Luxembourg, an individual vs. 15 governments, very symbolic. But I didn’t think any of the governments made good arguments. I’m lucky I had a very good QC. Our argument was pretty simple: if you have bulk data collected universally you’ve absolutely got to have an incredibly independent and tough authority confirming this. I would be surprised if the ECJ doesn’t find in my favour and that will have big implications for the IP [Investigatory Powers] bill.”

Davis launched the legal challenge in collaboration with Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson. He has also campaigned alongside Jeremy Corbyn, last year travelling to Washington D.C. with him to campaign successfully for the release of Shaker Aamer, the final Briton to be held in Guantanamo Bay.

“I like Jeremy,” Davis told me, “but the long and the short of it is that not having been on the frontbench at all shows. I’m not even sure that Jeremy wanted to win the thing. He’s never been at the Despatch Box. He’s up against a PM who’s pretty good at it and who’s been there for quite a long time. He’s playing out of his division at the moment. Now, he may get better. But he’s also got an incredibly schismatic party behind him, nearly all of his own MPs didn’t vote for him. We had a situation a bit like that with Iain Duncan Smith. Because we’re a party given to regicide he didn’t survive it. Because the Labour Party’s not so given to regicide and because he’d be re-elected under the system he can survive it.”

At the close of our conversation, I returned to the subject of the EU, asking Davis what Cameron needed to do to pacify his opponents in the event of a narrow Remain vote.

“He probably needs to open the government up a bit, bring in more people. He can’t take a vengeful attitude, it’s got to be a heal and mend process and that may involve bringing in some of the Brexiters into the system and perhaps recognising that, if it’s a very narrow outcome, half of the population are worried about our status. If I was his policy adviser I’d say it’s time to go back and have another go at reform.”

Davis believes that the UK should demand a “permanent opt-out” from EU laws “both because occasionally we’ll use it but also because it will make the [European] Commission more sensitive to the interests of individual member states. That’s the fundamental constitutional issue that I would go for.”

He ended with some rare praise for the man who denied him the crown.

“The thing about David Cameron, one of the great virtues of his premiership, is that he faces up to problems and deals with them. Sometimes he gets teased for doing too many U-turns - but that does at least indicate that he’s listening.”

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.