Times Article Says UK Cant Afford Moral High Ground

Is this what we in the west are now reduced to?

We can’t afford the moral high ground
In tough economic times, Britain cannot be too picky about whom it does business with

George Walden

In a hideous suite at the Sheraton Hotel in Taif, Saudi Arabia, in 1980, I was woken at two in the morning by King Khalid’s personal aide, with grave news: the King had heard on the BBC that the ITV film Death of a Princess had been rebroadcast, and the King was angry.

I was there as Lord Carrington’s private secretary. The Foreign Secretary and I had made our peace with Khalid the day before, while being careful not to apologise for something over which the Government had no control, in the hope of reversing a devastating trade ban and other sanctions. And now the drama-documentary about the execution of an Arab princess for adultery had been shown again, in Scotland it appeared.

To help to rescue God knows how many cancelled orders and lost jobs I spent much of that night explaining to a tired and sceptical Saudi, for transmission to His Majesty, the resolutely unofficial nature of a fringe event at the Edinburgh Festival.

Not long after we enjoyed a cordial meeting in Baghdad with the late Saddam Hussein, looking every inch the mobster in his white suit, silver tie and with his fat cigar. Why keep such low company, despite what we knew of Saddam’s crimes, not just against his own people but in London, where his goons were busy poisoning dissidents?

Because he was at war with Iran (“pity only one can lose” was Henry Kissinger’s private comment); because the Russians were in Afghanistan and — who knew? — en route for the Gulf; and because, for historical reasons, our exports to Iraq were rather large.

Stomaching distasteful encounters for sordid commercial reasons was no monopoly of the Thatcher years. Not long ago we countenanced with little more than a noisy protest the barbarously sophisticated assassination of a British citizen in London, Alexander Litvinenko. Why? Partly because to have taken it farther would have jeopardised our exports to a fast-growing market, where the largest company in Britain, BP, had extensive investments.

At about the same time Tony Blair was overriding the law of the land in unprecedented fashion to protect the Saudi Royal Family from a corruption investigation in connection with a BAE deal. Legally it was a scandal, but to do otherwise would have put a huge defence contract at risk (you could hear the French salivating), not to speak of the incidental disadvantage of severing anti-terrorist co-operation with Riyadh, which the Saudis had blatantly threatened.

Such is the background to our lamentable national posture over the Libyan mass murderer whom the Scots have charitably returned to the bosom of his family, with the gentle encouragement of Colonel Gaddafi and his moneyed minions, and the noli me tangere stance of the British Government. Examples of unheroic international behaviour by governments could be multiplied ad nauseam, and the way the world and our economy are shaping they seem unlikely to be the last.

“Civis Romanus sum,” thundered Lord Palmerston in defence of his decision to blockade Athens in protest at the financial mistreatment of Don Pacifico, a Portuguese Jew who just happened to enjoy British citizenship. The Greeks paid up. But that was a century and a half ago; today we gloss over the murder of a British policewoman on our own territory by an embassy official of a country with a population less than a tenth of our own, but a lot more oil.

Immoral? In the moralistic sense, you bet. But moralism is to morality what religiosity is to true religion. Morality minus practicality is pious grandstanding, something best left to pop stars and theatre folk. We would do well to understand this, because the international moral climate seems destined to become more brutal at roughly the same rate as our economic vulnerability increases.

I am not talking about wars, so much as how sovereign nations deal with one another in conditions of formal peace. Those who look forward eagerly (pop stars and theatre folk very much included) to the demise of the Anglo-American model and the emergence of a multipolar world should pause and consider where exactly these new poles of power are to be located, and how they are likely to behave when they feel the post-colonial boot transferring to the other foot.

The hands of the British and Americans are less than snowy white, but what are we to expect in the way of norms of international conduct from newly rich authoritarian regimes in China, the Middle East, Russia or South America, all endemically corrupt places whose oil or gas or sovereign wealth funds will increasingly affect our lives, not least our employment prospects?

I am not suggesting we ease our moral joints in preparation to incline the knee in multiple directions. I simply draw attention to the widening gap between our predilection for national outrage and our power for action, and inquire how we propose to bridge it. Remembering, of course, that France or Italy, to name but two, are less moralistically and more pragmatically inclined.

So ask not why Margaret Thatcher stayed in touch with the monster Saddam, or why Gordon Brown finds himself genuflecting before a clown in a tent. Ask what you would do in their shoes, and how exactly you would do it.

And should you chance to be a modishly inclined metropolitan moralist, above all ask yourself how you would explain your ethical one-upmanship to an-out-of-work aviation technician/oil man/fork lift truck driver in the North of England.

George Walden is a former diplomat and Conservative MP


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