Kenny MacAskill: Labour hypocritical over SNP funding for arms company

More than 30 years ago, when still a young lawyer in Edinburgh, I was contacted by an organisation called the United Campaign Against Plastic Bullets.
An air strike by the Saudi-led coalition on a target in Huthi rebel-controlled Yemen sends a fireball high into the sky (Picture: Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images)An air strike by the Saudi-led coalition on a target in Huthi rebel-controlled Yemen sends a fireball high into the sky (Picture: Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images)
An air strike by the Saudi-led coalition on a target in Huthi rebel-controlled Yemen sends a fireball high into the sky (Picture: Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images)

Formed in Belfast a few years before, they campaigned against the use of plastic bullets by the RUC and British Army. This was then the height of “the Troubles” and people had been blinded and even killed by their indiscriminate discharge.

Legal action had been taken against them in the Scottish courts and they were seeking representation. Arranging for their defence and attending court with them, the official spokesman was a young man whose brother had been killed. He was a simple guy clearly affected by the tragedy and angered by their use, though it was also clear that the media handling was all through able and articulate young men from Sinn Fein.

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But, I digress, as the company suing them was Brocks of Sanquar, now long gone with the factory in the town shutting a few years after the court case. Back then though, they were a company better known to Scots kids for providing their fireworks on Guy Fawkes Night. As well as fireworks, though, they made the explosives for the plastic bullet baton rounds used on the streets of Northern Ireland.

Years later, and by then a Government Minister, I also recall a humorous discussion with staff over a contract for some perfectly harmless item made by a company called Semtex. As with Brocks, it was understandable why they would be involved although the name, with its connotations over the Lockerbie bombing and the deaths of many British soldiers, is well known.

The reason I tell those tales is because of the latest political “stooshy” that has arisen over the Scottish Government providing grants through Scottish Enterprise to Raytheon, totalling some £185,000. That company mightn’t cause the same sharp intake of breath as Semtex, but it’s still a major American defence contractor specialising in guided missiles.

What also makes it topical is that these weapons have been used in recent Yemen atrocities. There’s no suggestion though that the plant in Fife has any connection with them, though it’s involved in other military contracts and it’s part of the same global company.

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However, I awoke earlier this week to what can best be described as a rabid interview on the BBC’s Good Morning Scotland radio show with a Scottish Government minister. Now, I’m all for robust questioning when it’s necessary and appropriate, even if I’ve always thought the trickier interrogations to handle as a minister are those that are firm but considered. Jeremy Paxman’s questioning of Michael Howard springs to mind as an example – incisive and determined, yet carried out calmly and methodically.

This one just seemed a rant from an interviewer determined to shout accusations. Now, I know and have been questioned by the presenter and it’s neither her nature nor style. I can only assume someone has been shouting in her ear-piece to “get stuck in”. It might have been acceptable if the minister had been prevaricating, but indeed Jamie Hepburn, the employment minister, handled it remarkably well. He was calm and considered in his replies, when he could get a word in edgeways, that is.

That hostility might have been justified if the BBC showed the same robustness when interviewing UK Government ministers. After all, it’s that Government which is supplying the weapons and which fawns over the Saudis who use them. Instead, a recent response by the Foreign Secretary – that it was necessary to counteract terrorism – was accepted with equanimity. Really, 9/11 and other atrocities had no Saudi links?

The considered response by Jamie Hepburn was that the grants supported diversification away from the manufacturing of weapons, which doesn’t seem to be challenged by anyone. The supply of weapons by the UK to Saudi Arabia has no such conditions over how they are used, but to the BBC it appears the former is a heinous crime, whilst the latter’s a good bit of business.

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It’s possible for ministers to take an entirely principled position that no business will ever be conducted with an arms manufacturer. I don’t agree with it, but I respect the views of those who do and I also wish to limit arms manufacturing and certainly the sale of weapons.

But, as the cases of Brocks and Semtex confirm, it can be difficult in the world in which we live to avoid interaction with companies who make weapons. Production is global and companies are diverse. The days of a Colt or Kalashnikov business have long since been supplanted by multi-national firms, often with very varied product ranges. As well as guided missiles, Raytheon is involved in non-military contracts and is seeking to expand the air traffic control and GPS side of its business. Seeking to have them diversify to protect highly skilled jobs in Scotland appears to me to be no bad thing. The Scottish Government not seeking publicity about it is perfectly understandable given the furore that’s resulted.

What is grossly hypocritical though has been the attitude of the Labour Party who seemed equally outraged as peace campaigners. The latter were as sincere in their condemnation as the former were shameless in their faux anger. Richard Leonard stated: “it’s just another case of the SNP saying one thing in opposition at Westminster but doing the opposite in Government.”

That might have had some legitimacy if it didn’t turn out that the Labour Government in Wales had just contributed even more to Raytheon – and without even the saving grace of restricting it to diversification. That was compounded by Scottish Labour previously accepting donations from the company when in opposition and before their trumpeted ethical foreign policy collapsed in Government.

Gaining headlines when in opposition for virtuous positions is easy, being in Government is much harder. Decisions are complex, often have consequences and values can be challenged. State funding as incentivisation for large corporations is often required even if it can go against the grain. It’s rarely a question of absolutes and most often a matter of degree. It’s a thin line to walk and weapons jobs will have to be lost for a safer world, but supporting diversification can only be a good thing.