Sunday, 18 March 2007

Trident Letters

The following letters were written last Thursday after parliament voted to renew Trident. The newspapers in question didn't publish them.... so I am!

To The Guardian:


Last December I joined the Faslane365 protest, blockading the Trident
nuclear submarine base in Scotland. I intend to do similarly this June - I
will participate in an academic conference discussing nuclear disarmament
while blockading the road into the Trident base.

Perhaps those MPs who voted for the renewal of our "nuclear deterrent"
should come and attend; for they will learn that the only thing Trident
will ever deter is peace. It will certainly not deter decent ordinary
people from struggling for a world free of the threat of a nuclear

To The Independent:


The decision to renew Trident is a moral, political and financial
disaster. There can be no justification for spending any amount of money,
let along £20 billion, in order that we have the option of killing vast
numbers of people.

To The Times:


I've been arrested once for opposing the Trident nuclear system and I
fully expect to be arrested again. The one thing Trident will never deter
is resistance.

Friday, 16 March 2007

Corruption in the Defence Industry

Last night a very interesting couple of talks took place in the Redlands Friends Meeting House, organised by the Bristol Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT).

A history of Corruption and the MOD

Nick Gilby, of the National CAAT group, gave a potted history of the "Ministry of Defence and the Bribe Culture" (his speech constitutes a very abbreviated version of his upcoming book...) Nick has spent many long hours in the national archives reading old memos and other documents of the MOD. He described a culture of massive bribery over very many years.

Up until 1975 the MOD had been an active and enthusiastic participant in the bribes culture. Harold Hubert was the MOD's main seller of weapons. His strategy was to inflate the prices of his weapons to cover the cost of a slush fund used for bribery. He would pay "agents" public money to fix deals with various countries around the world. These agents had access to the highest echelons in the countries in question and they would pass on these funds in order to guarantee that the sale went ahead.

Nick outlined how Saudi Arabia, in particular, had been a main target for this bribery activity with huge amounts of public money used to pay off members of the Saudi royal family. Nick quoted from a number of memos that openly discussed this process (many of which involved the British Aircraft Corporation, a company which has since morped into part of BAe Systems).

In 1975, the Church Commission uncovered massive corruption in the business dealings of the Lockheed corporation. This led to a rethink of the business of arms sales around the world. In the UK this rethink resulted in a deliberate ostrich policy: Public money was not to be used to pay bribes but, equally, if corporations paid bribes in order to gain contracts then the MOD would not investigate such goings on. In other words the MOD preferred to remain in an official state of ignorance, even though they were (and are) acutely aware of the extent to which the arms trade is riddled with bribery and corruption.

A case in point is Al Yamamah. This is the name of a series of massive arms sales by the United Kingdom to Saudi Arabia, which have been paid for by the delivery of up to 600,000 barrels of oil per day to the UK government. The first deal was signed in 1985 and the prime contractor has been BAE Systems and its predecessor British Aerospace.

Nick outlined how the initial deal in 1985 had many very suspicious elements (including a 34% increase in price over a year, which could have been to pay bribes) but which was not investigated by the MOD (in accordance with their ostrich policy). Instead the MOD inquired of British Aerospace whether the deal had been legal and when they received an affirmative response, no further questions were asked!

More on the Al Yamamah deal later...

Corruption in general

The second speaker was Nick Hildyard of The Corner House. His starting point was a desire to incite public outrage at the corrupt practices which go on around the world. Only by ensuring that governments know that the public is watching what they get up to can we give the judiciary the necessary spine to call the government to account over matters of corruption (see the discussion below).

Nick outlined the massive damage done by corruption all around the world. Indeed our own Hilary Benn has admitted that "corruption kills day to day"! The mechanisms by which this happens are numerous. Firstly of course it simply diverts money from worthwhile projects into the bank accounts of unscrupulous individuals.

Secondly, and more subtly, a culture of corruption tends to channel money into developments with the greatest kick-backs. These tend to be macro projects - projects of grand vision and scope which therefore have numerous weak points were funds can "leak away". Thus aid and other money is diverted away from local, community projects (which tend to be more corruption-proof as their small scale enhances accountability) - the very projects which offer the most hope for local people.

Thirdly a culture of corruption results in money being shifted from the legal economy into the black economy. Thus money bypasses legitimate checks and balances as well as bypassing taxation.

There is a popular perception of other countries having an indigenous culture of corruption. Nick pointed out that this is not only inaccurate, it is also racist. Nick outlined the sterling efforts of Lesotho in combatting corrupt corporate practices and noted that Lesotho has received very little help from the West.

In fact in general the West has more often facilitated a culture of corruption in impoverished countries (often in Africa). Through IMF and WTO policies, education and health structures have been stripped back and have left poor people unable to access basic services without resorting to bribery.

Al Yamamah and the Judicial Review

The corrupt practices involved in the Al Yamamah deal have, of late, caught the attention of the Serious Fraud Office. They have been investigating corrupt practices in the period since 2002. However their investigation was discontinued on 14 December 2006 after the Government warned the investiation could "damage national security interests".

In fact the government was more specific: In announcing the decision Attorney General Lord Goldsmith said that both Tony Blair and Defence Secretary Des Browne had argued that carrying on the investigation would harm intelligence and diplomatic co-operation with Saudi Arabia, in turn damaging the UK's national security.

This decision brought a storm of criticism from many different quarters. The criticism was especially strong as the UK is a signatory to the OECD Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions. Article 5 of the convention states that
"Investigation and prosecution of the bribery of a foreign public official shall be subject to the applicable rules and principles of each Party. They shall not be influenced by considerations of national economic interest, the potential effect upon relations with another State or the identity of the natural or legal persons involved.”

In lay terms this means that an investigation into bribery can only be dropped as a result of the merits of the case - the likelihood, or not, that a prosecution will succeed.

It would seem clear that the government has explicitly violated this convention in its decision to halt the SFO investigation into Al Yamamah. In order to test this out, CAAT and The Cornerhouse (the organisations which the two Nicks were representing last night) have launched a judicial review into the decision. This review is already well underway and is likely to come to a conclusion some time in the next six months.

Action points

As Nick Hildyard described, it is imperative that there is a sustained and vigorous public response to the dropping of the Serious Fraud Office inquiry. The officials conducting the judicial review into the government's decision will need to feel the eyes of the public upon them if they are to take a stand against their political masters. The awareness of the general public needs to be raised in every way including discussions in the pub, letters to the press, public meetings and other events.

One practical measure is to write to your MP and ask that they sign the Early Day Motion on this matter.

To write to your MP go here.

You can also sign an e-petition on the matter.

There'll be those of you reading this who aint believers in this on-line lobbying malarkey. Well, fair enough too.... So maybe you'd just better give CAAT some money! Or come up with your own way to call the government to account on this matter...

To keep updated on what's going on (and to find out who CAAT and the Cornerhouse are):

Tuesday, 13 March 2007

Friendship therapy

My work in homeless hostels has brought me into contact with a very interesting guy whom I shall refer to as Eddie. My contact with Eddie has led me to reflect on the therapeutic role which institutions play in today's welfare state...

Eddie is suffering from some very deep emotional, psychological and social wounds. In order to attend to these wounds "the system" has devised a therapeutic process for Eddie which involves a myriad of professional-client relationships. He's got a couple of drugs workers, a hostel key worker, a probation officer, social worker, housing adviser, lawyer, GP plus other doctors, including specialists, and nurses. All of these are very likely good people doing their best to help Eddie deal with his various issues.

And very likely they will help. They will ease his way through the criminal justice system; they will help him with his housing needs and his benefits needs; his physical health will be attended to; even his drug problem will be addressed. Over a period of time Eddie will no doubt make some progress and will develop new skills to help him cope with what life has thrown, and will throw, at him.

It is important to note that, typically, these professionals (and I was one) are not naive. They have a good sense of what their limitations are and they will try and empower Eddie, in so far as they are able, to take responsibility for himself so that ultimately he can survive without professional help.

But they can only take him so far. The limitations of the professional-client relationship (or we could call it the "institutional relationship") constitute an impermeable boundary, beyond which Eddie can not be accompanied. Unfortunately it is outside this boundary that nearly all of "functioning" society find their most important coping mechanisms. For outside this boundary are relationships of friendship and community, relationships that are most people's primary resource in times of crisis.

Eddie, a man whose life is in almost perpetual crisis, has very few such resources. His primary friendships are with fellow drug users; friendships that, for obvious reasons, provide him only a very limited solace. He is also without close family.

More than any professional, Eddie needs a friend. He needs a community, by which I mean some kind of family-structure. He needs structures of human-ness to help him cope when he feels wobbly. Why do I say this? Simply because I know that these are the structures in my own life on which I lean most heavily.

And not only when I am feeling wobbly. Friends and communities also provide a purpose and a meaning which can get me through the day when nothing else seems worth doing. By their nature, friendships are permeable - there is a two way stream along which gifts of time, thought, care and love flow. It is their two way nature that distinguish them so entirely from professional relationships. Eddie needs the opportunity to give to someone else. For what other opportunity can provide such a feeling of self worth as the opportunity to help someone in need?

Institutions in which professional boundaries are inviolable will never provide this most vital human privilege. Eddie will need to look elsewhere and, if he is lucky, he will find friendship and community for himself. If he is unlucky - and Eddie has had a lot of bad luck - he will fail in this search. And this failure may well undermine all of the tender ministrations of those concerned professionals. For, when the shit hits the fan and with no friends to turn to, will Eddie phone his social worker or his dealer?

ADDENDUM: I’ve considered here the effect of the institutional relationship on the client. But what about the professional? The limitations and particular dynamics of the institutional relationship also greatly affect the professional. The primary factor seems to be that the professional is seen to have power over the client and, to quote a phrase, power corrupts!

In an institutional relationship it is too easy for the client to become object, while the professional is subject. While the aim is (or should be) always to empower the client to function autonomously, in reality this is frequently not the case. Rather, the professional has control over the client in a way that can be fundamentally destructive for both parties. Too often I hear stories of people working in the social sector who have come under investigation because the relationships that they have established with clients are abusive or manipulative. The professionals in question are not necessarily abusive by nature; rather, the dynamics of an unequal relationship seem to prove too much for them. The corrupting influence of power is often an irresistible force.

The irony in all this is that the professional boundary, which is the cause of the limitations discussed above, is also intended to be the structure which prevents abuse. With a dissolution of the professional boundaries real concerns over possible abuse immediately arise. While these concerns are of course valid, my contention is that friendships, by their (more) horizontal nature, are inherently more robust than institutional relationships when it comes to matters of abuse. And it is friendship which ultimately offers a far greater therapeutic reward for both of the people involved.

Saturday, 10 March 2007

Reed-Elsevier: Printing books and selling bombs

As a mathematician, I have long been aware of Reed Elsevier as a publisher of academic journals. It has come as a shock to learn that Reed also organises arms fairs.

Through their subsidiary companies, Reed Exhibitions and Spearhead Exhibitions, they are responsible for organising some of the biggest arms fairs in the world including the biennial DSEi arms fair in London.

In 2005 hundreds of protestors gathered in London’s docklands area to express their outrage at what goes on at DSEi. And their outrage is certainly warranted. The list of invitees to DSEi 2005 included seven of the twenty countries on the UK Foreign Office’s list of regimes which commit the most severe abuses of human rights. Such notorious regimes as Indonesia and Colombia were amongst those present. Picture the delights that they were being sold: small arms (responsible for 500,000 deaths every year), torture equipment (including leg irons, stun guns and stun batons), cluster bombs, the list goes on...

The sale of cluster bombs in particular brought a storm of criticism from the public. Human Rights Watch estimates that cluster bombs were responsible for more civilian casualties during the invasion of Iraq than any other military tactic. The public outcry at their sale at DSEi resulted in Reed’s company secretary rushing out a statement that “there were no cluster bombs at DSEi. They were not displayed and not offered for sale…”

But they were. It was subsequently revealed that p.182 of DSEi’s official catalogue openly listed components for “aircraft deployed cluster bombs” amongst the products on offer. This page is missing, along with a bunch of others, in the copy of the catalogue on DSEi’s website: an embarrassing reprographical error for a publishing company like Reed Elsevier! And if you wanted more than just cluster bomb components you could always speak to representatives from the 14 cluster bomb manufacturers who attended DSEi and who would happily flog you the whole bomb.

Reed’s appalling activities in this area have attracted the wrath of a number of different groups. Because of Reed’s “other role” as a publishing house, their services are used by many people for whom the arms trade is anathema. In September 2005 the editorial board of The Lancet, arguably the world’s most prestigious medical journal and one which is published by Reed, issued a scathing condemnation of Reed Elsevier’s role in the global arms trade. They called on the company “to divest itself of all business interests that threaten human, and especially civilian, health and well-being.”

Then on 2nd March, 2006, on the eve of the London Book Fair, also organised by Reed, thirteen internationally renowned writers – including 2 Nobel Prize winners and 6 winners of the Man Booker prize – issued a public letter criticising the company’s arms fairs. The writers included AS Byatt, JM Coetzee and Ian McEwan.

One year on and another group of professionals is preparing to make known their revulsion at Reed Elsevier’s activities. Reed is one of the largest publishers of academic journals in the world and in this capacity Reed’s services are used in universities around the world. Now 140 academics have signed an open letter to Reed Elsevier in which they call on Reed to cease all involvement in arms fairs. In particular they state that Reed’s involvement in the arms trade “is entirely at odds with the ethical and social obligations we have to promote the beneficial applications of our work and prevent its misuse, to anticipate and evaluate the possible unintended consequences of scientific and technological developments, and to consider at all times the moral responsibility we carry for our work.”

The letter is signed by some of the most respected minds in academia, united by their disgust at Reed’s participation in the arms trade. One of them, Prof Michael Atiyah, one of the greatest mathematicians of the last hundred years, recently commented that "science and technology offer enormous opportunities for the betterment of mankind. Unfortunately these potential benefits are overshadowed by the exploitation of science for military ends.”

Professor Atiyah’s words echo sentiments of Albert Einstein expressed some seventy years earlier: “Concern for man himself and his fate must always be the chief interest of all technical endeavours... in order that the creations of our mind shall be a blessing and not a curse to mankind.”

Reed Elsevier is effectively exploiting the respectable and worthwhile work of academics to mask its sinister and deadly role in the global arms trade. This exploitation is indeed a curse for millions of victims of the arms trade the world over. As this week's letter shows, academics will not accept this and are prepared to speak out. It is to be hoped that, sooner or later, Reed Elsevier will get the message.

Faslane action

I wrote this last December; I've no idea why I didn't post it then...

Wednesday morning, 7:30am. A dark road somewhere North of Glasgow. Scottish cold and rain beating in my face. I'm chained via a bike lock to Irene, veteran of the Faslane struggle. One arm disappears into a tube, at the other end of which is my mate Steve. There are seven of us, five women and two men, standing in a line stretched across the road.

Headlights approach through the darkness; our high-visibility minders rush forward arms waving: "Slow down, SLOW DOWN, This is a blockade don't you know!" There are flashing blue lights approaching now from further down the road; one of us makes the call "HO!" and we sink to the ground, laid flat out on the tarmac.

The next forty minutes are spent blinking beating rain out of our eyes, grimacing at police cameras and questions, being fed chocolate by our minders and eventually, sadly, being cut apart by a very efficient Scottish police force. We're taken away to a mobile processing unit for the usual rigmarole. As we're driven away we can see the traffic queues backing up in three directions; the Trident nuclear submarine base is the workplace for 7000 loyal subjects of Her Majesty.... and a fair proportion of them are now late for work.

It's the least we can do.... They'll be late for work plenty more times in the next twelve months - the Faslane 365 blockade is intent on disrupting activity at the nuclear base throughout that time and GOOD LUCK to them! The weapons that are based at Faslane are some of the most awful ever devised by humanity and if used would usher in oblivion for millions, and misery for millions more.

Our next 24 hours are spent in police lock-ups in Dumbarton and Clydebank. We are yet to hear if the "procurator fiscal" is intent on pressing charges but with 408 arrests so far and only 4 prosecutions it seems unlikely. But either way there are bigger issues at stake than the odd breach of the peace. As our political masters contemplate the renewal of Trident - against the wishes of the majority of the British people - it is incumbent upon the ordinary citizen to express our opposition in every way possible.

Apart from being grossly immoral the renewal of Trident would undermine all international attempts at nuclear non-proliferation, as well as being a financial disaster for Britain. It would signal 24 billion pounds NOT being spent on hospitals, schools, the environment, etc etc. In the face of such a prospect a few hours in a police cell seems a minor inconvenience.

The Faslane 365 website (Please, Join the blockade!):

So you think that, were Trident built, there's no chance it would ever be used? Maybe you should read some history:

Greenpeace's view:

My thoughts while in the cell: