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Stirrer webmaster Andy Goff makes the astonishing confession that he used to be an arms dealer. Using his inside knowledge, he rifles (ha!) through Mark Thomas' exploration of the trade.

It's not often one reads books about school children and nuns setting up companies to deal in the arms trade, but I've just finished one. It's called "As used on the famous Nelson Mandela" by Mark Thomas.

I have to declare an interest. Many years ago, at the time of the Iran/Iraq war, I was in business with an Iranian chap. We had set up a company to sell freight transport across the Aegean between Italy and Greece. This was not a hugely lucrative game as the freight companies invariably went bust without paying for the service.

We had to think of something else. My pal came up with the idea of flogging arms to Iraq. My sense of adventure got the better of any moral qualms I may have had and it seemed like a huge wheeze. Forgive my total lack of empathy. Anyway, I started to pursue this idea. Telexes arrived with lists of requirements - you know the sort of thing, howitzers, field guns, small arms and ammunition, every day weapons of death and destruction.

I found my way to a mob called Interarms who, apparently, had a warehouse full of this stuff in Manchester. Suffice to say that, as I had no End User Agreement, they were pretty sniffy about dealing with me. The idea, like so many of those involved with these weapons, died the death and I got older, wiser and more enlightened.

Mark Thomas was much more adept at making contacts and finding the people who keep the global arms trade working smoothly. It was he, along with a bunch of kids and an Irish nun, who set up “shell” companies to expose just how easy it is to become a dealer in very dodgy gear.

There's a great piece where he describes being in a field and having a demonstration of a stone throwing machine, invented by an Israeli who had an interest in crowd control. Almost Biblical in its conception, a stone throwing device fails modern tests for weapons of mass destruction but has the potential for similar results. As Ollie North (remember him - Iran/Contra deal) might have said, “Seems a kinda neat idea.”

The book is well researched and amusing in parts, but makes for hugely depressing reading as one realises the hypocrisy contained in New Labour's avowal to have an ethical export policy when it comes to arms. Within weeks of achieving office in '97, Robin Cook had watered down the “ethical” policy to such an extent that it was indistinguishable from the non-ethical policy that went before.

The worst culprits in all this are our own very comfortable British Aerospace (BAe Systems). The subject of an ongoing investigation into bribery and corruption, it seems BAe have a throttle hold on all government activities when it comes to trying to limit the acceptability of what we sell abroad.

More depressing still is that Birmingham is still a city that makes money from the manufacture of weapons and instruments of torture. We produce handcuffs and shackles used on Guantanamo Bay inmates. See Hiatts website [no longer live] for a fascinating insight into our great engineering history. It's a different company that boasts for its leg-irons “As used on the famous Nelson Mandela” but it's the same story.

Mark Thomas has written an interesting and thought provoking book that should be read by all those who have an even passing interest in human rights. More than that, it exposes the gross hypocrisy of Britain's involvement in the ruthless arms trade when it purports to have an ethical arms policy. As this book shows, the corruption starts at the very top.


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