To honour Robin Cook’s legacy we must end the scandal of secretive UK arms sales

Britain has continued to authorise arms exports to Saudi Arabia despite the thousands of civilians killed in Yemen.

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Twenty-five years ago today in the House of Commons, Robin Cook gave his response to Richard Scott’s Report on the “Arms-to-Iraq” scandal, an eight-minute oration heard at first amid raucous shouting and eventually in attentive silence.

Scott’s report exposed the lengths to which John Major’s government had gone to permit the export of weapon-making machinery to Saddam Hussein, and then to cover up its actions, even as the manufacturers faced prosecution for breaching the embargo on arms sales to Iraq.

Given just three hours to study the report in advance, Cook filleted its five volumes down to 11 devastating extracts, punctuated with slaps of the despatch box, all supporting his central case that if ministers accepted the conclusions of the report, they could not also survive them.

In the postwar period, many individuals – including Cook himself in 2003 – may compete for the accolade of giving the greatest parliamentary speech, but few could claim to have delivered a better performance; a lasting rejoinder to those who doubt the power of forensic questioning in politics.

And yet, as with so many of Cook’s statements in the latter years of opposition and the early days of Labour government, we are forced to look back at his response to the Scott Report with a measure of regret and disappointment at the ambitions and promise left unfulfilled. Cook’s attempts to take a more ethical approach to individual decisions on arms sales – let alone deliver wholesale reform of the export regime – were stymied from the outset by the commercial interests of UK weapons manufacturers and the strategic demands of our alliances overseas.

The new rules on arms exports eventually introduced in 2002 reflected Cook’s recommendations but did not fix the fundamental flaws he had exposed: a reliance on subjective decision-making in Whitehall, coupled with a level of secrecy that makes proper scrutiny of those decisions impossible.

Even under the most idealistic ministers, with the best of intentions, that can lead to mistakes. But under their most cynical colleagues, with no apparent concern for the human consequences of their actions, it allows decisions to be made that utterly defy the spirit of the Scott Report.

That is why, for the past six years, the UK government has continued to authorise the export of arms to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen, despite the thousands of civilians killed by Saudi air strikes and the millions facing starvation caused in part by the bombardment of the country’s food infrastructure.

On 7 July last year, the International Trade Secretary, Liz Truss, overturned a court-ordered suspension of those exports, imposed on the grounds that ministers had failed adequately to assess the risk that UK-made weapons were being used to violate international humanitarian law. Truss decreed that, based on a fresh government analysis of allegations arising from the Saudi air campaign, any violations that had taken place were “isolated incidents”, not indicative of a lack of capacity or intent on the part of the Saudi coalition to comply with international law.

Five days after her decision, Saudi planes bombed a civilian home in the remote town of Washah in north-west Yemen, killing nine members of the same family, all women and children, another so-called “isolated incident”, this one caused by a US-made missile.

You might think an outrage such as this, and the previous judgement of the courts, would have made Truss tread carefully. Instead, between July and September last year, she authorised the export of £1.36bn in bombs and missiles, almost as much as the previous 19 quarters combined.

Truss has repeatedly rejected my requests to publish her new analysis of the Saudi bombing campaign, to provide a list of the allegations it examined, to disclose which incidents it classed as possible violations of international law, or even just to say how many there were.

She will not explain how the UN’s Panel of Experts could review exactly the same evidence and emerge with precisely the opposite conclusion, or how she squares her insistence that the Saudi coalition intends to comply with international law with – for example – its proven use of child soldiers.

After months of shadowing her, I’ve concluded that Truss is simply doing what she thinks is her job – maximising UK exports – and believes what happens to those exports when they leave these shores is not her concern, exactly the calculation that Scott criticised back in 1996.

It was not good enough then, and it is certainly not good enough now. So under the leadership of Keir Starmer – another forensic Commons performer – a future Labour government will finally fulfil the promise inherent in Cook’s response a quarter of a century ago. That means – if we still need to – taking the immediate and obvious decision to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen, just as President Biden has done within a fortnight of taking office in the US, but it also means reforming the system that has allowed those arms sales to continue for so long.

We will therefore establish a new arms export regime that is truly transparent, free from arbitrary political judgements, and rigorously asks the one crucial question that should always be asked whenever our country sells arms to foreign governments: not just how much money will we make, but who will ultimately pay the price.

Emily Thornberry is the shadow international trade secretary and MP for Islington South & Finsbury. 

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