It is particularly apt as the nation’s attention is so firmly drawn to the issue of how this Government has funded and equipped our armed forces in its ten years in power. It is also apt as we consider what is the Prime Minister’s attitude towards the Armed Forces, given that he bears principal responsibility for ensuring that the defence of this realm is secured.
Thus it is right that we should sit up and pay very careful attention when a group of distinguished former military men take the opportunity of a Lords debate on the armed forces to alert the attention of the electorate to the deplorable and contemptuous attitude that Gordon Brown has towards defence.
I shall come to the detail of what they had to say in a moment but first one must make the observation that their attack is, I believe, entirely without precedent in modern times in its savagery and strength. In those circumstances we should do well to pay very close attention to what they say.
I am gratified in the first instance, however, to say that what their Lordships had to say on the matter of the Prime Minister’s attitude towards defence spending and the Armed Services largely supports the proposition that I made here to the effect that when all is said and done, the deficiencies in our Armed Service must ultimately be laid at Brown’s door and that he is personally neglectful of them and of the defence of the realm. Along with his other many egregious deficiencies and flaws, this is one which all citizens should note.
Marshal of the Royal Air Force Lord Craig of Radley, a former Chief of the Defence Staff was scathing of the lack of interest shown in the Armed Services and of the position of Des Browne as a part-time minister of defence:
No amount of repetition of respect and admiration for the Armed Forces will outweigh the impact of government inactions or perceived disinterest in the activity and feelings of service personnel. Do the Armed Forces not merit even one line in the gracious Speech when they are deployed on operations far from home? Where is the support in that? It hollers blinkered disinterest.
How can the Armed Forces feel that the Government are four-square behind them with both the Secretary of State and the Minister for Defence equipment and support only part-time holders of their important positions? A part-time Minister signals a part-time interest in the forces, a part-time responsibility for representing their interests in Cabinet and failure to get adequate funding in the CSR settlement; a part-time Minister, with key responsibilities for their equipment needs, being answerable to two Secretaries of State. Surely a son of the manse knows his Bible: “No man can serve two masters”. Does all this not undervalue the Armed Forces?
The personal nature of the attack upon the Prime Minister was a strand which the media have noted as being out of the ordinary: and so it is. The fact that they chose to make such an attack is, I believe, significant and deeply wounding to the Prime Minister’s reputation. That it has struck home may be judged by the furious reaction of the Prime Minister and his acolytes from Uganda where he is on a Commonwealth Jolly.
Next up to the plate was Admiral The Lord Boyce, Chief of the Defence Staff 2001-2003 at the time of the Iraq War:
We are at serious risk of undermining what we may require to fight tomorrow’s war, and we can be fairly sure it will not be the same war as we are engaged in today in Iraq and Afghanistan. I hope that there is recognition of the need to think beyond a hand-to-mouth policy, which is where we are today.
The message is clear: the Government, especially the Treasury, still have a completely peacetime mentality. For all the Government’s platitudes about commitment and caring for our Armed Forces, the visible sign of this is conspicuous by its absence when we see a budget that so inadequately resources our Armed Forces’ levels of activity. Certainly commitment is starkly absent when we see the appointment of Ministers who are not devoted solely to their task, as shown by the double-hatting of the Secretary of State and the previous Minister for Defence Equipment and Support.
I make absolutely no apology for raising this subject again; it is very serious. It is seen as an insult by our sailors, soldiers and airmen on the front line—I know because I often have reason to speak to them—and it is certainly a demonstration of the disinterest and, some might say, contempt that the Prime Minister and his Government have for our Armed Forces. It shows an appalling lack of judgment at a time when our people are being killed and maimed. It is not for nothing that the Chief of the General Staff has said that his people feel undervalued. They really do deserve far better from the Government.
Lord Boyce too is deeply critical, therefore, of Des Browne’s part-time appointment as Defence Minister. He is right to describe it as an insult to our servicemen who are on duty for long hours and risking life and limb at the same time, for that is what it is. That this complaint has hit home at Browne may be judged by his wounded response today. Of that more in a moment.
Lord Bramall, Field Marshal and Rifleman, with service in the Second World War, was Margaret Thatcher’s first Chief of the Defence Staff and thus was a serving officer at the time of cuts that were being made at that time. He said:
The trouble is that you do not have to look far to find out why it is that on occasions in the past—and, I fear, why it will be on more occasions in the future—support for the Armed Forces does not measure up to what is needed and deserved. Over the past three years or so there has been no coherently joined-up foreign and defence policy in which military force could be deployed and operate with complete confidence about the real aim of the operation or about how the broad strategy and design for battle would develop in the future.
This is as serious an allegation as you could make, for anyone with any sense of history will tell you that the most frequent (and some would say, inevitable) cause of failure of military operations is a lack of a well-defined set of war aims with a coherent plan to achieve such plans. He went on:
[The Government] should spend up to 3 per cent of gross domestic product. That would make a profound difference. It would have a sensible rationale in insurance terms and what the country ought to be able to afford. It would certainly prevent the current position from getting worse; it would enable all the most important parts of the defence programme to be properly funded; and it would control the Treasury’s insatiable appetite for ensuring that whatever sum is allocated to defence is not in practice made fully available to be spent at the time. It would also send a clear message, which does not exist at the moment, to those thinking of joining the services or staying on in them, that the Government are really serious about their responsibilities and will match resources to the Armed Forces’ real needs and commitments, which our foreign policy believes are in the national interest. If there is no surge at all, the situation will become infinitely worse.
This is, of course, very much the thrust of the programme of the United Kingdom National Defence Association, particularly as regards defence spending.
Chief of the Defence Staff from 1997-2001, Lord Guthrie served in the Welsh Guards and the SAS and was thus Blair’s first defence chief. He was particularly scornful of the Prime Minister’s utter lack of commitment to the forces:
At the Lord Mayor’s banquet last week, the Prime Minister affirmed his commitment that he would, at all times, support and strengthen our Armed Forces, our defences and security. In my experience as Chief of the Defence Staff in Whitehall, he was the most unsympathetic Chancellor of the Exchequer as far as defence was concerned, and the only senior Cabinet Minister who avoided coming to the Ministry of Defence to be briefed by our staff on our problems. The only time that I remember him coming to the Ministry of Defence when I was there was when he came to talk about the future of the Rosyth dockyard, which was in his constituency. He must take much of the blame for the very serious situation we find the services in today.
This is a most grave allegation to make of the Prime Minister who is, as we all know, very keen verbally to associate himself with the Armed Forces. That he never went to the MoD when Chancellor speaks volumes as to the truth of the matter: his utter disinterest and lack of sympathy for the Armed Forces. It suggests strongly that, when he now seeks to cloak himself with the armed forces’ mantle, he is naught but a rank hypocrite.
Notable too is that he only bothered to go there when, selfishly, it was his own constituency that was affected by some matter. That is the measure of the man: always an eye to the political advantage, never to his duty.
Guthrie, too, felt constrained to criticise the part-time nature of Des Browne’s appointment.
Finally Lord Inge, Chief of the Defence Staff 1994-1997, also weighed in on Des Browne:
Despite the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan dominating the media, you are left with the very clear impression that defence is not a major issue for the Government and that they do not really seem to understand the challenges which our Armed Forces are facing and the long-term damage, if they are not careful, that could be done to our Armed Forces. They seem more interested in managing the media than facing the problems which the Armed Forces are facing.
In conclusion, I will say something about the important relationship between the Armed Forces, the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister. That relationship is more important than they might realise. As many noble Lords have mentioned, the fact that at this time the Secretary of State has a second job is extraordinary. He is known to some in the military as “Two jobs Des”. It is a very bad message to send to the Armed Forces. The relationship is hugely important and should not be underestimated. Where there is trust, that relationship works really well. It is interesting to talk about trust, given the Prime Minister’s writing about heroes. These are the very people that we are talking about. Trust is a powerful asset. When it runs deep, it strengthens any relationship. When there is no trust or, even worse, when trust is broken, co-operation becomes much more difficult to sustain. The Prime Minister needs to think very hard about that.
As I have said, these are most grave attacks on the Prime Minister and the Minister of Defence, wholly without precedent in modern times. They are a reflection of the neglect of the Armed Forces by Labour, a party which has no understanding or genuine affection for the Military.
That these strictures have hit home is manifest from the PM’s response and Des Browne’s angry reaction to the criticism of his part-time appointment. Of the latter one can only say that if he is, as he claims, doing the Scotland job in addition to that which a normal Defence Secretary would have as his ordinary duties, then he is plainly at serious risk of overworking and may make some serious mistake if he too is over-stretched. I doubt this to be true: Scotland is a major matter just now for Labour given the Nationalist advance there and the interests of his party great in that regard and I strongly suspect he is not giving his all to the MoD.
With the very clear evidence of lack of funding and obvious serious signs of grievous overstretch, our Armed Forces stand in real danger of serious harm unless some urgent and fundamental steps are not immediately taken to remedy matters.
And then the Government must then address the long-term funding of the military. Every week we are urged to surrender this or that bit of freedom because of the present emergency. We are of course at war and so, given how serious the Government says matters are (such that they justify these new inroads into our freedoms), then perhaps we ought to treat the funding of our military in commensurate manner, foregoing some of the luxuries to which we have become accustomed. After all, that is what we had to do when we were last in a situation serious enough to warrant restrictions on our freedom.