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All the Fun of the Fair
Published on Friday, September 12, 2003 by the Guardian/UK
All the Fun of the Fair
by John O'Farrell
 

There are times in politics when one has to take a personal stand on a point of principle, even if what you believe may alienate many friends and allies. Well, in the week that Europe's largest arms fair has been held in London I am prepared to really stick my neck out and say: "Arms fair? Booo! People who sell cluster bombs? Bad!"

This controversial position has been adopted after a good deal of rigorous analysis so that I could be totally confident that my opposition was logical and intellectually watertight.

"Is it likely that Britain is going to completely abolish all its armed forces?"

"Well, no ..."

"So should those troops have the right equipment to allow them to carry out their duties effectively?"

"Er, well, up to a point I suppose ..."

"So is it not reasonable for Britain and other countries who seek to defend themselves to have an arms fair at which they can see the range of equipment on offer?"

"Um, well ... BOOOO! Down with the arms fair!"

Geoff Hoon opened this four-day event on Tuesday and amazingly was still clinging on as defense secretary when it ended. Back at Downing Street he asked the prime minister why the fair was staged at this particular time.

"Oh, no particular reason," said Tony.

"So you didn't demonstrate the new British-made bullet proof vest like I suggested?"

Other defenders of the event say that they are responding to every country's right to self-defense. You just have to read the visitors' book from previous years to see how many satisfied customers have bought these defensive weapons to help make the world a safer place. Mr S Hussein of Baghdad wrote: "What a great event! I bought dozens of missiles on sale or return. You sell them and then with my brand new missile launcher I return them back to you."

Mr M Sukarnoputri of Indonesia writes: "I have spent billions here, even though the weapons are sold on the understanding that I will not use them to attack less powerful neighbors or oppress my own people. That's OK because I was only ever intending to use my new helicopter gunship as a novelty paperweight."

Most of the shoppers need a bit of advice to help them decide what to buy; they can be spotted hovering nervously next to a piece of military hardware trying to catch the eye of the assistant.

"Excuse me, I've just been put in charge of my country's army and I need a troop carrier, apparently."

"How about this one, sir? The Piranha III armored fighting vehicle featuring a BAE Systems AMS II turret."

"Right. Is that a good one?"

"Well, it's got a 120mm mortar."

The minister tries to nod as if this sounds impressive, but can't help feeling hopelessly out of his depth. "OK, well there's a few others I want to look at, so I may come back."

The range of goods on offer is quite extensive. There's a Challenger 2 battle tank which costs 1m (plus another 35 quid for the number plates). There are British-made assault weapons on sale, although if you notice your enemies placing an order for these then you can always buy the secret weapon guaranteed to jam these rifles, known as "a grain of sand". The chief buyer for the Swiss army was particularly excited about the little penknife with the bottle opener and magnifying glass.

You can even buy a warship if you can face pushing it past the till and then finding you have to get it off the trolley so they can swipe the bar code annoyingly placed right underneath. Basically you can buy anything you want as long as you've got an Uncle Sam loyalty card.

Outside, demonstrators tried to make their voices heard as best as they could, considering they'd clearly spent a lot less money when they went to their own Peace Protesters Fair.

"This Tannoy can issue a stinging rebuke from behind a police barrier. It has a little button here for extra distort. Completely inaudible at 50 yards."

Britain is one of the world's biggest exporters of arms (second only to either the US or Western Samoa, I can't remember which it was now, definitely one of those two). The apologists for this sorry state of affairs say that hundreds of thousands of British jobs are dependent on this industry. Well, thousands of people make a living out of burglary and mugging but you don't get ministers giving the opening speech at the Crowbar and Flick-knife Fair. "Britain's criminals lead the way with ... Oy, come back with that microphone!"

The more an economy is dependent upon the sale of arms, the less that country will be inclined to see that peace prevails around the world. Instead of opening the event last Tuesday, Geoff Hoon should have declared the arms fair closed and then fallen on his sword. Except, of course, if it was a British-made sword it probably would have snapped in two.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003

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