Never let members of this government complain about corruption abroad. Never let them blame the failure of Tony Blair's mission to rescue Africa on venal dictators and grasping officials. The new allegations published in the Guardian yesterday about slush funds used to oil the Al-Yamamah deal suggest that there is nothing these despots can teach us about graft.
In 2003 the Guardian uncovered evidence suggesting that the arms company BAE had been running a £60m slush fund, which it used to provide gifts and prostitutes to Saudi officials to facilitate its massive weapons deal(1). Prince Turki bin Nasser, the Saudi minister for arms procurement, was alleged to be a beneficiary. But the new revelations are on a different scale altogether. They allege that BAE channelled over £1bn - £120m a year for 10 years or more - to another Saudi official, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, as payment for ensuring that Al-Yamamah proceeded(2). Most damagingly for this government, the fees are alleged to have continued, with the authorisation of the Ministry of Defence, after 2002, when the payment of commissions to foreign officials became illegal in the United Kingdom. Prince Bandar yesterday denied the payments were secret or backhanders, and said they were within the contracts.
The Guardian's initial revelations gave the Serious Fraud Office little choice but to open an investigation. In 2005, the Saudi government informed Tony Blair that it would not lodge another order with BAE (for 72 Eurofighters) unless this case was abandoned(3). In December last year, Lord Goldsmith, the attorney-general instructed the SFO to drop the case. He and the prime minister both cited "national security" as the reason for this surrender. Something was being secured all right: but it was BAE's income and the backsides of the ministers - led by Tony Blair - who put the company's interests ahead of the nation's.
This was not the first time, or the last, that Goldsmith intervened to prevent justice from being done. Lord Goldsmith has come to symbolise everything that is wrong with Blair's government: the cowardice of ministers, lawyers' truths, capitulation to corporations and foreign governments and the judicial abuses permitted in a nation without a constitution. Goldsmith represents something very old - the British establishment's closing of ranks - and something new: the corruption of both purpose and method which has attended the project of liberal interventionism from its inception.
In fairness to our craven attorney-general, all this goes back a long way. The Defence Export Services Organisation (DESO), which allegedly oversaw these payments, has channeled money to corrupt officials in foreign governments since it was founded by the government 40 years ago. As documents unearthed by the Guardian show, this was and is its main purpose(4). Since the deal was signed in 1985, Britain has been supporting, both financially and militarily, one of the most despotic regimes on earth.
Not only does this make a mockery of successive governments' claims to be supporting democracy around the world, it also ensures that our security is now inextricably entangled with that of the Saudi princes. Al-Qaeda's primary complaint is directed against the Saudi monarchy and the western support it receives. Like the war in Iraq, like Blair's support for Israel's invasion of Lebanon and his wholly uneven treatement of Israel and Palestine, this deal helps ensure that Britain becomes a primary target for terrorism: not because our government acted on principle, but because it acted without it. Blair has invoked all the strategic threats from which he claims to defend us.
Close down DESO. Reopen the investigation. Sack the attorney-general and the senior civil servants at the Ministry of Defence. Open a public inquiry to determine what Blair knew. Wage war on tax havens and secret offshore accounts. Hold BAE to account. And then lecture the rest of the world on good governance.
1. David Leigh and Rob Evans, 11th September 2003. BAE accused of arms deal slush fund. The Guardian.
2. David Leigh and Rob Evans, 7th June 2007. BAE accused of secretly paying £1bn to Saudi prince. The Guardian.
3. David Leigh and Ewen MacAskill, 27th September 2005. Blair in secret Saudi mission. The Guardian.
4. You can find them at the bottom of this page: http://www.guardian.co.uk/armstrade/story/0,,976559,00.html
Published in the Guardian 8th June 2007.