Curious stories out of London today: The Daily Telegraph claimed the new UK Trade Minister, Stephen Green, would refuse to participate in overseas arms sales, which happen to be a large part of the minister’s job. The scoop ran with an editorial by business editor Damian Reece, mocking Green’s ethical “issues.” (As some commenters have noted, Green’s qualms are a surprise, coming from the former chairman of a huge international bank, HSBC.)
Within hours, the London Evening Standard reported that “Lord Green will be playing a full role in promoting the [arms] industry,” quoting a UK Trade and Investment spokesperson.
We’ve seen this movie before.
The original story cited an unnamed “Whitehall source,” so presumably the Telegraph—a.k.a. “the house-organ of the Conservative party”—had received a leak intended to bring Green into line. Presumably, it worked. (The Trade Minister himself has yet to comment publicly.)
Here’s what the Telegraph’s Reece had to say about Green’s unannounced decision:
It’s not surprising that an ordained Anglican priest, such as Lord Green, has “issues” with the fact his new government role promoting British exports includes banging the drum for our arms trade. But it’s part of the job, and if he can’t stomach it he shouldn’t do it.
Let’s forget considerations of where Lord Green’s immortal soul will end up and just focus on the practicalities. If he can’t represent our arms exporters on moral grounds, what about drinks firms, tobacco companies and gaming businesses? Some say retailers undermine the Sabbath: are they out too for the trade minister? …
If it’s legal we are at liberty to make it, do it, sell it.
I suppose this childish argument is probably what the East India Company’s defenders once said to critics of its government-backed opium exports to China. This is business, not church. If we don’t sell it, someone else will.
The Telegraph may pretend otherwise, but there’s both a qualitative and quantitative difference between selling products that allow a person to kill himself slowly, like some addictive drugs, and selling products that enable mass human slaughter. Arguably, the opium trafficker is morally superior to the state-supported arms trader.
Yet the Telegraph is not unique in ignoring the ethical problems with the arms economy. Like most newspapers, it frames the arms trade debate as the arms traders would prefer to have it presented, in faux-populist fashion, always emphasizing the jobs that would be lost should the government decide to promote peace (to say nothing of the profits). Thus, to hear Reece tell it, Green has done a disservice to every British citizen by daring (almost) to express his misgivings.
Even if he now agrees to accept the arms trade as part of his brief, the very fact he’s been considering dropping it on religious grounds undermines his position.
Maybe David Cameron should pick an American to replace Green. Even God-fearing Yanks rarely get queasy when it comes to hawking arms overseas.