Dannatt controversy rumbles on and on

General Sir Francis Richard Dannatt, KCB, CBE,...

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I’m in two minds over the Sir Richard Dannatt issue. On the one hand, if I was a squaddie and I heard the top boss sticking it to the politicians on my behalf I would probably think ‘nice one!’ – theres nothing better for military morale than to see politicians having a hard time. But at the same time, Dannatt’s complaints have never been of just a military nature, they have always taken on a distinctly partly political overtone. Even if not necessarily pro-party, they are definitely anti-party (which you could argue is virtually the same thing).

There is nothing wrong with military leaders having an opinion. We live in a modern democracy, everyone has an opinion. I don’t even think that it is necessarily wrong to express them in public – if they’ve been expressed in private and not listened to, and you think its important enough, make it a public issue. Some things the public deserve to know, regardless of whether it is comfortable for the politicians. And in the modern era of spin, politicians and their ‘special advisors’ are prone to treating the military as they do any other department – keeping ‘on message’ is more important than doing a good job.

But while Dannatt was raising valid points, at the same time it was also couched in an anti-Labour, and somewhat pro-Tory feeling. Military officers should be apolitical – at least in public. The job of the armed forces is to do the bidding of the elected Government of the day, regardless of what colour that Government represents. Its that party political tone that really is the problem. You get the feeling that Gordon Brown pretty much blanked Dannatt as he was seen to be politically unreliable. This is a dangerous precedent, for politicians to shun Generals based on their politics. Ability to do the job should be the over-riding factor.

If Richard Dannatt‘s memoirs are to be believed, his relationship with Gordon Brown became so fractured that they did not meet for 6 months towards the end of his period in command, and had to resort to ambushing the Prime Minister on Horse Guards Parade. It’s pretty poor that both of them let their relationship get so bad. Sometimes you have to work with people you don’t agree with. But you just have to make the best of it. The people of Britain, and the Army in particular, deserved better. Mike Jackson might have been seen as being tamed by New Labour, but the General cannot pick or choose with politicians he gets to choose with, so might as well get on with it as best he can.

Dannatt’s ‘beef’ with the former Labour Government seems to be that while the Strategic Defence Review of 1998 set down guidelines for how the armed forces should be structured, Gordon Brown then refused throughout the coming years to fund them properly. This is pretty hard to argue with – the state that the Army found itself in 2003 before it went into Iraq is well known, no matter what Brown might argue.

Essentially, the armed forces were caught between Blair and Brown in their fractuous relationship, that has been well documented. In order to safeguard his own position as PM Blair handed Brown unprecedented control over public spending, and refused to confront him. So if Brown was in charge of the purse strings – and, in effect, in charge overall – what the hell was Blair doing? Why did we have a PM who was willing to espouse wise words internationally, but would not put his foot down with the bloke next door? Very strange for the two most powerful men in the country to be so disfunctional.

Sadly Labour’s record on Defence was disappointing. The initial 1998 Strategic Defence Review set a sensible framework, and the Blair Doctrine of humitarian intervention was well thought out. But 9/11, Blair’s willingness to follow Bush’s hawkish foreign policy to the end of the earth, combined with Brown’s unwillingness to fund Defence properly or to work properly with his Army chief made for a deadly combination.

Nobody emergest with any credibility from this fiasco. And the row is only likely to get worse, with Dannatt’s memoirs ‘Leading from the Front’ due to be released later this month. Of course, you can look forward to a full review here.

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