Britain won a dubious new accolade this week: it became the world's number one arms exporter. Not that the government had any regrets: the trade minister Digby Jones greeted it as "outstanding" and promised: "I look forward to working with the defence sector in future."
Others may find it harder to celebrate. In a country that has lost well over a million manufacturing jobs since 1997, where there were not enough trained engineers to fix the west coast mainline last Christmas, there is something galling about our remaining manufacturing excellence being concentrated in weapons, warplanes and military equipment. When UK Trade and Investment, the government agency that published these figures, was asked yesterday in which other export industries Britain ranked number one, it could not name one.
Then there are our dodgy customers. Every year the Foreign Office puts out a human rights report. Last year's edition names as one of the government's "major countries of concern" Saudi Arabia. Yet this despotic regime was the biggest customer for British arms last year, placing an order worth roughly £4.4bn for Typhoon aircraft alone. These deals may not break the letter of Labour's manifesto pledge in 1997 that "we will not permit the sale of arms to regimes that might use them for internal repression", but they certainly flout its spirit. And can Labour ministers, with their long-standing commitment to development, really be glad that impoverished countries such as Tanzania are shelling out tens of millions for radar defence systems?
Those who style themselves as hard-headed argue that if Britain did not sell these armaments, someone else would; at least this way the trade is cleaner than it might be otherwise. The first contention could obviously be used by a drug dealer, and it would not detain any court for a moment. And the second part can hardly stand while the allegations that BAE Systems, the giant among British defence companies, bribed brutal regimes to purchase its stuff go uninvestigated by British authorities.
Nor is this trade helpful for the British. BAE, for instance, has more workers in America than the UK. Yet the industry gets plenty of taxpayers' money: not just its own dedicated staff at UK Trade and Investment, but subsidies for research. Campaigners calculate that the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, a taxpayer-funded body, spent £35m in 2004 in research grants for "defence and aerospace" projects with BAE and others. This money and support could be directed elsewhere, to more pressing needs. Rather than boast of their connections with defence, ministers should look to minimise them.