Brown bribes on trial

IssueDecember 2007 - January 2008
Feature by Symon Hill

In a dramatic ruling, the High Court has given the go-ahead for a review of the Government's decision on BAE's Saudi arms deals.

The ruling came on 9th November, in response to a legal challenge brought by Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) and The Corner House, an anti-corruption NGO. The judge, Justice Moses, insisted that the issue “cries out for a public hearing”.

He gave permission for a judicial review - a process by which a court considers if the Government has broken the law.

Lawyers for CAAT and The Corner House will now get the chance to argue that the Government acted illegally by cutting short a Serious Fraud Office investigation into BAE. They believe that the decision breached the OECD anti-bribery convention, which rules out suspending an investigation for the sake of relations with another state.

When Tony Blair suspended the investigation in 2006, he claimed that it was harming Britain's relations with Saudi Arabia and threatening national security. The Corner House pointed out that it was not the inquiry but its cancellation that threatened security. Subservience to the deeply unpopular Saudi regime has only made Britain more unpopular.

Apologists for the arms trade rushed to defend the decision, saying that BAE's latest Saudi arms contract promised thousands of British jobs. Some claimed that 50,000 jobs would be created - more than ten times the number originally suggested. Now that the deal has been signed, BAE has admitted that many of the jobs will be based in Saudi Arabia.

CAAT suggests that Blair's decision owed more to BAE's influence in the corridors of power. The former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook wrote that the head of BAE had the “key to the garden door” at Number Ten.

By putting BAE's power on public display, the Government triggered a backlash against arms companies' influence. Over 130 NGOs called for the investigation to be reopened, a call reflected in a parliamentary motion signed by 115 MPs. F&C Asset Management insisted that the decision had harmed British business. Top comedians including Mark Thomas and Russell Brand performed to raise money for the legal challenge and thousands of people from all walks of life have backed the Control BAE campaign.

If the judicial review is successful, the influence of arms companies will be considerably weakened, as will the ability of Government to turn a blind eye to the activities of big business. Ministers will struggle to use excuses of “national security” to justify undemocratic decisions.

The court hearing is expected around February. CAAT and The Corner House are encouraging as many people as possible to back this vital campaign. It is seen as a chance to ensure that BAE will no longer be calling the shots.

Topics: Arms trade