As the UK gears up to celebrates the Diamond Jubilee, amid street parties, parades and flotillas, it is timely to take a closer look at one of the less edifying aspects of the royal family - the links between royalty, the military and the arms industry.
The ties between the royal family and the military are strong. It is common practice for male royalty to serve in the military while many royals hold honorary military commissions. The military connection has proved to be a useful "job" opportunity for minor royals. Both the Duke of Kent and the Duke of York have taken on a role promoting arms exports, with Prince Harry lined up as a likely successor.
Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, retired from the military to spend over a quarter of a century as Vice-Chairman of British Trade International, which later became UK Trade & Investment (UKTI). He made over one hundred overseas visits, some supporting arms sales.
He was succeeded in 2001 as Special Representative for Trade by the Queen's second son, Prince Andrew, Duke of York, on his retirement from the navy. He was a high profile figure, with a very public divorce, jet-setting lifestyle and dubious friendships. Like his predecessor, Prince Andrew had no formal business or diplomatic experience, but was nevertheless deemed to be the right person to represent UK business abroad.
Prince Andrew's role was unpaid; however he didn't come cheap, flying first class or on chartered aircraft and staying at five-star hotels. In 2011, the Telegraph reported that over a decade the Prince's UKTI role had cost taxpayers almost £15 million, over £4 million in direct expenses and over £10 million in security support.
There are many aspects of Prince Andrew's conduct which have raised media and parliamentary attention, including his propensity to mix public duties and private pleasures. But it is his role as cheerleader-in-chief for the arms industry which should create most concern.
In April 2008, government support for arms sales was moved from the Ministry of Defence into the new UKTI Defence & Security Organisation (DSO). DSO is extremely well resourced, employing more staff at UKTI's London headquarters than other industry sectors combined, although the arms industry provides less than 1.2% of UK exports.
DSO aggressively mines old and new export markets. The largest and fastest growing markets are in Asia, and the Middle East and North Africa. It is this latter region that Prince Andrew, with his royal connections and military background, best fits the DSO agenda.
A Buckingham Palace spokesman explains: "Middle East potentates like meeting princes. He comes in as the son of the Queen and that opens doors that otherwise would remain closed. He can raise problems with a crown prince and four or five weeks later we discover that the difficulties have been overcome and the contract can be signed. He brings immeasurable value in smoothing the path for British companies."
Andrew's presence also opens doors to quasi-royals. He was friendly with Saif Gaddafi, son of Colonial Gaddafi, and hosted a lunch at Buckingham Palace for Sakher el Materi, son-in-law of Tunisian dictator, Ben Ali, despite being warned of his corrupt activities by the British Embassy in Tunis. Both dynasties have thankfully now fallen.
Andrew is close to the families of Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev and the Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev. These states are not buyers of UK weaponry (as yet) but it was visiting
Kyrgyzstan in his UKTI role that Prince Andrew showed his true feelings, as revealed by WikiLeaks..
Speaking to an audience of British business people, he blasted the Serious Fraud Office for investigating arms giant BAE Systems' alleged corrupt practices around the Al-Yamamah arms deal between the UK and Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, he condemned "[expletive] journalists" who "poked their noses everywhere", making it hard for business people to do deals.
In July 2011 it was announced that "Airmiles Andy" would step down from the UKTI role. Not that you'd notice. He continues to travel at taxpayer's expense, managing 17 trade trips between July and January 2012, to such salubrious destinations as China, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
Supposedly other members of the royal family will share the trade role. Prince Harry's recent trip to Belize and Brazil focused on dancing girls and barbeques but will there be a shift to aircraft and armoured cars?
Unfortunately UK governments, whatever party is in power, are in thrall to the special pleading of the arms industry, despite its unethical nature. The government supports and promotes arms exports, including trade support through UKTI DSO. It's time to break the links and get rid of the financial, political and moral support - and that includes royal patronage. That would be a real Jubilee bonus.
A longer version of this article appears in the Scottish Left Review, May-June 2012
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