A farewell to arms

“How can we control the arms trade? How can we stir up enough public interest? Well, if emotive pictures of destruction and child soldiers were going to work, they would have worked by now. What we need to do if we want to control the arms trade is thoroughly destroy all of their arguments.” Mark Thomas fires his opening salvo with the precision and intensity of one of the guns he is working to control. Throughout the interview, Thomas rattles off figures and statistics with unnerving accuracy. But then, he should be good at this by now. Mark Thomas has been Britain’s foremost campaigning comedian since The Mark Thomas Comedy Product was first broadcast, eschewing tired sketches or “celebrity guests” in favour of creating a platform from which to attack social injustice and political negligence.

He has campaigned for greater corporate responsibility, against the dam in somewhere, and for the removal of third world debt, but in his new book As Used On The Famous Nelson Mandela, and on his current UK stand-up tour, he has his sights set firmly on the arms trade. “All the old lines that get wheeled out, “If we didn’t do it, someone else would”, “It’s good for British jobs”, “It’s good for the economy”, they’re all wrong, and we need to prove that they’re wrong to a wider audience. I mean, the arms industry is one of the most protected industries in Britain, these are companies that sponsor conflict, that sell weapons to the sorts of regimes and the sorts of individuals that sane people wouldn’t even invite round to their house for a cup of tea, and I really think they’re a cancer, a cancer in our society and a cancer at the very heart of our government. So really, my aim is to get people to engage with the arguments.”

Thomas’ campaigns have seen him doing extensive undercover journalism, posing as a pr specialist for aiding repressive regimes deal with amnesty, to setting up gun smuggling rackets in order to expose the loopholes in the current arms system. In light of his experiences, I ask him what he thinks of the LSE UGM’s recent decision to boycott donations from arms companies. His answer is less straight forward than perhaps one would expect. “Well, I would say that it does depend on the details of the companies, it not as easy as saying all companies ever involved in the manufacture of arms should be boycotted. Just to give an example, Land Rover have been involved in various arms deals over the years, but if they wanted to fund research, let’s say to develop a truck that could transport groups of people over large areas of difficult terrain, aiding the movement of refugees. You shouldn’t say, ‘They’ve been involved in arms in the past, we shouldn’t work with them’.” However, when I cite BAE Systems by name, his answer is slightly different. “I do think there is a very real ethical issue, with anyone, especially any university, accepting money from a company that has time and time again proven itself to act unethically. I mean, this is a company which has bribed, which has hidden information from investigation, which specialises in the most secretive of deals, which supports repressive regimes and that has the Labour government in its pocket, so I would definitely support a refusal to be funded by BAE’s money.”

It is a mark of Thomas’ nous as a campaigner that he does not see the world in a simple world-in-opposites reality. There is such a thing, for example, as a “good” arms company.

“The thing is, I do know some moral people who work within the arms industry and the arms trade, and people within the industry who support tougher laws and international treaties. These people will tell you that there are “good” arms companies and “bad” arms companies, and that you can distinguish between the two. Now, its fairly easy to see what a “bad” arms company is, I mean, even people within the arms trade will say that someone gunrunning to Zimbabwe is a “bad” arms company. The confusion comes when you try to work out exactly what a “good” arms company is. But it’s not as black as white as some activists seem to think.”

For Thomas, one of the failings of the arms control movement up to this point has been a lack of education, a simple ignorance of the facts. “I mean, some activists just haven’t done their homework. For example, you tell them that the Labour government has done good things, and they’re shocked. The Labour Government has brought in extra controls on the proliferation of torture equipment. That’s fucking brilliant! I mean, yes, it should go further, it should apply to all small arms, but it is a step in the right direction, it’s better than nothing. I always say that if the last Conservative government got 0/10 for arms control, then Labour is getting maybe 2 and a half/10, but that’s still something.”

The idea of a “good” arms company, I suggest, is perhaps a bitter pill for many activists to swallow. “Well, look at Liberia. The people of Liberia really deserve peace and safety. I mean, considering the things they’ve been through, the horrible atrocities, child soldiers and human rights violations of the worst kind, they really deserve some safety now. If that means that there has to be an armed police force, then arms are playing a positive role. It shouldn’t be assumed that all arms are bad.”

In this context then, support for stricter arms control does not need to infer a support for pacifism, and indeed Thomas refuses to sign up to what he refers to as “The Gandhian Perspective”. “There’s no point in adopting a pacifist strategy if the people attacking you are dropping Napalm on you from thousands of feet in the air. Non-violent resistance only works by eliciting shame in your attacker, but burning to death with your human dignity intact is still burning to death. Everyone has a right to life. That is the single most important human right. Article 2. It’s only natural that along with that right you have a right to defend your life. That’s just stunningly obvious. You have to be able to defend your own life against an aggressor.”

Thomas avoids being pigeon-holed into a neat category, and perhaps the same could be said for his career as a performer. He has worked in stand up, radio, television and written articles for publications such as The New Statesman, but As Used On The Famous Nelson Mandela is his first book. I ask him if he found the experience of writing it. “In a way it was daunting, and in a way it wasn’t. A lot of comics have written books, the likes of Alexi Sayle and Jo Brand, and I think the reason for this is that all comics are egoists. We all think we can do anything, and the sort of thing that people would regard as a challenge, the sort of thing to be approached with care and precision, we think is a piece of piss. But I’ve been working on issues in and around the arms trade for years, and basically I really saw the book as storytelling, a chance to fill in the gaps. When you do a television show you get about 24 minutes, once you’ve taken out ad breaks and the opening sequence and that sort of thing. If you want to really engage the audience in an issue, and present them with all the facts, that isn’t really long enough.”

One area his career has never taken him is into the realm of conventional politics. I ask him whether he has ever been tempted to become an MP, and also about his friend Tess Kingham, who is mentioned on several occasions in his book. Kingham was a Labour MP between 1997 and 2001, but she retired after a single term citing disillusionment with the political process. “Tess is an incredibly passionate person, she’s a friend, and she didn’t fuck about when she was an MP. I mean, before she became an MP she used to go out and do body counts, and collect other data on human rights violations. But her experience as an MP meant that she resigned because basically she felt her position had become untenable. She felt as if she had become part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. I think that’s what puts me off conventional politics, but also that I’m not disciplined enough to be an MP. I mean, I don’t think I could follow a party line! My skill is in offending people.” Indeed, his uncompromising style has hardly endeared him to the targets of his campaigns, but I ask him whether his humour is useful in the often dangerous situations he finds himself in, or whether the comedy only comes out later. “A bit of both, I guess. I do find myself in situations where I come away thinking, that was a bit scary, or that was a bit weird, or that was a bit horrible. I think anyone after an experience like that tries to rationalise their actions a little bit, tries to understand why they did what they did and said what they said, and I suppose humour comes in there.”

One story that Thomas details in As Used On The Famous Nelson Mandela is his uncovering of an illegal deal by Dheeraj Hinduja and Anders Spare to supply military trucks to the Sudan. Thomas worked on the story for BBC2’s newsnight, but the show was never aired following pressure from the Hinduja’s lawyers, a decision by the BBC which obviously disappointed Thomas. “I think that the moment they decided to pull the program will live on as a moment of ignomy, really. It was a shame to see a broadcaster politically cowed, and I think that it made the corporation seem very timid. The BBC has a special role to play. It’s remit is public broadcasting, and I think it has a duty to stand head and shoulders above other news broadcasters, and really hold people to account. That’s really what democracy is all about, holding people to account, and I think they failed on this occasion.”

However, his work was not without reward. “A lot of very positive things did come out of it. The committee report came out of it, the show I’m touring at the moment actually features it substantially – we’ve actually printed off copies of the final report and we distribute it at the end of it show, and of course the deal did fall through. Although a Chinese company did eventually come in and fill the order anyway, at least my actions did have some effect and proved that forcing the issue can produce results.”

Thomas’ campaigns over the years have brought many successes, but, as with any campaigner, the extent to which he knows how much personal influence he has had is unclear. “I think with anything in life you sometimes know the influence your actions have had, and sometimes you don’t. There’s a famous story about Kissinger advising Nixon not to nuke Vietnam with the words “Beware the hammer blow of the peace movement”, so while they may not have ended the war immediately, perhaps without even knowing it the peace protestors prevented nuclear bombs being dropped. To give another example, there was a strike in Colombia, and the military was called in to sort things out – it was getting very nasty, so solidarity protests were called outside the Colombian embassy in London. Now at these protests you’d get 10 people, maybe 20, maybe even 30 if you were really really lucky. However, when the Colombian government called off the military and began to negotiate, one of their non-negotiable demands was that they “call off the pickets in London”. So even relatively minor actions can have a major impact.”

But some important tangible changes have occurred. “But as for my proudest moment, I think getting real changes in the law. The thing I did with furniture disclose tax was a lot of fun, and getting the law changed. Finland also introduced a new law to restrict arm sales after one of my programs, and we’ve got Nestle to change their packaging and that sort of thing.”

“The next big aim is an international arms trade treaty, but really the aim before that is just to get as many people as possible engaged in the debate. It may seem complex, but, for example back in 1992 I was talking about reducing world debt, and people were incredulous. If you told them the facts they simply wouldn’t believe them. If you told them that some of the debt had been created by the Americans funding a nuclear power plant in the Philippines at the foot of an active volcano and in an earthquake zone, people wouldn’t believe it, but its true – a fucking active volcano. But now, some 14 years later, the removal of world debt is a large and popular debate, which shows that the public can get behind quite complicated arguments and movements. The same can happen with arms treaties.”

Thomas’ message, like his body of work, is a rallying shout, a call to arms if you will, for each of us to get informed and get engaged with the debates that will shape the world for years to come.

Originally published in the LSE’s The Beaver, 24 October 2006.