One of the things that appalled us most about the Thatcher years back in the 80’s, was her support for some of the most despotic regimes in the world.
Everything was polarised then- communist/socialist/liberal (bad.) Fascist/dictatorship/ (OK- as long as they were not communist.)
The Pinochet government ‘disappeared’ thousands of Chillean citizens- but Thatcher was a staunch ally.
Today, at the 30 year unveiling of official secrets, we found out lots more about arms dealing with Iraq and Iran. We sold Iran a load of Chieftain tanks. About 100 of these were captured by the Iraqis during their dreadful war against Iran. Back when Saddam was a good dictator.
What the cabinet papers reveal today is the extent of the sophistry that the then British Cabinet indulged in to get around the arms embargo- selling all sorts of arms and equipment to Iraq.
But most staggeringly of all, they allowed Vickers, who made the Chieftain tanks, to repair, modify and re-gun them to be used against Iran. We were literally arming both sides.
When the Blair government eventually took over from the Tories, one of the things I was most excited by was Robin Cook’s idea of an Ethical Foreign Policy– including a new refusal to sell arms to despotic regimes.
However, this policy was soon in tatters during a row over the sale of Hawk Jets to Indonesia, who used them to bomb and machine gun the citizens of East Timor. This was the beginning of the great disallusionment for many of us in the possibility of a new kind of politics under Blair- which went all the way onwards towards the second Iraq war.
The issue for all of we Brits is the role that arms manufacture still plays in our economy.
We are the second biggest exporter of weapons, after the USA- 20% of the worlds armourments are made here.
The manufacture of arms is intrinsically bound up in this thing that some loosely call the ‘ military industrial complex’, and others simply call capitalism.
If swords are ever to become ploughshares, then we should listen to the stories from Thatchers cabinet- and to the subsequent ones from Blair’s cabinet.