by Stephen Tall on January 16, 2007
The word ‘shameful’ has become dulled by its too-frequent repetition. But there is no other word to describe the Labour Government’s decision to order the Serious Fraud office to drop its investigation into alleged bribes paid by defence firm BAE Systems to Saudi Arabia to secure lucrative contracts.
Had such a decision been taken under John Major’s Tory Government, you can bet your bottom oil-soaked dollar that Tony Blair would have led the condemnation. And he would have been right to do so.
Power really does tend to corrupt; which is why we must be on our guard against New Labour’s efforts to create absolute power for the state.
When Mr Blair mounted his defence in December, when the decision was first announced, he did so on two grounds.
First, that Saudi Arabia’s assistance in the fight against Al-Qaeda hinged on the British Government not treading on their diplomatic toes. One might, of course, ask why Mr Blair allowed himself to be blackmailed by a supposed ally, which – according to our Prime Minister – appears happy to place British lives in jeopardy by refusing to co-operate with the authorities unless its business dealings are held to be above the law.
But this weak plea of mitigation appears now to have been holed beneath the waterline, according to reports in today’s Grauniad:
John Scarlett, the head of MI6, has now refused to sign up to a government dossier which says MI6 endorses this view. … MI6 and MI5 possessed no intelligence that the Saudis intended to sever security links. The intelligence agencies had been merely asked whether it would be damaging to UK national security if such a breach did happen. They replied that naturally it would.
This exposure of the Prime Minister’s craven defence was put to Mr Blair at his monthly press conference today. He made no attempt to deny the substance of the Grauniad’s report beyond a couple of cheap and irrelevant side-swipes at its political stance. This is what he did say:
“I can absolutely assure you that there is no doubt whatever in my mind – and I think in those of any of the people who have looked at this issue – that, having proceeded with this, the result would have been devastating for our relationship with an important country with whom we cooperate closely on terrorism, on security, on the Middle East peace process.”
To put it another way (as he was doubtless thinking): “Trust me, I’m Tony Blair.” His messianic conviction that his assertions and objective reality must always tally has, it seems, been untroubled by the abject humiliation of his failed foreign policy in Iraq, and the half-truths he told Parliament and the British people.
But there was a second ground of defence laid by Mr Blair, and this was the clear deal-breaker: jobs. He knows he can’t say that this was the true reason, and so is very careful to indulge in nudge-nudge innuendo to make plain his own views – as he noted today,
“That is leaving aside the thousands of jobs which would have been lost, which is not the consideration in this case, but I just point it out.”
Not a consideration, you understand – he just felt it needed pointing out. And fair comment, some might say. Easy for me to have a pop at the Prime Minister; my job isn’t connected to the defence industry; not my livelihood at stake. Some of which may be true. But it is absolutely not fair comment.
Economic success requires the rule of law not only to be obeyed; it has to be respected, trusted. Last month’s Economist leader got it bang-on:
… jobs are not worth having at any price, and here the cost is considerable. People in countries where backhanders are a way of life see resources squandered and become disillusioned with public institutions. In developed countries, people may come to think that there is one rule for big firms doing big deals with big oil-rich countries and another for everyone else. … The ditching of the SFO inquiry will feed the cynicism already widespread in Britain.
You may wonder what the opposition parties have said about all this. The Tories have been silent on the issue, as recently highlighted by Liberal Review. Fortunately, there has been an opposition party willing to hold the Government to account for its disgraceful actions. As the Lib Dem leader Ming Campbell said today:
“If these reports are true, they seriously undermine the government’s case for ending the investigation into allegations of corruption involving BAE and Saudi Arabia. In particular they undermine the reliability and credibility of the prime minister who publicly took responsibility for the decision and publicly sought to justify it.”
I’m well aware it is easier to be an opposition than a government; that certain compromises are required of those in power. But some decisions are plain wrong: the wrong motives, the wrong reasons, the wrong outcomes. And when that happens there is only one word that will do.