North East readers of Sam Bright’s thoroughly researched book* should beware of being lulled into a sense of complacent self-righteousness as it ruthlessly exposes the excesses, corruption and sense of entitlement at the top of the UK’s supposedly democratic institutions.
After all, not many of us have benefited from the same unearned privileges as its principal characters. Not many of us went to Eton and on to the exclusive champagne-quaffing Bullingdon Club at Oxford. Not many have progressed with effortless arrogance into top positions in Westminster, Whitehall and the City.
We can enjoy Bright’s careful but eminently readable unmasking of the deeply flawed elite that has spent the past 13 years of Conservative government enriching itself and its friends while running down the public services and, since Brexit, the protective regulations that the rest of us depend on.
No qualm of guilt need disturb our smugness – until, that is, we reach the final chapter. At that point those of us in the regions of the UK that consider themselves in need of levelling up have to ask ourselves a hard question about who we are prepared to do business with, whose dirty money we are prepared to take, to achieve our aim.
The example of Newcastle United’s takeover by a consortium headed by the Saudi Arabian state-run Public Investment Fund (PIF), with 80% of the shares, shows that already in our hearts we know the answer to that. Anybody’s. For many fans Saudi Arabia’s appalling human rights record has been a price worth paying for the club’s new success in winning a long-awaited place in the UEFA Champions League.
But the UK’s and the North East’s complicity in sportswashing is far from the end of the story, or its beginning.
How many of us have stopped to think about the injection of Saudi cash that is helping to fund the region’s wider economic levelling up? Not everything that Sam Bright tells us is news, but he does make us shift it from the backs to the fronts of our minds.
The Saudi firm Alfanar Group, he reminds us, is investing £1bn on Teesside to produce sustainable aviation fuel, while the Saudi chemical company SABIC is injecting £850mn in a chemical plant, also on Teesside. What local politician would turn down these investments and the hundreds of jobs that will go with them because of qualms over Saudi human rights abuses?
The Saudi money comes with government support and follows the government’s example. Since 2010 ministers have approved £11bn of military export licences to Saudi Arabia, more than any other country. This is in spite of Whitehall’s own human rights report on the country which refers to continuing enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, torture and mistreatment, and lack of adequate access to legal representation.
Meanwhile there have been hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties in a war being fought by a Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.
In a briefing paper obtained by Bylines Times, relating to an October 2020 meeting between the Saudi Minister of Commerce and Lord Gerry Grimstone, UK Minister for Investment, as Sam Bright – a some time contributor to Bylines titles – reports:
“[O]fficials emphasised the commercial opportunities for Saudi Arabian firms looking to invest in the UK. This was portrayed by the UK officials as a way of fulfilling the Government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda’”.
Warships and tanks
Saudi Arabia is not the only country with a dubious human rights record with which the UK is willing to do business: Qatar and Kuwait are among others, And until recently Russian oligarchs who have donated millions to the Conservative Party were able to invest billions in up-market “Londongrad” properties.
Now regions like the North East too are providing a favoured location for investment by ethically dubious individuals and regimes, not in mansions but in the potentially hugely profitable green industries of the future
The North East has arguably faced – but never faced up to – an ethical problem with the source of its wealth since the start of the Industrial Revolution. How many of Lord Armstrong’s and Swan Hunter’s warships and Vickers’ tanks went to unsavoury regimes in the 19th and 20th centuries?
Today, Bright argues, an old declining British elite, with its roots in Eton and Oxford, desperate for self-preservation, is merging with a new international elite happy to exploit this country as a safe haven for its cash. All this is to the detriment of decent working British people who have been fooled into believing that their real political and economic enemies are liberal, woke, university-educated, mainly metropolitan remainers.
*Bullingdon Club Britain: The Ransacking of a Nation. By Sam Bright. Byline Books, London (2023).