The morality of high politics is beyond the ken of mortal man. How else to explain why Jack Straw could shake hands with Robert Mugabe at the UN ('it was quite dark,' whined Straw afterwards) and then mock peace protesters ('I could have done better') while showing off in front of Condoleezza Rice during her recent visit to Blackburn?
And then we have the curious story of the Government wading in on the side of Saudi Arabian officials who, it is alleged, tortured a group of British men wrongfully held after a spate of bombings in Saudi Arabia in 2001. A forensic pathologist, after examining one of the men, Ron Jones, confirmed Jones' account of events. He had been beaten, deprived of sleep, told his wife and son were also in custody and being tortured, and given a 'Rohypnol-style' drug. He now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and is recovering from a nervous breakdown.
The men were released after more bombings in the Saudi capital were blamed on al-Qaida. They are now seeking compensation in the British courts from the officials they say tortured them (Saudi Arabia, as a state, is immune from claims of compensation for torture). The Saudi Government, with the help of UK government lawyer, Christopher Greenwood QC, are applying to the House of Lords to overturn the appeal court ruling allowing men to claim redress from their alleged torturers.
Saudi Arabia has a long, bloody history of human rights abuses and if anything Jones and the others got off lightly. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International speak of floggings (4000 lashes in one case), burning with cigarettes, electric shocks and nail-pulling being used routinely by the country's judicial system. And that's before you get to the hand-chopping, eye-for-an-eye punishments and, ultimately, beheadings.
The UK Foreign Office's website itself says '[t]he British Government has a number of concerns about human rights in Saudi Arabia. These include the implementation of basic international human rights norms; aspects of the judicial system; corporal and capital punishment; torture; discrimination against women and non-Muslims; and restrictions on freedom of movement, expression, assembly and worship.' So why do we cosy up to such a regime? Three words: guns, tanks and warplanes. We make 'em, the Saudis love 'em. And oil, of course. The Saudis make it, we love it.
The UK and Saudi Arabia have been swapping arms (Tornado and Hawk jets, missiles and sundry what Bill Hicks called 'the big black cock of death') and oil under the terms of the Al Yamamah contract since 1986. Al Yamamah, by the way, is Arabic for - get this - 'The Dove'. Nice. The agreement, brokered by the British Government on behalf of UK arms manufacturers, and said to have been worth at least £20 billion, has always had the whiff of scandal and corruption about it. It was alleged that Mark Thatcher received a commission on the deal that was signed by his mother, but the allegation was never investigated. National Audit Office investigations into the deal were suppressed in the 'national interest' by the then Tory Government and despite pre-power promises to the contrary, New Labour have also refused to release the reports. Jonathan Aitken's shady dealings with Saudi princes while Minister for Defence Procurement led to his downfall and disgrace. The Serious Fraud Office is investigating claims that BAE Systems ran a £60 million slush fund with which to woo those Saudi officials having responsibility for weapons deals with cars, holidays and hookers.
Which brings us up to date. Late last year a new deal worth more than £6 billion was signed between the Saudi and UK governments for the supply of 48 Eurofighters. It's said the Saudis presented a wishlist during negotiations which included the UK deporting two Saudi dissidents, Saad al-Faqih and Mohammed al-Masari, British Airways resuming flights to the Saudi capital, Riyadh, and the dropping of the investigation into the BAE slush fund in which a Saudi prince features prominently.
According to the Times, government officials have asked the Attorney General to examine whether the investigation into the slush fund is 'in the public interest'. If you see Saad al-Faqih and Mohammed al-Masari being bundled onto a BA flight to Riyadh you'll know the Saudis have got their full house.
And don't be surprised if it happens. Successive British governments have hugged their Saudi counterparts close. The Ministry of Defence department responsible for 'promoting and licensing the export of British military equipment', the Defence Export Services Organisation has 600 officials. Of those, according to the Guardian, currently 161 - more than a quarter - work for the 'Saudi Armed Forces Project'. And that doesn't include the British airmen seconded to Saudi Arabia to fly the fighters we sold.
Jack Straw visited the country this month to attend the 'Two Kingdoms: Friendship and Partnership' conference. Straw, as he told the families of the men being tortured in that Saudi jail, is a fan of 'quiet diplomacy'. In Riyadh last week, Straw spoke warmly of the country's 'morality' but didn't insult his hosts by mentioning his own Ministry's concerns about Saudi Arabia's 'implementation of basic international human rights norms'. So sure was Jack Straw of the Saudi government's 'morality' that in 2002 the families of Ron Jones et al were told by the Foreign Office to refrain from publicly criticising the Saudi regime for fear that antagonising it might put the lives of their husbands, fathers and brothers at risk. Not to mention all those juicy arms contracts.
As Billy Bragg once observed, 'war - what is it good for? It's good for business.' In 2004, UK arms exports totalled £5.1 billion. That's a lot of money and to lose it would be a dent to the country's finances. But then our benefit system has overpaid claimants to the tune of £2 billion since 1997, the Department of Work and Pensions loses nearly a billion pounds each year through benefit fraud, the ID card system (by conservative government estimates) is going to cost half a billion pounds a year to run. By ditching its authoritarian itch and being a little less incompetent, the Government could easily plug the gap left by giving up its gunlove. It also means ministers could give up their moonlighting as salesmen for private companies.
A lot of jobs would also be lost, admittedly, but that hasn't stopped governments herding our miners, dockers and car builders into call centres. Can anybody seriously suggest that the technology currently being used to torture in Saudi jails, cluster bomb Iraqi children and keep swathes of Africa in the dark ages couldn't be gainfully employed elsewhere? It would seem they can. 'If we don't do it, somebody else will' was Tony Blair's intellectual rebuttal to the anti-arms trade lobby back in 2002.
The Government has assured BAE Systems, our largest exporter, that should the currently wobbly Saudi regime collapse without honouring its contracts, the British taxpayer will pick up the tab. But should the taxpayer find him or herself wrongfully arrested and languishing in a Saudi jail with a BAE-manufactured electro-shock baton inserted in their rectum, the best thing they can do is lie back and think of England. It's in the public interest.