Book review: As Used On The Famous Nelson Mandela, by Mark Thomas

You don’t have to look far to see the fruits of the arms industry. Occupying armies, despotic dictators, inhuman torturers, drug gangs in Britain’s cities – none of these would be anything without the tools of the trade.

And aside from the political and moral arguments over why so much of the world is in bloody conflict, there is a more practical angle: the economic one. The business of making and selling instruments of death and cruelty that makes it all possible is lucrative, mundane and respectable.

And it’s that which comedy’s resident agitator, Mark Thomas, has tackled in this wide-ranging book: from the wideboy middlemen who’ll sell to the dodgiest tyrant if the price is right, to the complacent authorities reluctant to tackle embargo-busting; and from the respectable middle-class shareholders blind to the fact they profit from death and oppression, to the Government’s sluggish inaction to make change happen.

As the subtitle, Underground Adventures In The Arms And Torture Trade, implies, this is not comprehensive study of the industry but rather a series of episodic escapades, some of which viewers of Thomas’s Channel 4 series might remember, that serve to illustrate just how depressing the situation is.

Three things elevate As Used On The Famous Nelson Mandela – a title taken from the sales blurb  for leg irons - above other apocalyptic books about the state of the world. First is Thomas’s sense of dry humour, which emerges remarkably intact in the face of all the disturbing information he reports – maybe it’s just laughter as a reflex response to overwhelming shock.

Second is his comparative even-handedness. Where Michael Moore, to whom he’s often compared, is a ruthless attack dog for whom everything is black or white, Thomas appreciates that real life is often messier than that. He quite warms to a jack-the-lad small-fry arms dealer, a posy military minder and even a Tory MP – and when he meets the Western Saharans wanting to fight for their annexed land he finds are not the noble warriors he envisaged, but capable of horrific brutality to equal their Moroccan occupiers.

And thirdly, after all the passionate tirades, Thomas does manage to get things done. Small things, admittedly, but any deal sabotaged is good news and every weapons executive embarrassed a reminder of the horrific human impact hiding behind their abstract sales figures, efficiency targets and share prices. For all his stunts, haranguing the great and the good on TV in a kind of moralistic Gotchas, Thomas and his activist cohorts have helped tighten the rules.

Of course, that doesn’t mean squat if there’s no political will to enforce the laws. And, depressingly, despite incriminating evidence, authorities can treat those who flout UN embargos and help keep oppressors powerful more leniently than a schoolboy shopkeeper.

Thomas finds his journalistic coups surprisingly easy, getting, for instance, with only the skimpiest of cover stories enough to persuade an Indonesian military chief to admit, on camera, that his regime employs torture, or to be offered illegal anti-personnel land mines from the back of an embassy.

Arms dealers don’t need to be that bright – after all, Mark Thatcher’s one – and it turns out to be so easy, that a class of schoolchildren employing only a few bogus email addresses are soon importing horrifying torture equipment into the UK, and get a machine capable of chucking out 600 lethal stones a minute into Ireland. When caught out, the disingenuous dealer suggests it does have a civilian use – to distribute sweets. It’s this sort of bleak humour that pervades the book.

The fact anyone with a phone, greed and a knackered moral compass can set up in the arms deal means that many proved surprisingly willing to divulge things they really oughtn’t in their lust for a profit. And while the burden of proof in Thomas’s tales is less than most serious journalistic endeavours, and much less than a prosecutor might want, the picture that emerges is not a happy one.

Every industry has its rogues, those in the arms trade say, and if we didn’t supply weapons someone else would – a dubious defence Thomas points out that a child pornographer could equally employ.

But just as worrying as the dodgy dealers on the periphery of the trade are the activities of  both the ‘respectable’ companies and the government that regulates them. Arms sales, we are always told, is good for the economy – but Thomas estimates that every defence industry job is subsidised by taxpayers to the tune of £13,106 a year.

The power BAE Systems, Britain’s leading weapons firm, has over the government appears inexplicable. Little is done to curb its activities, even when it sells an unnecessary and fairly rubbish £28million air-traffic control system to poverty-stricken Tanzania – a deal even the hardcore capitalist at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund thought was a bad one.

The British government, under its export credit guarantee scheme, also underwrote the guns Saddam Hussein used against his own people – and when everything went tits-up ensured the arms companies got paid, adding the unpaid bills to the national debt of Iraq.  So the people there are ‘literally paying for the bullets of their own oppression’.

It’s hardly cheerful stuff, but despite the bleak outlook, Thomas remains optimistic, funny and resolutely determined not to stand idly by. By taking such a positive stance and proving that dissent can make a difference, his accessible first book deserves to reach the widest possible constituency.

As Used On The Famous Nelson Mandela, by Mark Thomas, is published by Ebury Press for £10.99. Click here to buy it from Amazon for £6.59

Steve Bennett
July 5, 2006

Published: 23 Sep 2006

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