Nelson Mandela’s Man: Bane of the Arms Trade

Andrew Feinstein’s career is nothing short of extraordinary. Born in South Africa, then educated in some of the finest Anglo-American Universities in the world, he joined Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) at just 30 years old. Within two years he was advising Tokyo Sexwale – the then Premier of South Africa’s key Gauteng province – on economic policy, and within three he was elected (with the ANC) to the South African National Assembly. He was truly, in the words of an American diplomat in Atlanta, “one of Mandela’s people”.

Like many in the ANC, he went through a disillusionment with the party that ended Apartheid following the end of Mandela’s leadership in 1999, and resigned in 2001. But Feinstein’s resignation came under very specific conditions. In 1998/9 Tony Blair travelled to South Africa on a diplomatic mission linked to a highly controversial arms deal between BAE systems and Saab, and the South African government. Feinstein began investigating the arms deal, the biggest in South Africa’s history, and soon concluded that an official investigation was needed. He was, as he puts it, “effectively thrown out of parliament”. But this was by no means the end. He is now one of the ANC’s foremost critics, and his books are blurbed by the likes of Desmond Tutu and Arundhati Roy.

His political stature, however, is somewhat at odds with its physical counterpart. Feinstein is not the tall, imposing figure one would expect to meet in the halls of South African government. “It does cause problems, believe me”, he laughs, as he recounts the many meetings with diplomats who are generally the skyward side of six foot.

But when Andrew sits down across from me, and begins to speak on subjects for which he clearly has an imperishable passion, it becomes easy to see why he was so formidable in Parliament. His voice is deep, and powerful, and somehow manages to be both simple and logical, but retains the activist’s unorthodox twang. It’s an observation he’s heard before. “I’m completely oblivious to it”, he smiles, “I find it strange when people feel I speak unconventionally”. He feels he knows the forge in which his rhetorical style was made: “a combination of speaking formally in parliament – for instance I spoke in Mandela’s final debate in Parliament – to speaking in a football stadium of seventy thousand people, and everything in between.”

Feinstein remembers his early days working in the ANC with a genuinely misty eyed fondness. “It was extraordinary. I was able to work in Black African townships, and it became very clear to me very quickly that, despite being banned, the ANC undoubtedly represented the aspirations and wishes of the majority of South Africans, and I felt enormously privileged, from my late teens, to work with an organization like that.”

But in the early years, he says, no one expected the party to be as successful as it was. “None of us imagined a situation where we would become the government of the country, let alone where we would become formal politicians.” They were activists, he says, and such success seemed highly unlikely.

While he describes working in the early ANC as a privilege, working with Mandela is more like an honour. “To work for Mandela was probably the greatest experience that a person could have.” And Mandela himself, he says, “was the most remarkable statesman and human being, probably of the last hundred years [who could disagree?]…a man with a sense of selflessness that I’d never come anywhere across before, but also with great humility, and a sense of great responsibility and service.” To have sat for over 20 years in jail, he continues, “and to still have that when you come out, let alone the forgiveness and reconciliation that he preached, is something that I don’t think could be bettered.”

Feinstein’s description would fit a saint. George Orwell once described Mohandes Gandhi in similar terms, but with a critical bent. “One must choose God or man”, Orwell concluded, does this criticism apply to Mandela? Is he too selfless to be a relate-able human being, of flesh and blood?

“He isn’t without his weaknesses, as his personal life even from before he went to jail would attest. But he isn’t particularly interested in material things, because he came out of jail at an age when they probably weren’t important to him… I do think that he is perhaps, in intellectual, and personal and emotional ways, evolved further than a lot of the rest of us.” Perhaps a little, then, “but Mandela’s work was certainly about this world, not the next”.

Feinstein no longer has much praise to give for the ANC, and absolutely none for its President. “Jacob Zuma, for me, exemplifies anti-intellectualism, a complete lack of engagement in policy, and a complete inability to deliver for the basic needs of the poorest 40% of South African society…What Zuma and his acolytes have succeeded in doing is feathering their own nests incredibly comfortably. Zuma’s own family as well as most of his closest political cronies have become incredibly wealthy individuals through the course of his presidency. That will be his lasting legacy, and it will be a tragic legacy.”

The more controversial Malema is treated even more harshly. “Malema was absolutely crucial in getting Jacob Zuma elected. What has happened subsequently is that as Malema’s more outrageous statements, tinged with racism, as well as his behaviour which has been economically opportunistic to a degree that would make even Zuma blush.” This is as damning an indictment of Feinstein’s former party as one could imagine. Compared to Malema, I suggest, Zuma looks like something of a moderate. “The fact that we might see Zuma as some sort of moderate, or some sort of force for good, is reflective of just how far ANC politics have fallen from the days of Mandela.”

Feinstein now lives in the United Kingdom, where he has just written his latest book The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade – a tome that documents all of his experience with the BAE South African arms deal, and a good deal more about the trade responsible for 40% of all global corruption. “It is also a very, very good place to be, doing the work that I do on the global arms trade and global corruption deals.” BAE systems have their offices in London.

Behind Feinstein’s impressive knowledge of the global arms trade, there is also a clear set of political principles. He is extremely critical of free-market economics, “the basic tenets of which are flawed”, and has even less time for it in relation to arms. “The global trade in bananas is more highly regulated than the global trade in weapons, by quite a long way. This is by design; not just of weapons manufacturers but also of governments of virtually every political stripe.”

He believes the production of weapons is necessary, and cannot simply be abolished, but also that “the manufacture of those weapons should be done in a highly regulated, highly controlled, way that is to the overall benefit of society, and that’s not currently the case.” Stronger regulation, and more of it, is his answer.

The reason is, beyond the existing state of regulation, is simple. “I have been researching this area for over a decade now… I have yet to come across an arms deal – be it formal government to government, or a so called grey, or black market deal – that does not involve an element of illegality in it.”

The South African arms deal is certainly not an exception to that claim. I ask him what Tony Blair’s role actually was. “The reality is that Tony Blair, like John Major and Margaret Thatcher before him, was the sales person in chief for the British arms industry, and specifically for BAE Systems – Britain’s largest arms manufacturer, and probably its largest manufacturing business”, he answers. “He went to South Africa, and he was going to persuade them of the value of this BAE deal, regardless of how completely inappropriate, expensive, and corrupt it was for South Africa itself. For me, unfortunately, it came to characterize the nature of Tony Blair’s politics and his premiership.”

The idea that the arms industry has unrepresentative influence is hardly a novel one, but Feinstein delivers it with real force. He recalls that “Robin Cook remarked in his mémoire that BAE Systems seemed to have the key to the door of 10 Downing street… that seems to me to be broadly accurate.” This goes hand-in-hand with a general militarism. “It’s reflective of a country that was, and continues to, grapple with its place in world affairs since the collapse of empire. This is one of the reasons why British Prime Ministers of every stripe hang so determinedly to this vestige of power that is the British Arms industry.”

Given the all too cosy relationship between Arms and Government, is it enough to simply regulate the industry, and is it even possible? Feinstein has no illusions about this. “I think you need a sense of political consciousness in an electorate before serious regulation can take place, but that’s part of a broader political point.”

Feinstein says he focuses on the arms trade “not only because I’ve seen its devastating impact on South Africa and other countries, but also because it is an extreme manifestation of all that I believe is wrong in the relationship between business and politics in our current political process. Politics is driven by money, by corporate interests, in virtually any party, and I think what is required is a realisation that our political leaders don’t seem to be representing our best interests. I think it’s that sort of realisation that could lead to a change in the way in which we regulate the market mechanism in the arms trade.”

Andrew Feinstein spoke for New Turn last month at the University of London Union

Not Your Typical Baron

Lord Skidelsky doesn’t look like your typical Baron. Fresh from delivering a talk entitled ‘the post war history of capitalism and what went wrong’ for New Turn at Queen Mary University, he perches on a chair and makes a minor adjustment to his tie, before picking up his large mink Ushanka (the traditional Russian hat made famous by the Soviet army) and placing it on his head. He then looks at me with a half measure of suspicion, as if the hat were standard interview attire and my unadorned head an oddity. After a pause he says, “I got it in Russia – probably in Moscow – they’re not that rare… you see they’re made necessary by the extreme cold of the climate”. He’s not exactly how I imagined a British ex-Conservative Lord would be.

Skidelsky is a formidable academic and intellectual, and has lectured on Political Economy at Warwick for many years. He’s produced a shelf of books on John Maynard Keynes, including a three volume work which makes him the great economist’s leading biographer. He’s also written studies on investment banking, a history of the British Isles and, curiously, a biography of Oswald Mosley. He’s been a member of three British political parties, and founded one.

But Skidelsky’s list of impressive achievements in Britain obscure the fact that he is, essentially, a man of two worlds. Not many British academics, even Lords, have dined with Vladimir Putin. Russia, and the East more broadly, are a significant part of his life, and he informs me that he intends to travel to Russia that week. “I was born in Manchuria,” he says in clipped English that still seems incongruous with the hat, “my parents were of Russian origin but were British subjects, and when Britain and Japan went to war in December 1941, all British citizens including me were interned”.

Skidelsky was very young when this imprisonment took place, but has some memories of the experience. “Part of the internment took place in Japan, but it only lasted about four or five months, then we were exchanged for Japanese civilians who had been interned in Britain.” Did this affect him? “My parents tell me we were rather well treated… no whips or starving, so I can’t claim great suffering as a result of that experience.”

Skidelsky’s views on modern Western capitalism are, to say the least, critical. He is scathing about Neo-Liberal economics and answers questions on the topic by beginning with the phrases like “if you read Keynes’ General Theory, chapter eight…”

I ask him if he thinks his connection with the Far East has had an impact on his politics. “I think it has,” he answers, “though not in a direct way. I think it gave me a less parochial outlook on things.” Does he see himself as a ‘citizen of the world’? “No”, he answers, but does admit that he has “always felt like a bit of an outsider”.

His life in Russia, and Hong Kong where he has also lived, has given him “the view that the West isn’t necessarily the superior civilization. That there are periods where some civilisations come out on top, but that there are cycles”. He says he sees a certain arrogance both in British and American politics. “In the west we always think we’re better at everything, and that’s why we’ve been leading the world for the last two to three hundreds years. But two to three hundreds years is a very, very short time in the history of the world.”

Like many in his profession – both political and academic – he sees the rise of China as an inevitability, and a highly significant one. “China will make its mark in the future, and we’re going to have to live with views of the world which are not western, and are rather different. We’re going to have to compromise.” Skidelsky doesn’t describe this in quite the positive tone that I expect, and there’s always something in those who insist on the “rather different” views of civilisations that I find uncomfortable. However, he makes it clear that he doesn’t fear greater Eastern influence, and goes on to describe himself as “a pluralist, and not one of these imperialists who believes that unless everyone is a replica of the United States, they’re failures.”

Skidelsky was originally a member of the Labour party but became disillusioned, and broke away with other self proclaimed ‘moderates’ in 1981 to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP). I ask him what he hoped to achieve with the SDP. “The original aim of the SDP was to replace the Labour party. We thought the Labour party was a busted flush, and we wanted it to eventually form the main opposition to the Conservative party.” Skidelsky stayed with the SDP until it dissolved in 1992 when he joined the Conservatives.

I get the impression that he sees the failure of the SDP as something of a tragedy, and thought that the party had a good chance of succeeding where Labour wasn’t. “It almost did it you know, in the 1983 election it took 2% less of the vote than Labour. Had we just got over that extra 2% things might have changed… We might have had more people leaving the Labour party, particularly people who wanted to break away from Labour but didn’t want to go all the way to the Torys. We wanted to claim the left-centre ground.”  I notice that he is wearing a red tie partly concealed by a blue suit, the metaphor seems largely accurate.

He remembers the necessity of joining with the Liberals rather differently: “There were lots of tensions within the SDP of course, and the extra tension of being allied to the Liberals. It was very difficult to keep together.” I have to remind him that the effort failed.

Skidelsky was a member of the Conservative party from 1992, and held senior positions including one as Chief Opposition spokesman for Treasury Affairs. But he was never too comfortable with the Conservatives. I suggest that he wanted the SDP to change British politics, to shake things up. Was that so? And is he too much of a Maverick for the Conservatives? He nods and answers, “yes, yes I suppose so”.

The record agrees. Under William Hague, Skidelsky was sacked from his Opposition spokesman role for publicly opposing the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. He eventually left the party. What happened, and why is it that he held (and still holds) the unpopular belief that the bombing of Serbia was wrong? “It’s not a popular position in Britain… but then I was also very much opposed to the invasion of Iraq, because I believe that they weren’t justified by international law”.

“If you’re serious about building a law based international order,” he goes on, “you cannot just break the law.” For Skidelsky, the bombing – almost universally recognised as illegal – was too  blatant a disregard for the UN Charter. “You either believe in the rule of law or not.”

It’s an issue which he has great interest in; he would like to see the development of stronger intentional institutions. “We don’t have international law in the same sense as we have domestic law, but we are trying to develop it. If you’re serious about the institution, you have to be able to adhere to it. Otherwise you undermine the whole fabric we’re trying to build.” I can’t resist raising pearls and tribes but he nods, solemnly.

How does he see the development of institutions for punishing violations of international law? “Well, the same sort of dangers lurk in international criminal courts. People will start to think there’s victor’s justice – that the only people who are brought before these courts are those who have lost wars.” In many cases this is correct, but I don’t expect Skidelsky to raise the example that he does. “There is obviously a case for bringing Bush and Blair before the international criminal court, on the grounds of the first Nuremberg Indictment – planning and waging aggressive war.”

Should Blair and Bush, and their administrations, be tried in courts (the question seems an odd one to ask a man who is ideologically and culturally very far from the element of the Left that asks it regularly)? “I don’t see why not. The best you can say about them is that their motives were good. I think they thought they were doing good… but then I think some of these other monsters thought they were doing good as well.”

This is a damning indictment, not only for George Bush and Tony Blair, but for leaders all over the Western world, many of whom would sleep far less comfortably if the vision of international law that Skidelsky supports were implemented. But as we draw down Skidelsky’s magnetic strangeness comes in again. He turns towards me, the Ushanka sitting proudly on his head, and says: “Perhaps as an Englishman I would be against bringing Blair to trial, actually. But… there’s a case… there’s a case.”


Pirates and Emperors: A Conversation With John Makinson

I met John Makinson in the foyer of the University of London Union. Tall, with powerful shoulders and an impressive handshake, he was wearing a long black coat and tapping away on his blackberry. Though happy to speak for New Turn, he looks like a busy man, and quickly confirms this by mentioning that he’s rushing off that very afternoon to sit on a panel at the Royal Society of Arts, Manufacture, and Commerce.

John is something of a powerhouse in the cultural world. Not only is he CEO of the illustrious publisher Penguin, he’s also the current chairman at the National Theatre. But John is not just a lover of books and stage, he’s also a businessman. He’s the former Finance Director of Penguin’s parent company, the FTSE listed Pearson Group, he once ran the Financial Times Lex Column, and he’s a Trustee of the Institute for Public Policy Research, the UK’s leading think tank. As he puts it: “I’ve spent all of my work career patrolling the boundaries between the creative sector and the commercial sector.”

His thoughts on Britain’s ‘creative sector’, by which he means everything from film, music, and books to advertising and radio, are therefore somewhat hybrid. John clearly values culture and the arts, but also stresses that “government needs to make the creative economy more of a priority”. He explains that these sectors are valuable and successful, citing the fact that they are growing at twice the level of total economic growth and employing 1.5 million people, but also that he is worried about them. With many bookshops and music retailers groaning under the weight of downloads and international internet companies, it’s easy to see why.

John starts by explaining just what it is that makes him think the creative sector is so important. “We certainly have in this city,” he says, “the most highly regarded performing arts sector and museums and galleries sector in the world.” And this, he maintains, is no co-incidence. “We do in this country have a DNA which is peculiarly well attuned to turning out fantastic music, movies, theatre films, and books. We are just very, very good at this.”

In a way which is not true of other industries (like finance), John sees creative culture as something Britain does especially well; he even calls it, with characteristic economist’s style, “Britain’s comparative advantage”. “I’ve always felt”, he goes on, “that there is a particular kind of British creative sensibility that is distinctive and does not exist anywhere else in the world. We should celebrate that and try to capitalize on it. Investment bankers are the same everywhere”.

So if the British are so good in the creative industries, and they’re growing, what’s the problem? Part of the answer to this question can be signalled by a single word: Amazon. John admires companies like Amazon, but thinks they have an unfair advantage over British companies that is damaging the industry. “Amazon not only enjoys all the advantages over Waterstones that all virtual businesses enjoy over physical businesses: no rates, no rent, no staff, no utility bills, no need to hold any stock… but in addition to that they pay no tax.” John wants government policy “to ensure that there is a relatively level playing field in the creative sector”.

But the more significant danger to Britain’s creative industries that John sees is that “we are completely feeble on piracy”. In order to maintain these sectors, he believes that “it’s absolutely vital that our Intellectual property regime is robust and protective”. As CEO of Penguin, it’s easy to see why John has this view. He himself says that: “The level of copyright infringement in the Penguin business is not dangerously high, but it is millions and millions of illegal downloads a day.” By the way, he chuckles, “‘almost all of this activity seems to come from students”.

Why does John think the propagation of free books, music, and film is a problem? “‘I think that people have to understand that unless Intellectual Property is paid for, it will cease to exist. It just won’t happen.”

But don’t authors and artists create art for its own sake, and not simply for money? “They don’t do it just for money, but they have to live on something… If there is no reward, and it’s all siphoned off into infringing activity, we won’t be paying advances and books won’t be written.”

For John, the idea that Britain’s book exports, which are world-leading, will suffer because of pirated content is unpalatable, both economically and culturally. “The Russian book market is 80% a pirate market now”, he explains, “one in five books in Russia is sold legally. If that were to happen here, that would be the end of not just the book retailing industry, it would be the end of the book publishing industry.”

I suggest that lax Intellectual Property regulation has stimulated creativity in the Fashion industry, but John is utterly unconvinced that this could apply to books or music. “Fashion is real stuff… I don’t think they’re subject to the same pressures that affect Intellectual Property companies and organizations as they go digital.”

His answer to this problem is controversial. John supports strong regulation of Intellectual Property, which means internet regulation. Internet Service Providers (ISPs), he says, must combat the “piratical behaviour of their customers”. “Virgin has to see it as part of its responsibility to make sure that its customers are not violating Intellectual Property, and they have not been.” And if they won’t, as is certainly the trend, he supports government measures such as the reviled SOPA/PIPA in the United States.

The CEO of Penguin will clearly support the emperors of publishing over the pirates, but he also recognises that part of the solution may simply be “offering the consumer a fair deal”. And he is realistic in that, to continue the nautical metaphor, he knows regulating Intellectual Property in a digital age is a labour far beyond that of Canute. Penguin spend a fortune on “watermarking, and data security”, but “it is just impossible, no matter how much you throw at it, to police this.”

John ends, partly in jest, with an anecdote that demonstrates just how close we are to a Britain without book shops. “Waterstones exists today only because of the eccentric generosity of a Russian gentleman called Alexander Mamut – and I pray for the health and wealth of his family every evening as I go to bed”, he says, smiling. “He invested in it partly because he has a son at Eton – so we also hope and pray that he doesn’t get kicked out of Eton, because that could be the end of the British book retailing industry.”

This article first appeared in CUB magazine on February 6th 2012.


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