The price of a slice of the truth

Nearly 350 years ago William Prynne, a lawyer from Lincoln’s Inn, found himself in a dank and dirty corner of the Tower of London.
It was a place where soldiers and civil servants refused to work ‘for fear of fouling their fingers, spoyling their cloathes, endangering their eyesight and healths by the cankerous dust and evil scent.’
Prynne was King Charles II’s new keeper of the National Archives.
And he was no stranger to the Tower. He had been jailed for life, had his cheeks branded with the letters SL – for seditious libel – and his ears chopped off, for a pamphlet attacking actresses and, by implication, Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I.
A report of  the trial of William Prynne Esq, in the Star Chamber, for writing and publishing 'A Scourge for Stage-Players,' can be found in the Archives. Subsequent keepers have been less harshly treated.
Prynne wrote: ‘In raking up this dung heap I found many rare antient precious pearls and golden records &c.’
It is a sentiment echoed every day in the modern National Archives building at Kew, where researchers request 600,000 document files a year and millions of documents are viewed online.
These are just some of the gems from my researches, many of them published for the first time, but none of them worth losing an ear for.

© These pages and their content are copyright of Peter Day 2014.

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Saudi Tornado in Operation Desert Storm

'Pretty girls and country properties pave the way for defence contracts'

Margaret Thatcher was warned 30 years ago that Middle East defence contracts worth billions of pounds could only be won in competition with corrupt practices by foreign arms dealers.
Files released at the National Archives show how hard she pushed ministers to do whatever was needed to beat off rival bids.
Her most enthusiastic supporter, defence secretary John Nott, told her:  ‘Competition from the Americans and the French is of course very strong and some of the methods of the French in particular are not easily matched. So often, it is gifts of country estates and pretty girls that win contracts around the world – not determination, quality or price.’
Six years ago the then Labour government caused huge controversy by blocking a Serious Fraud Office investigation into allegations of a £20 million slush fund used to bribe Saudi royals and middlemen in the al Yamamah arms deal, signed in 1985.
The Attorney General made the order on public interest grounds and it was claimed that British lives would be put at risk because the Saudis would withhold co-operation on intelligence gathering against al Quaeda.
The deal marked the pinnacle of Mrs Thatcher’s arms dealing accomplishment, worth £43 billion up to 2007 mainly for aircraft and support systems. It is continuing, with negotiations currently going on with defence contractor BAE Systems over a £4.3 billion order for Typhoon fighter aircraft and is regarded as Britain’s biggest ever export order.
The foundations of Al Yamamah were laid in a period of about 18 months either side of 1982 Falklands War, which arms dealers were quick to seize on as advertisement for British military hardware.
The Prime Minister and her defence secretary both made Middle East tours during which they beat the drum for British makers of battlefield communications systems, shipbuilders, Hawk jet trainers and, most important of all, Tornado fighter-bombers.
In April 1981 Mrs Thatcher was told by the Sultan of Oman and the Saudi defence minister that British equipment was too expensive and hemmed in by petty financial restrictions. They objected to the cost, fixed by the British Treasury, of inviting British experts to train their troops in how to use British weaponry.

Sultan Qaboos of Oman told Mrs Thatcher that the French were ‘very good at attracting people.’ Her private secretary, Michael Alexander, noted that the Sultan clearly meant ‘good at buying favour.’
Mrs Thatcher took the message to heart and made it her mission to cut through the red tape to make the deals more attractive. When the Foreign Office supported the Treasury view she replied: ‘I thoroughly disagree. This policy does us immense harm. These people are our friends and we treat them badly by trifling matters such as this.’
By March 1982 John Nott notified her that £11 million had been set aside by the MoD to cover the cost of training packages to support arms sales. She wrote: ‘I am absolutely delighted at this paper. Sense – at last, on this subject. I think the Treasury should provide half the cost as it is their rules that have caused the difficulty - i.e £5 million. And please tell the Treasury not to argue.’
The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Geoffrey Howe, had faced similar intransigence when he tried to insist of Parliamentary approval for financial guarantees provided by the MoD to underwrite potential arms deals worth up to £3 billion between its trading arm IMS Ltd and Iraq.
John Nott told Sir Geoffrey: ‘I cannot accept the proposition that we should allow the House the opportunity to raise questions and possibly object to each sale to Iraq covered by the guarantee.
‘Quite apart from our desire to keep our current negotiations private, there is a vociferous anti-Iraq and anti-arms sales lobby in the Commons, as well as some 25 Jewish MPs. We could therefore run the risk of a major row each time we wanted to sign a contract …
‘We must not allow procedural technicalities to create unnecessary difficulties.’
Mrs Thatcher was particularly impressed with Sultan Qaboos of Oman, who was at loggerheads with his Russian-backed neighbour, the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. She authorised military support, including SAS units, and agreed that the Sultan could employ them outside his own borders if necessary. He was expected to consult her first, except in an emergency.




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