The World This Week

This week, Phil watches a sales pitch in the Middle East and balances the books in Tower Hamlets

GEOBUSINESS | The Price of War

David Cameron
Defending Britain’s interests abroad: David Cameron dashes after the dishdashas © AFP
Depressed by the weather this week, David Cameron toddled off to flog weapons to sheiks for a few days in the Middle East. First stop for the salesman-in-chief were the United Arab Emirates, where he hoped to secure an order for 60 Typhoon fighter jets and a happy Christmas for British Aerospace.

As he continued his tour of the UAE, the PM tried to avoid discussing the thorny issue of political repression in favour of lighter fare like: “Look at the guns on that!” He was also keen to smooth things over with Saudi Arabia, which is upset following the decision by the foreign affairs select committee to investigate its dysfunctional relationship with Britain.

According to the Financial Times, a Downing Street source was reported as defending the arms sale thus: “Pushing commercial interests and promoting human rights go hand-in-hand.” Apparently without irony, the source went on: “But it is worth noting that Saudi Arabia recently came very high on the Human Development Index.” Published by the United Nations Development Programme, the HDI ranks countries according to life expectancy, education, and income – kind of like a grown-up version of GDP. Saudi’s position at 56 out of 187 countries isn’t exactly a podium finish, but Downing Street should be awarded full marks for optimism.

It’s good that our prime minister wants to look after our interests abroad, if a little dispiriting to see him reduced to the status of shopkeeper. But now that Britain’s foreign policy is essentially that of an international megastore, where the buyer’s only requirement is billions of pounds worth of non-sequential petrodollars, some might wonder whether we’ve crossed the line separating diplomacy from bald capitalism.

Of course, Britain is known as a nation of shopkeepers: founded in 1734, Bennett’s in Derby claims to be the first department store in the world. So why not build on tradition and offer high-spending sheiks a one-stop shop where they can buy all the British-made goodies they love in a single visit? Were Harrods to sell fighter jets next to the handbags, what could be more convenient for an Emerati with a Kensington address? In one morning, he can pick up something for the wives, a combat aircraft with a 16,500lb payload, and some luxury mince pies on the way through the food hall.

What may seem a rather far-fetched idea to some might sound rather pedestrian to customers of Walmart, where it’s possible to grab an air rifle with your pizza. After all, the right to self-defend has attained an almost taboo status that politicians across the globe are wary to question. From the right to bear arms enshrined by the American constitution (HDI ranking: fourth), to the British government’s endorsement of extreme retribution for homeowners against burglars (28th), society relies on impulse rather than civilised rationality when the shit hits the fan. Of course, there is one way to ensure a decent ranking on the Human Development Index: buy fighter jets and bomb your neighbours into next week. Faced with a dwindling life expectancy, they’ll never be able to compete.

PUBLIC ART | Moore’s the Pity

henry-moore-statue the draped woman
The ‘Draped Seated Woman’: no longer welcome in Tower Hamlets © Yellow Door

On Tuesday, BBC Radio 4’s Today programme left its trendy West London HQ to drag its liberal arse over to Tower Hamlets, a deprived area where all the BBC cleaners live. The show was there to report on the borough council’s plan to sell off a Henry Moore sculpture, which the cabinet member for the environment, Shahed Ali, explained was no longer worth keeping.

On extended loan to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park for the past 15 years, Tower Hamlets now wants the Draped Seated Woman back. The cash-strapped council is in such dire financial straits that it’s questioning whether it can afford the premium to insure the artwork, and is planning to sell it instead.According to the Henry Moore Foundation’s Richard Calvocoressi, Moore sold his sculpture to the council “at a very favourable price” – Tower Hamlets wants to capitalise on that generosity by selling the sculpture on to the highest bidder. Mr Ali told the programme: “I think that kind of money could go into very much needed work with the youth population.”

What kind of money are we talking about? Well, in February this year Henry Moore became the second most expensive artist of the 20th century after his eight-foot bronze, Reclining Figure: Festival, sold for £19.1 million. Assuming the Draped Seated Woman reaches a similar figure, the council looks like it’s going to be setting up quangos all over the East End.There’s no doubt that a Moore sculpture is a very expensive piece of metal. But Port gets the feeling that Tower Hamlets is selling itself short: in the grand scheme of things, such as the administration of a land mass containing 254,000 people, £19 million is only 34 quid each. All it takes is a few ill-advised youth schemes and a big bag of iPads to swallow up the cash.

As the second most deprived borough in London and the third most deprived borough in the country, Tower Hamlets is in need of a little cheer. Sure, keeping the sculpture invites problems of security and insurance and space, but they’re not really big picture issues. This is a chance for the council to fight against the commodification of art, and respect the artist’s kind gesture, by returning the sculpture to a place where everyone can see it. Deciding its fate by balance sheet alone renders it worthless anyway.
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