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.