Tag Archives: politics

Serious questions for Defence Secretary

Liam Fox, British Conservative politician.

Can he out-Fox this one? (Image via Wikipedia)

I’m sure you’ve all seen the furore regarding the Defence Secretary‘s murky relationship with his former flatmate/best man/adviser (delete as appropriate). Apart from the point of view of the ministerial code and integrity in public life, there are very serious concerns for those of us interested in British Defence issues.

The Defence Secretary is supposed to be advised by the Chief of Defence Staff, the service chiefs (First Sea Lord, Chief of the General Staff and Chief of the Air Staff), and the relevant other senior personnel and civilians in the armed forces and the MOD. The MOD has plenty of departments, dealing with things such as policy, plans, procurement, anything and everything. There can hardly be a lack of capability there.

If the Defence Secretary really feels the need to be ‘advised’ by anyone who is outside the MOD chain, there are a number of learned, credible institutions such as the RUSI, which possess a wealth of knowledge and experience around Defence and Security issues. People who have actually paid their dues, either serving or studying military history.

All of which should suggest that at face value, the Defence Secretary shouldn’t really be in need of a special adviser. OK, in reality most Cabinet ministers have staff who advise on spin – how stories are presented, the politics of the issue, etc. But Mr Werrity has been described as a ‘Defence lobbyist’. Funnily enough, when Liam Fox was Shadow Health Secretary, Werrity was a ‘Health lobbyist’. Interesting, no? And surely if a Cabinet Minister cannot do his job without a poorly qualified siamese twin, doesn’t that cast judgement on his ability full stop?

Interestingly, Adam Werrity is, at 33, only five years older than myself. He gained a 2:2 degree in public policy – whatever that is – from the University of Edinburgh. Apparently he also stayed rent-free at Fox’s London apartment between 2003 and 2005, all of which hardly makes for a professional relationship.

It all makes you wonder what ‘advice’ exactly is being sought and offered. I’ve never liked the thought of special advisors who are outside the foodchain – it is completely unaccountable and open to all kind of abuse. What kind of influences are being brought to bear on these middle-men, say from commercial interests? There is absolutely no oversight, no accountability, and no control. Nobody elected him, based on a manifesto, and nobody selected him after an interview process.

This isn’t, for me, a red vs. blue/yellow political issue – all politicians have questions to answer about ‘lobbyists’, and who influences them and their decision making. The Defence of the Realm is far too important to be left to the Defence Secretary’s mini-me. But, as a high-profile Defence blog put it so succinctly, once again the British armed forces have become a political football, and the servicemen and women of the country are hardly likely to be winners.

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Reports that RAF requested a carrier for Libya

Today’s Portsmouth News contains a report that the RAF has asked the Ministry of Defence to reinstate one of the Royal Navy’s axed Aircraft Carriers, along with the Harrier GR9 aircraft to fly from them.

According to defence analyst Francis Tusa, senior officers in the RAF asked for an aircraft carrier to help enforce the no-fly zone over Libya, but the request was turned down by 10 Downing Street for political reasons:

“I’ve been told by grade A1 sources that the RAF wanted a flat-top but Number 10 simply wouldn’t allow it. I think they’d rather cut their own fingers off before that happened”

Mr Tusa goes on to explain that the Tornado jets flying missions to Libya are costing £35,000 per hour to fly, and that Italy is also charging allies ‘eye-watering’ costs for using its bases. Again, these figures are believable. It just goes to show what those with more than half a brain cell have known all along – aircraft carriers are the best value  piece of Defence equipment for what they can do. Not limited to friendly bases or overflight restrictions, aircraft carriers can go anywhere – what genius! The concept was only invented back in 1918….

Bringing back an Aircraft Carrier and the Harriers would be hugely embarassing to the Government, so soon after the Strategic Defence and Security Review decided that we could do without carrier-borne air cover for 10 years. The RAF, apparently, had argued that they could provide air cover from any land bases, thus making the carriers un-necessary. Less than 6 months later – if these reports are true – the RAF has basically admitted that its argument was ill-founded, and therefore based on self-preservation rather than British defence interests.

Sadly, the only carrier that could be brought back – Ark Royal – has been decomissioned, and largely gutted while tied up in Portsmouth dockyard. All of the living accomodation has been removed, and no doubt they will soon start on the plant and electronics. I suspect this has been done quickly to make it impossible to bring her back and spare any embarrasment. You only have to look at how quickly the Nimrod’s were butchered to see that axed Defence equipment is being shredded with un-nerving haste.

Of course a Downing Street spokesman has denied that any request has been made, but we only have to look at the fate of John Nott’s political career after the Falklands War to see what backtracking on defence reviews can do to the frocks. Sadly, while in 1982 Admirals Lewin, Leach and Fieldhouse were able to save the Navy’s future and liberate the Falkland Islanders, as the Nott cuts had not yet taken full effect.

I have to say I would not be suprised if it was true. And if so, it must call into serious question the ignorance of politicians, the apparently devious advice given by Air Marshals during the Defence Review, and once again the Royal Navy’s inability to fight its corner.

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Only Revolutions

I’ve never written much about international politics. Apart from long ago wanting to work as a Diplomat for the Foreign Office, my sole experience of international diplomacy is taking part in a couple of model UN debates when I was 16. But then again, I write mainly about two things – defence, and history. And isn’t it pretty impossible to separate politics, defence and history? Each affects the other. And of course at the forefront of my thoughts are the events unfolding right now in Egypt.

History underpins what happens in international politics. Egypt has traditionally been a US bulwark against communism and then extremism in the Middle East, and Israel’s closest friend in the region (although admittedly that’s not saying much). Hence leaders such as Mubarak have been able to stay in power for a long time, and their abuses of power have been overlooked, as long as they present a front against Islamic extremism. Pan-Arabism also broadly unites the region, particularly against Israel. I didn’t realise just how many regimes in the Middle East are the same – so many leaders have been in power for donkey’s years, and in some cases their fathers before them. I guess once President’s become established in office, the longer they are there the harder they have to be dragged kicking and screaming. Whatever that is, its not democracy. And if people on the streets are tearing themselves apart, then there is no meaningful Government of leadership in any case – thats a vacuum, and out of vacuums comes uncertainty. Iraq post-Invasion taught us that.

Countless times we have read about the role of the Army. Egypt has a sizeable military – the third largest in the Middle East after Turkey and Iran - and if it wanted to wade in on the side of either Mubarak of the opposition, that would probably prove decisive. Yet the Army seems unwilling to take a side, and doesn’t even seem willing to separate the two factions. This is probably down to experience, as the Egyptian Army may not be skilled at riot control. Tellingly, it says something about a regime if the Army – usually a representative cross section of society – is not willing to back the President. The military’s role in politics is extremely delicate indeed. An Army can deliver a coup-de-grace to a failing regime, but then it strays into the territory of becoming a military dictatorship. But at the other end of the scale, if the Army cannot intervene internally, then its influence is effectively neutered. Imagine if the British Army had not been able to intervene in Northern Ireland… it would have been a laughing stock.

Hanging over all of these events are the outcomes of previous revolutions. The current upheaval in Egypt was prompted by a similar wave of protest in Tunisia. And we only have to look back to the downfall of Communism in 1989 and 1990 to see how a small protest in one state can provide a tipping point across the region. The downfall of Communism had its roots in the Solidarity movement in Poland in the early 1980′s, and culminated in peaceful revolutions in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and East Germany. The lesson from 1989 seems to be that once the people have turned against a regime and are on the streets, it’s in everyones interests for change to take place. History tells us that once the people are on the streets, you can either go on your own terms, or against your will.

Are we looking at a domino effect in the Middle East? Only time will tell. The only fear has to be what might come afterwards.

(oh, and apologies to Biffy Clyro for stealing their album title!)

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Tory peer: benefits make the poor ‘breed’

Carrying on with my theme of Consverative politicians showing breathtaking lack of understanding, the newly ennobled Lord Flight (love the name!) has apologised after stating in an interview that child benefit encourages poor people to ‘breed’.

Flight also used class language in his interview with the London Evening Standard, by arguing that middle class people would be discouraged from having children. One wonders if Flight thinks that poor people should be sterilised so the middle classes can go forth and populate?

Howard Flight’s opinions are like something from late Nineteenth Century Social Darwinism. Talk about the urban poor being like monkeys and animals should have gone out with the end of the Victorian era. It’s that kind of talk that gave rise to the eugenics movement, the Nazi’s theories of selective breeding and racial genocide. Not only that, but the disdain is clear to see, by referring to poor people like animals, exactly like how a farmer would refer to their cows or sheep ‘breeding’.

Barely a day goes by without yet another astonishing gaffe from a Tory politician, showing just how out of touch and aloof they are. Once again, David Cameron selected this man to receive a peerage. Make what you will of that judgement.

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Government advisor resigns after recession remarks

Literally hours on from my previous post about class in British society and its effect on the recession, a Government advisor resigned after making inappopriate remarks about the current economic downturn.

Lord Young, a businessman, former Thatcher Government minister and Tory peer, echoed Harold Macmillan’s famous remarks from the 1950′s that Briton’s had ‘never had it so good’. He also referred to the recent downturn as a ‘so-called recession’. Amusingly, his wikipedia entry states that he has ‘not yet’ resigned from his position as Government enterprise advisor. We can only wait and hope.

Lord Young went on to say:

“So, you know, I have a feeling and a hope that when this goes through, people will wonder what all the fuss was about… Of course, there will be people who complain, but these are people who think they have a right for the state to support them.”

These kind of comments show just how removed some sections of society are from reality. The funny thing is, I can sense what Lord Young was trying to say, but he went completely the wrong way about it. They are insulting to people who are struggling, and even more so coming from somebody who quite clearly does not have to worry about where the next meal is coming from, or whether he is going to be laid off. It’s up there with Barbara Bush saying ‘this has worked out quite well for some people’ after Hurricane Katrina, or even Marie Antoinette’s ‘let them eat cake’.

What’s worse for me is that Cameron hired somebody like Young in the first place, it shows either a breathtaking lack of judgement, or it belies the fact that maybe deep down our Dave agrees with Young. It’s all very well for Young to say that he should have chosen his words better, but this is a smokescreen – these are the fundamental thoughts of a whole section of society and the party that represent it. Even if he hadn’t said it, its still what he was thinking deep down. And this naivetey, snobbery and selfishness is what the programme of cuts are based on.

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HMS Ark Royal to be scrapped – Defence Review

It’s emerged this morning that the Royal Navy’s Flagship and only operational Aircraft Carrier, HMS Ark Royal, is to be scrapped ‘almost immediately’. The original plan had been to retain Ark Royal And her sister ship HMS Illustrious in service until the new Queen Elizabeth Class Aircraft Carriers reached service. The news is bound to spark outrage, with Ark Royal being such a famous name.

My guess is that Ark Royal will be decomissioned as soon as Illustrious leaves refit, which she is currently undergoing. Bearing in mind that the other Aircraft Carrier, HMS Invincible, is rusting in Portsmouth Harbour and completely useless for operations, this will leave Britain with one Aircraft Carrier for some years. And who knows if Illustrious will survive that long anyway?

The Harrier is due to leave service early, and the Joint Strike Fighter is due (this may slip) to enter service in around 2019, which means that for almost 10 years the Royal Navy will not fly fast jets off their aircraft carriers. This gap in service is very serious – it means that a lot of the skills connected with naval aviation, whilst not completely lost, will be by no means as sharp as they could be, and it will take some time to regain that effectiveness.

And with a sizeable gap with no aircraft carrier available, the Royal Navy will not be able to provide air cover for its own operations, especially vulnberable amphibious operations which depend on air superiority. Which effectively means that Britain cannot mount independent naval operations. As my mum – hardly a defence analyst – said watching the news this morning, “we’d might as well tell the Argies to walk in the front door”. If I were a Falkland Islander waking up today, I would be feeling ever so slightly let down by a Government whose first duty it is to protect its citizens.

On the whole, the RAF seems to have done rather well out of the Review. Retiring the Harrier early is not a huge loss for the junior service, and retaining ‘some’ Tornado Squadrons – even when it is in the process of being replaced by Eurofighter Typhoon – is bizarre in the least. The best solution would be to retain at least some Harrier presence until the pilots can begin transferring to the Joint Strike Fighter, and to retire the Tornado early as the UK has the Eurofighter coming onstream in the fast air interceptor role.

The Army seems to have done OK, with stern lobbying resulting in only low level cuts in numbers of troops, but cuts to many armoured and artillery units – capabilities that are being described as ‘cold war’. But at least a grain of capability is being kept - its easier to expand a tank force, for example, if there is even just a basic capability and experience, than it is to raise one from scratch. Flying US and French jets from British Carriers is pie in the sky stuff – it would be hostage to all kinds of political and diplomatic considerations, and in any case would the French and US Navies have enough jets spare to do it more than once or twice a year?

It might have made more sense, from a naval point of view, to scrap HMS Ocean, which was built to commercial standards as a stop-gap is apparently falling to bits. Then Ark Royal and Illustrious could have been retained with one acting as a Helicopter Carrier if need be. The run-down of Aircraft Carrier capability is also bad news for Portsmouth as the home of Royal Navy Aircraft Carriers. Especially for anyone who saw the considerable report from Plymouth on the BBC News this morning, complete with schoolchildren writing letters to the Prime Minister along the lines of  ‘please save my Daddy’s job’. The BBC’s line seemed to be that Portsmouth can take a hit much more easily than Plymouth could. Which may be true, but still painful none the less.

Other reports suggest that the Royal Navy’s escort fleet – Destroyers and Frigates – will be cut from 24 to 19. My guess is that this will mean the loss of the four Type 22 Frigates (Cornwall, Chatham, Cumberland, Campbeltown) and the remaining Batch 2 Type 42 Destroyer (Liverpool). Or, alternatively, if any of the Type 23 Frigates are due for expensive refits then they might be retired early and flogged off.

An even more unbelievable report suggests that while both new carriers will enter service, the first – Queen Elizabeth – may be mothballed and sold after three years in order to recoup the costs of building the thing. The indignity of the Royal Navy selling one of the largest warships that it has ever built, named after the Queen, is fairly evident to even those with a weak grasp of defence politics.

All in all, its a balls up and its wrong of the politicians to insult our intelligence by suggesting anything otherwise. I suppose we shouldn’t have expected anything different from a Defence Review that was completed in five months, headed by the Prime Minister’s National Security Advisor and largely cut out the Ministry of Defence and Service Chiefs, who now have to pick up the pieces and work with whats left.

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Review of the MoD – welcome news?

Credit where credit’s due, I find it hard to argue with Liam Fox’s announcement yesterday regarding reforming the MoD. And I never thought I would find myself agreeing with a Conservative Defence Secretary!

It’s long been one of the worst kept secrets in Britain that the MoD has become a bit of a monster – employing thousands of people, multiplying all the time in terms of managers, departments and committees, losing track of its own finances, making a hash of procurement and generally losing sight of what its there for. Its noticeable that during the many Defence Review’s over the past 50 or so years, the armed forces themselves have been hammered repeatedly, while the Ministry itself has sat untouchable on a pedestal.

Working in local government, I can kind of see what the problem is, only my experience is obviously on a much smaller scale. I get the feeling that the response to any problem over the past few years has been to appoint another manager, ending up with layer upon layer of ‘non-jobs’, people who are there building their own little empires but adding very little value to the bigger picture.

Its my opinion that if you work for any public sector organisation, you need to never lose sight of why you are there. In the MoD’s case, it is to equip and support our armed services. But there are plenty of cases of MoD mandarins losing the plot with senior officers because their decisions did not fit in with their precious process management. The dog should wag the tail, not the other way round. When you add in a New-Labour style obsession with publicity and Stalinist control, its no wonder that the MoD has become so unfit for purpose.

Stories abound of the MoD spending millions on swanky new officers and modern art installations, while servicemen’s barracks are in a dilapidated state and men were going to war with inadequate equipment. OK so its an oft-quoted cliche, but that sort of thing should be anathema to the MoD. The culture of the organisation needs to change – civil servants are there to serve the country (the clue is in the name), and in the MoD, they can best do that by supporting the forces, not treating them as an inconvenience that mucks up their nice neat plans.

The intention with scrapping the old Admiralty, War Office and Air Ministry back in the 1960′s was to bring Defence and the armed forces together, kicking and screaming into the modern age. However after the initial forming of the MoD – which was traumatic enough – it seems that no-one had the stomach to push for further reforms. Although there has been a growth of jointery in recent years as the result of cost-cutting, there is still a feeling of the three services always squabbling against each other, and the Treasury happily shafting everyone.

Dr Fox also mentioned the possibility of reforming command structures within the armed forces themselves. If units are to be cut and equipment is going to be scrapped, and even the MoD itself is going to be reformed, it is hard to see how the senior officers can escape. I’ve thought for a while that the armed forces do seem a little top heavy with Admirals, Generals and Air Marshals – isn’t it slightly strange how we have more Admiral’s than major surface warships, for example? While the forces themselves have shrunk since the end of the Cold War, command structures and senior posts have largely remained the same.

The thing is, the heads of the individual services are so disempowered nowadays, as all spending and decision making is made by the MoD and the politicians, that they are effectively just advisors. Operations come directly under the Chief of Defence Staff, through the Permanent Joint Headquarters. Each service also has a Commander-in-Chief just below the overall Chief, so with the expected shrinkage of the forces we might see these two levels of post merge. And how many senior officers do we have who are in posts such as ‘Vice Deputy Chief of Procurement (Shoelaces)?

It might just makes the forces more efficient – less people, less links in the chain, less complicated. The idea of reforming the MoD into three pillars – policy and strategy, armed forces and procurement and estates – does seem to me to be a step forward from what at present is a grossly untidy situation. I know a lot of people will deride these reforms as cuts, and of course they are, but root-and-branch overhaul has to be better than salami slicing.

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Fox warns on Defence Spending

The Defence Secretary Liam Fox has warned British Defence companies that they will have to cut costs or face losing out on future business from the armed forces, BBC News reports. He was speaking at the Farnborough air show, a gathering of Defence industries, with a particular focus on aviation.

The issue of defence procurement is a tricky one. Undoubtedly, there are many examples of spending being badly handled from the MOD side, and this has driven up costs in many cases. But in a more competitive market, where the MOD will have to make every penny count more than ever, it is right for the Defence Secretary to warn companies to offer value for money. An uncompetitive company is unlikely to be an efficient one where its products are concerned.

No doubt Defence contractors will argue that they already do, and will point to the high costs of basing production in the UK – such as salaries and running costs. but they seem to have a choice – adapt to the changing economic situation, or risk going out of business if the MOD looks elsewhere for its equipment. Whilst its nice to provide work in Britain, in a time of collapsing budgets the priority has to be getting the best kit at the best price, regardless of where it comes from. Going back to competitiveness, is a company that knows its 99% likely to get a contract going to pull out the stops to put together a good product?

The question does need to be asked, why it is possible to buy more and better for less money than from a UK firm? Have companies cottoned onto the MOD’s lax spending controls, combined with the policy of buying British, and worked out that they can name their price? As I have previously mentioned, British Defence Companies have almost always been assured of gaining contracts, thanks to robust lobbying from MP’s over providing work for their constituencies.

Fox’s comments follow on from those made by General Sir David Richards, the Chief of Defence Staff designate. It makes a change to hear a Defence Secretary and the Chief of Defence Staff singing from the same hymm sheet. Whether thats down to teamwork or Richards’s political views remains to be seen. It might be a coincidence, but their comments are remarkably similar…

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New Chief of Defence staff threatens to pull plug on UK Defence Industry

The new head of the British Armed Forces has criticised the UK Defence industry as ‘ailing’, in an article in the Mail on Sunday yesterday (18 July 2010, page 2). General Sir David Richards – the current Chief of General Staff of the British Army, and future Chief of the Defence Staff, warned that it was not the role of the military to spend money simply to ‘prop up’ British defence industry companies.

On that point, her certainly does make sense. Questions have been raised over UK Defence procurement for some time. In the same article, the Mail cites the £1.7bn paid for 62 Lynx Westland Helicopters, costing £27m each, from Anglo-Italian firm AgustaWestland. Apparently the MOD was repeatedly offered the option to buy American-built Black Hawk helicopters – far superior to the Lynx Wildcat – for £8m each. A similar situation took place years ago, when the MOD decided to purchase the SA80 rifle, largely as it gave business to British companies. The end-product was inadequate and needed large-scale modifications by Heckler Koch – bizarre given that the MOD could simply have bought from H&K in the first place.

What no-one seems to consider is, why is the UK Defence industry so expensive? Possibly due to prohibitively high costs of basing production in the UK, whereas foreign companies can pay staff less, and run on cheaper bills. Is it an option for companies such as BAE Systems and QinetiQ to up their game and become more competitive? Given the Generals comments, it sounds like ‘adapt-or-die’ will have to be their mantra. Thats probably why, in the recent BBC documentary, QinetiQ seemed to be moving into more civilian markets.

Not so long ago the British Defence Industry was the most productive and succesful in the world. Vosper Thorneycroft built ships for a multitude of navies around the world. Tanks such as the Centurion graced numerous battlefields during the Cold War. Even during the Falklands War, the Argentinian Navy had two Type 42 Destroyers. It does seem that in the past 20 or so years the British Defence Industry has lost its role in the export market – of recent British Defence projects, the only foreign interest in the Type 45 Destroyers is apparently ‘rumoured’ interest from Saudi Arabia. Only Austria and Saudi Arabia have purchased Eurofighters, and only Oman operates the Challenger 2 Tank. It seems that rather than buy British, many countries that might have done so in the past go for the cheaper American equivalents. Of course, there are very few truly British defence projects any more anyway. Its a sad state of affairs for what was once a thriving industry.

Where procurement is concerned, frequently the Government comes under pressure to buy British, in order to safeguard jobs. Defence debates in Parliament are always hallmarked by MP’s ready to stand up and speak out for jobs in ‘my constituency’. Recently thinkdefence analysed a Strategic Defence Review debate, and the words ‘my constituency’ featured more than any others. Of course MP’s have to stand up for their constituents – an MP who lets thousands of people lose jobs without a fight wont be an MP for much longer – but by the same token, this kind of lobbying leads to some hamstrung decision-making. For example, the Royal Navy is simply not large enough to warrant having three large main bases, but robust lobbying has protected jobs so far. At some point this will come to a head.

What astounds me most, however, is his comparison with Thatcher’s strategy of destroying loss-making industries such as coal and steel in the eighties. Although maybe not quite so overt as his predecessor, Sir Richard Dannatt, reading between the lines it IS a political statement. Hero-worshipping Margaret Thatcher leaves no illusions as to Richard’s politics.

Of course its important that the Defence budget is used to maximum effect by employing best value, but that doesn’t mean the threat of thousands of job losses should be talked about so flipplantly either.

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When Generals fall foul of the Politicians

The recent sacking of General Stanley McChrystal has got me thinking about other Generals who have fallen foul of their political masters. Its by no means a new story – we only need to think back to the ‘frocks and hats’ arguments during the First World War.

During the Korean War President Harry Truman was forced to sack the Supreme Allied Commander in Korea, General Douglas MacArthur. MacArthur was seemingly untouchable, having been a formed head of the US Army, Supreme Commander in the Pacific War and Commander of the occupation forces in Japan. MacArthur publicly criticised Truman’s policies, and wanted to extend the Korean War to mainland China. He also apparently wanted to use nuclear weapons. This was unacceptable to Truman, and he was advised by his cabinet colleagues and the Joint Chiefs of Staff that MacArthur should be relieved. Yet MacArthur remained a national hero, and Truman’s poll ratings nosedived.

During the Second World War Winston Churchill made a habit of sacking Commanders, particularly in the Middle East. Both Wavell and Auchinleck fell foul of Churchill’s lack of patience, even though both were probably doing as well as they could have done in the circumstances. The problems with Britain’s Army were not confined to its Generals, after all, and it would not be until later in the war that Britain’s Army would mature from its weak state of 1939. But this was not enough for Churchill.

Although Montgomery initially pleased Churchill with his victory at Alamein, he received criticism for his perceived slowness in Normandy. A powerful lobby at Supreme Headquarters actively sought for Monty’s sacking, and it was only through the ardent support of General Sir Alan Brooke, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, that Monty was not dismissed. Even Churchill could be hostile to him, for example after Montgomery banned Churchill from visiting his HQ in Normandy. Brooke persuaded Montgomery to write and apologise, thus saving his job.

Matters with Montgomery came to a head after Arnhem. There was deep mistrust between Montgomery and his American counterparts. For his part, Montgomery did not help matters with an outrageous press conference he gave shortly after the Battle of the Bulge, belittling the Americans. Eisenhower was very close to asking for his sacking, before Brooke managed to smooth things over. It seems that the large part of Brooke’s job was to act as a buffer between Churchill and his Generals.

In more modern times, General Sir Richard Dannatt was effectively blocked from being promoted to Chief of Defence Staff by Gordon Brown, due to a number of statements critical of the Government. Although Dannatt was right in his comments, it could be argued that he should not have made them. Given his post-retirement support for the Conservative Party, the line he took while still in command of the Army does seem un-constitutional. There is a long held convention that Generals do not get involved in politics, they are civil servants as much as any other Government employee.

While Generals are often held up as national heroes, and to themselves and their men they are the closest thing to god, McChrystal’s sacking is a reminder that there is a bigger picture – just as in any line of work, it doesnt pay to criticise your boss in public!

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History, Teaching and Britishness

I’ve just seen an interesting article on the BBC website about the debate raging in Education circles about proposed changes to the History syllabus. Having come through the full gambit of history teaching in the Britain over the past 23 or so years, I’ve got some interesting experiences to pass on.

On the whole, my experience of History teaching in schools has been pretty uninspiring. My abiding memory is of working on a particular time period or civilization – the ancient Egyptians, The Tudors, the Victorians, etc – and doing it to death for a few months. You got the feeling the teachers were doing it by rote, because its what they were told to do. Most of the worksheets were so heavily photocopied you could tell that they had been used for the past 10 years! Even as a young person in school, i enjoyed history, but what we learnt in school bored me to death. Its hard to see exactly what the point was.

I guess the problem is the national curriculum. Granted, there has to be some kind of structure involved in teaching, but I cannot help but feel that its so rigid that it leaves no space for lateral thinking from teachers. There is so much pressure in terms of getting children ready for exams and in terms of results that teachers don’t have much choice but to forcefeed children in classrooms. Theres simply very little time for an kind of innovative work, let alone taking groups out of the classroom.

I cannot help but be surprised that most people’s memories of history in school are of extreme boredom. I enjoy history, but I found it pretty boring too. How many dull and inspiring history lessons have turned people off learning about the past for life? Much like the word ‘Museum’ has a negative stigma, does ‘History’ carry the same kind of baggage?

So, History needs to be fun, it needs to be innovative, and it needs to be delivered in a young people friendly manner. But what of the subject matter itself? My parents generation will remember learning about 1066, and endless lists of Kings and Queens and the dates of their reigns. Its hard to see what exactly the point of this ‘great man’ school of history was, but an overwhelming emphasis on monarchs and grand political events suggests that it was meant to imbue children with a sense of national heritage, but also a ‘know your place’ sense of identity.

With the coming of the national curriculum things changed a bit. There was still a lot of focus on royalty and politics, but social history began to creep in. In some senses, there was almost a revisionist strand – in all my time in school we never studied wars directly, only in passing. I cannot help but feel that this was due to a naive liberal assumption that if we teach about wars then children will want to blow each others heads off – our experience shows that in fact, the opposite is true. For my GCSE History I studied Cowboys and Indians, Medicine through time, Portchester Castle and Apartheid, all of which seems to have been inspired by political correctness. The emphasis on methodology, learning lessons and cause and effect was refreshing, however.

So what do we want History to be? What is it for? Is it for imbuing children with identity, in the manner of citizenship, or as a social science? There have been calls to teach more British history, as young people know so little about World War Two for example – no doubt a result of the apparent embargo on military history. People should be able to grow up knowing where they come from, being able to understand their own heritage, and to be able to ask questions about life in general.

But kneejerk edicts from politicians about what exactly history lessons will involve are not the answer. How exactly do politicians expect teachers to transform history teaching when most schools can only afford it a few hours of lessons a week? Due to the obsession with English, Maths and Science all other subjects have become poor relations.

School history needs to tacke important issues in British history, it needs to be done in a way that is young people friendly, and teachers need to be given enough latitude to innovate, to use technology and to take children out and about – the classroom is the least suitable place to learn about the past.

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Chief of Defence Staff asked to step down early

BBC News reports that the Chief of the Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, has been asked to step down early. Reportedly he will relinquish the post in the autumn after the Strategic Defence Review has been completed.

Whilst his stepping down is bound to sound like a sacking, it is far from that. He had been due to retire in 2009 after a three year term, but had been asked to stay on. Unconfirmed reports suggest that this was due to Gordon Brown not wishing to promote General Sir Richard Dannatt, the most likely successor. Brown was apparently unhappy with Dannatt’s frequent public statements regarding defence policy and funding.

Historically Chiefs of Defence Staff have only served three year terms, in order to ensure that no one person or service can dominate defence policy. Traditionally the role is rotated among the three armed forces, for example an RAF officer will not be replaced by another airman. So in actual fact the latest development is a return to convention after the last Government deviated from it.

Stirrup is likely to be replaced by the current Chief of the General Staff General Sir David Richards, or the Vice-Chief of Defence Staff Sir Nick Houghton. The sensible money will be on Richards, a former Commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan. Richards has extensive experience, has been pretty reliable and impartial during his time in charge of the Army and is also well thought of by our allies, especially the US. Another outside bet might be the head of the Navy Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, but given the Army’s primacy in operations at present this is unlikely.

These latest developments bring to mind an interesting situation that might have arisen if Richard Dannatt was still in charge of the Army – would the Government have promoted him to Chief of Defence Staff, given that even while he was in command he was a Tory supporter? This would have raised very serious questions about the politicisation of the armed forces.

The only other issue that could be raised is whether it is right to have a new Defence Chief after the Strategic Defence Review – surely it would make more sense to have a new person in place before, so they can help inform the Review? Otherwise whoever comes in after Stirrup will be working with the effects of somebody elses advice and influence. If the Government really wants a fresh start – which makes sense – then why complete a Defence Review with a lame duck senior officer?

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Time Magazine article on the British armed forces

Thanks for Think Defence for drawing my attention to this link. Its an article in the prestgious American magazine Time. Its a very interesting read indeed, looking at the history of Britain’s military and its current position. A perfect example as well of how the past and the present relate to each other. And, as is often the case, an outside view is devoid of the usual baggage and partisan perspectives.

The article is quite right in highlighting the firm divide between supporting the troops and opinion about the war in Afghanistan. Public shows of support, such as at Wootton Bassett, and appeals such as Help for Heroes, are more prominent now than at any time since the end of the war, with the exception perhaps of the Falklands in 1982. Yet defence is virtually a non-issue when it comes to the upcoming General Election.

It is hard to argue that British defence is not in crisis. Equipment costs are spiralling, defence spending falling in real terms, commanders are engaged in turf wars for profile and funding, and the Government is looking at burden-sharing with the French – a prospect that has not gone down well with the forces or the public at large. But while the British public might balk at the prospect of our armed forces fighting under the Tricolor, and are proud of their military history, they are also savvy enough to know when they are being lied to, and when their servicemen are being let down.

The upcoming Defence Review is perhaps the most crucial crossroads for the British armed forces since the end of the cold war. And in many ways, the review will have to deal with many delayed hangovers from the Cold War, particularly in the mindset of Generals, Admirals and Air Marshals. There is undoubtedly a gap between how Britain perceives itself, and the reality of what it can afford. The world is clearly a far more uncertain place than 20 years ago. Therefore, there need to be some earnest questions and honest answers about every facet of the armed forces – something that has been avoided since the end of the Cold War.

“All I could make out in their language were the words Mr. Bean. They were laughing at me … making me feel about three inches tall.” So spoke Royal Navy Seaman Arthur Batchelor about his ordeal being held captive by Iran in 2007. Such an image does not sit well within British naval history. British forces have long been held up as role models on the international scene. In 2003 British forces strolled into Basra wearing Berets, while their US counterparts treated Iraqi civilians with extreme caution. British forces have unrivalled experience and expertise of a wide range of scenarios. But incidents such as the capture of sailors and marines by Iran in 2007, and the inability to tackle pirates in 2009, undermines the morale of Britain’s forces and their global standing.

The recent Iraq inquiry, however, has identified that while there is a wealth of capability within the armed forces, the real problem with British Defence policy lies in a serious lack of defence expertise within the politicians of Whitehall. There is undoubtedly a gulf between the military and the Government, illustrated clearly by the almost open warfare between Gordon Brown and General Sir Richard Dannatt during the latter’s time as Head of the British Army. Can former lawyers and union leaders really govern the armed forces properly? It is no wonder Generals become politicised when they are treated as shabbily as they have been by the current Government.

British defence governance, leadership and culture clearly needs a serious reconfiguration, as Time suggests. In fact, in many ways it could be argued that the cultural and political issues are bigger than that of funding. It is almost reminiscent of the ‘frocks and hats’ divide during the First World War. As funding is inherently determined by the culture and government of the military, it makes far more sense to square this problem before talking about whether we need aircraft carriers or whether we have too many eurofighters.

We should have a much clearer picture after 4 May…

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Filed under debate, defence, Navy, politics, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized

Calls to reduce voting age to 16

The major think tank Demos has suggested that the voting age should be reduced to 16, according to BBC News.

According to the Demos report, one million people aged 16 and 17 are disenfranchised by outdated attitudes. Demos Director Richard Reeves said that young people aged 16 are old enough to work and pay tax, but are not allowed to vote in an election. This is despte the fact that the Government and the country as a whole faces fundamental choices that will effect young people for years to come.

An increasingly ageing population will tip the voting demographic even further. This means that older people are likely to form the most powerful voting block in future elections. Demos’s research suggested that if 16 and 17-year-olds could vote, 41% would vote Labour, 30% would vote Tory and 21% would vote Liberal Democrat.

As Richard Reeves quite rightly states, of the first 100 British servicemen to die in Iraq, 6 were not old enough to vote. Therefore we are in the bizarre and nonsensical situation where a young person can put their life on the line for their country, but is deemed too immature to vote for the Government that will commit them to war in the first place.

Whilst it is great that more people are living longer, the changing nature of the British electorate could have negative effects on British politics. Increasingly politicians will pander to older people, which may not neccesarily be a positive thing for the future of Britain. I could imagine more funding and priorities going in this direction, as parties seek to buy the ‘grey vote’. Lowering the voting age to 16 would counterbalance this.

Not only that, but we often hear moans and groans about ‘the youth of today’. No wonder we have trouble involving young people in society if we disenfranchise them and cut them off. Lowering the voting age to 16 should go hand in hand with stronger citizenship lessons in school -not as token easy lessons but as a subject in its own right. That way young people will be educated about society and the choices that they face, and can put that knowledge into practise.

Young people aged 16 and 17 are more empowered and more involved in society than ever before. The voting age of 18 was set at a time when it was deemed that if you were not 18, you were not an adult. We only have to look at the progressive electoral reforms since the 19th Century – votes for women, for example – to see that the age limit of 18 for voting is the last great prejudice in electoral policy.

In my opinion there is no sound reason to keep the voting age at 18, apart from antiquated prejudice based on age old fears that young people aged 16 and 17 are too immature to make sensible choices – look at how some so called adults in politics behave! Not only that, but young people have a way of cutting through the bullshit.

If you are old enough to work, pay taxes, drive a car, get married and fight for your country, then you should be old enough to vote.

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MOD ‘wastes millions’ on unfit procurement, says committee

The MoD is spending hundreds of millions of pounds a year unnecesarily because it has commissioned more work than it can afford to pay for, a Parliamentary report has found.

The Commons Defence Select Committee found that both major pojects and acquisitions are running at unaffordable levels. A prime example is the delay of the Future Carrier Programme. This has achieved short term savings but bigger long term cost increases. The £674 million-plus cost of delay represents over ten per cent of the current estimated total cost of £5.2 billion for the two carriers.

The most shocking finding of the committee, however, is that the MOD has been delaying projects without considering whether the full extent of these delays will lead to higher costs in the long-run. If true, it is hard to escape the conclusion that short-termism is ruling Defence procurement.

The Report also criticises the management of the lengthy development of the FRES programme to produce a new family of armoured vehicles – now effectively closed. It is not clear whether the end of this programme is due to cost implicatons of a change in the operational requirments for armoured vehicles.

Chairman of the Committee, James Arbuthnot, says “We have tried on many occasions in the past to elicit details about FRES from the MoD without ever receiving clear answers. We can only conclude, with regret, that the MoD has none to give.” During the inquiry, the MoD told the Committee that it had reduced the overall equipment funding gap from £21 billion in 2008 to £6 billion in 2009 but could not explain how this had been achieved. I’m really not sure how they can claim to have made such savings but have no idea how they happened!

The research and technology budget has fallen from £540 million in 2007-08 to £471 million in 2009-10 and will decrease further in 2010-11 to £439 million. This fall in investment in research and development will have long-term implications for the Defence Industry, all for the sake of relatively small short term savings.

It does seem that there is no one at the helm at the MOD. Why the lack of transparency? Why such poor financial management? The MOD is supposed to be about military operations, not sloppy planning and incompetence. Behind the numbers, there are en going to war with indequate equipment. Are the Treasury and No 10 driving the MOD remotely? It does seem so. There is something sad about our armed forces higher management having to firefight from one budget to the next.

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