Arms and the Royal Man

The royal family and the military elite are two pillars of the British establishment and the links between them are strong and enduring. It’s been a few hundred years since a royal has actually led an army into battle – just as well, given their generally lamentable record. The last was ‘Butcher’ Cumberland, youngest son of George II, notorious for his Scottish slaughter during and after the Battle of Culloden in 1746.

It is still common practice for male royalty to join the military, whatever their aptitude or qualifications. The current Queen’s sons and grandsons have undertaken military training or service, as have many of her other relatives.

In addition, most royals also hold one or more honorary military commissions, linked to specific services or divisions. For example, in addition to his regular military commission, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, holds honorary commissions as Commodore-in-Chief of Scotland, Commodore-in-Chief of HMNB Clyde, Colonel of the Irish Guards, Commodore-in-Chief of the Royal Navy Submarine Service and Honorary Air Commandant of RAF Conningsby.

The roles that the lesser royals take on after they leave the military are often overlooked. As it happens, the combination of royal descent and military service is seen as a good qualification for promoting the British arms industry. This has been the pattern for two minor royals – the Duke of Kent and the Duke of York, with Prince Harry lined up as a likely third.

Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, served in the military for over 20 years, rising to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel (in the topsy turvy world of royalty he was promoted to Major-General and Field Marshall after retirement). Thereafter, for almost a quarter of a century, he served as Vice-Chairman for British Trade International, which later became UK Trade & Investment (UKTI). During that time he made over one hundred overseas visits. At least some of his trips were focused on supporting arms sales. At this stage, arms export promotion came largely from he Defence Export Services Organisation (DESO) in the Ministry of Defence.

In November 2000  it was announced that Prince Andrew, Duke of York, would take over as roving ambassador after he retired from the Navy in April 2001. Andrew was a considerably more high profile figure, for all the wrong reasons. He was known mainly for his jet-setting lifestyle, dubious friendships, love of golf and other leisure pursuits. Like the Duke of Kent he had no formal business experience, but was nevertheless deemed to be the right person to represent UK business abroad.

From the outset there were concerns about his probity, his rudeness and his willingness to mix personal recreation and business affairs with the UKTI role. One government Minister was reported to have said “there is no way we will let British trade policy be determined by the location of the world’s best golf courses.”

As Special Representative, Prince Andrew was not paid; however he did get expenses and very generous they were. He flies first class or on chartered aircraft and stays 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. Labour’s Chris Bryant said in 2011 “he would travel in style with an entourage of six… His profligacy begs the question: Whose interests are being served here?

One of the most concerning aspects of Prince Andrew duties is his role as cheerleader-in-chief for the arms industry, a situation strengthened by changes within UKTI.

In April 2008, responsibility for arms promotion was moved into UKTI, following the closure of DESO. The outcome was that many DESO staff and priorities moved to the new UKTI Defence and Security Organisation (DSO). DSO is extremely well resourced, employing more staff at UKTI’s London headquarters than all other industry sectors combined, although the arms industry provides less than 1.2 per cent of UK exports. Its head Richard Paniguian, is paid over £200,000 a year.

The Defence and Security Organisation is extremely well resourced, employing more staff at UKTI’s London headquarters than all other industry sectors combined, although the arms industry provides less than 1.2 per cent of UK exports

With a tightening of military budgets in the UK and much of the western world, the arms industry aggressively mines old and new export markets. The largest and fastest growing are in Asia and the Middle East and North Africa. It is for this latter region that Prince Andrew, with his royal connections and military background, best fits the UKTI DSO agenda. His personal presence opens the doors of the kings, princes, emirs and sheikhs of the Gulf kingdoms to the arms company executives who negotiate the export deals.

A Buckingham Palace spokesman was quoted in the Guardian (9/3/12): “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. We don’t send him to developed countries like France and Sweden, where a member of the royal family would not make a difference, but in developing countries, or the far east, a prince can get in because of who he is.”

But it is not just royals but quasi-royals such as dictators and their family members where Andrew’s presence works wonders. He supposedly had a close friendship 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 now fallen.

Still in place are the dictators in the republics that arose from the ruins of the former Soviet Union. Andrew is close to the family of Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev – he has made eight trips to the country since 2005 and is reported to have private business dealings there. He sold his former family home to the son-in-law of the Kazakh president for a vastly inflated price. These former Soviet states are not buyers of UK weaponry (as yet) but it was visiting Kyrgyzstan in his UKTI role that Prince Andrew revealed his true position.

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 businesspeople to do deals. The information on the Prince’s “boorish” remarks came from the US Ambassador via a WikiLeaks cable.

These and other indiscretions (such as continuing a friendship with a known paedophile) resulted in media and parliamentary pressure on the prince to account for his actions and in July 2011 it was announced that ‘Airmiles Andy’ would step down from the UKTI role. Not that this stopped him travelling at taxpayer’s expense. Between July and January 2012 he managed 17 trade trips, to such salubrious destinations as China, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

Supposedly other members of the royal family will now share the trade role with the spotlight firmly on Prince Harry. His recent trip to Belize and Brazil focused on dancing girls and barbeques but is worth watching to see if there will be a shift to aircraft and armoured cars.

Royalty, arms and the military certainly go together but it would be wrong to conclude that getting rid of royal patronage would improve the situation. The sad fact is that government, whatever party is in power, is in thrall to the dubious charms of the arms industry, despite its unethical nature. The government supports and promotes arms exports, whether through generous R&D subsidies or trade support through UKTI. It’s time to break the links and get rid of the financial, political and moral support – and that includes royal patronage.