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Green sees red over arms sales

Why did Lord Green take the Trade Minister post when he clearly had problems with the ethics of arms sales? Kaye Stearman ruminates on ethics, religion and arms sales.

What started out green, then rapidly turned yellow, white and red?. No, it’s not a chameleon. It’s the new UK Trade Minister. Why? Well, he is called Green, quickly turned yellow, waved the white flag of surrender, and then grew red with embarassment – as did the government. 

Lord Green of Hurstpierpoint takes his seat in the House of Lords

Lord Green of Hurstpierpoint takes his seat in the House of Lords

This is the background to the riddle. For months the Coalition government had been seeking a Trade Minister, someone with gravitas and international contacts,  to act as a public face of UK Trade & Investment (UKTI). They thought that they had hit the jackpot with Lord Stephen Green of Hurstpierpoint – after all he is a newly appointed Tory Lord just stepping down from the Chairmanship of banking giant HBSC and an ordained Church of England priest. What’s not to like?

Lord Green’s dilemma

Unfortunately Lord Green is reputed not to like weapons companies, so much so that he decided that HBSC would no longer provide financial services to those companies who manufactured arms such as landmines, cluster bombs and combat aircraft. However, according to the Telegraph of 7 January, “the bank retains BAE Systems as a client and its senior non-executive director, Sir Simon Robertson, is chairman of Rolls-Royce”,  so clearly the adversion to arms goes only so far.

Even so, Lord Green clearly had  “issues” when he was offered the trade post, because it would mean promoting arms sales through UKTI’s Defence & Security Organisation (UKTI DSO). This includes attending arms fairs around the globe as well as at home – DSEI (Defence & Security Equipment International) in London and the Farnborough International Airshow (which, despite its name, is primarily an arms sales opportunity).

So he prevaricated. Stories started leaking out in the new year as people began returning to work. The new Trade Minister would not be promoting arms exports. So who would? There were rumours that the job would be taken on by Gerald Howarth MP for Aldershot, and already a junior minister in the MoD. And Howarth would clearly relish the role. Business Minister Mark Prisk, a “committed Christian”, was reportedly also keen to help out with weapons promotion.

The Tory Party at Prayer?

Gerald Howarth MP and junior defence minister

Gerald Howarth MP and junior defence minister

Now here’s a strange thing. Like Lord Green, Howarth is also a CoE stalwart – a churchwarden no less. His enthusiasm for arms sales is well-known, so much so that he has been described as “the Honourable Member for BAE Systems“, which is headquartered in his constituency. Traditionally, the Church of England is described as the Tory party at prayer. There is more than a grain of truth in the description but it is well to remember that there have been many radical CoE clergy, from hard-working vicars in inner cities devasted by government cuts to the current head honcho (aka the Archbishop of Canterbury) Rowen Williams.

So what way would Lord Green go? Would he follow his conscience and say, “no thanks” to the trade job? After all, he is a man of many talents and could easily find more ethical work (perhaps helping some of the victims of the world financial crisis). But no, that government post was just too tempting.

After a bit of umming and arring, it seems that Lord Green would follow the government line and give full support to the work of UKTI DSO.  Soon after, a government spokesman announced: “Lord Green said defence exports are important to the UK and therefore Lord Green will be playing his full part in supporting trade and investment, including defence promotion which is important to the UK.”

Wobble or dark night of the soul?

So that’s that – or is it? The arms industry tends not to be so forgiving of those who wobble in worship at its alter and this was more than a wobble. As a crisis of conscience, it was hardly up there with the classic dark nights of the soul documented by so many religious figures, but I, for one, think it was genuine. Will the arms industry trust Green to wholeheartedly support their future endeavors. I very much doubt it.

Meanwhile, I do hope that Green regrets his u-turn. If he wants to see the light he could start by reading the 1961 farewell speech of US President Einsenhower, a confirmed Presbyterian, on the pernicious influence of the military-industrial complex.

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