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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle