Tag Archives: Prime minister

the life experience of Prime Minister – or lack thereof

Prime Minister Jim Callaghan sent a naval task...

Jim Callaghan - the last British PM to have served in the armed forces. And a Pompey boy to boot (Image via Wikipedia)

Yesterday we talked about the problem of Prime Minister not having any experience whatsoever of the military. I decided to take a look at the education and early employment of Prime Ministers before they entered politics. It makes for interesting reading:

Anthony Eden – Eton, Oxford (Oriental Languages), Kings Royal Rifle Corps Officer WW1 (Military Cross, Brigade Major)

Harold Macmillan – Eton, Oxford (Classics), Grenadier Guards Officer WW1 (wounded three times), ADC to Governor-General of Canada, junior partner with Macmillan publishers

Alec Douglas Home – Eton, Oxford (Modern History), first class cricketer.

Harold Wilson – Royds Hall Grammar School, Oxford (PPE), economic history lecturer at Oxford, Civil Service (research assistant for William Beveridge during WW2).

Ted HeathChatham House Grammar School, Oxford (PPE), Royal Artillery 1941-1946 (Anti-Aircraft, North West Europe), Civil Service.

James Callaghan – Portsmouth Northern Secondary Modern (no Uni), Inland Revenue, Inland Revenue Staff Federation, Lieutenant RN (East Indies, Admiralty).

Margaret ThatcherKesteven and Grantham Girls School, Oxford (Chemistry), Research Chemist.

John Major - Rutlish Grammar School (no Uni), Insurance Clerk, London Electricity Board, Banker, London Borough Councillor

Tony Blair - Fettes College, Oxford (Law), Barrister.

Gordon Brown – Kircaldy High School, Edinburgh (History PHD and Rector), Politics lecturer, journalist for Scottish TV, Open University tutor.

David Cameron – Eton, Oxford (PPE), MP’s researcher, Conservative Research Department, Special Advisor to Chancellor of the Exchequer and then the Home Secretary, Special Adviser at Carlton TV.

Interesting stuff indeed. It does appear that in recent years – Blair onwards – politics has become a career in itself, which people aspire to from a young age. Yet is it not fair to say that elected representatives are meant to be just that – one of us, elected to represent us? How can they do that when they have not lived like the rest of us?

It does seem to me that it is more sensible for politicians to have some kind of prior career, and hence experience of the ‘real world’. Even though most PM’s with a previous career were in the main professionals or office workers, its at least more worldly – and grounded – than a few years acting as a lacky for a Minister. The funny thing is, its not new for politicians to have had little of a career – in the Nineteenth Century it was perfectly acceptable for aristocrats and the gentry to enter politics having had no career at all.

How about Prime Ministers and military service? The last British Prime Minister to have served in the military was Jim Callaghan. Going backwards, all post-war Prime Ministers, save Home and Wilson, served in either WW1 or WW2. It is not difficult to imagine that Eden’s and Macmillan’s service on the Western Front must have helped in their political service during WW2. But then again, Eden did make a serious hash of Suez.

When David Cameron was elected, commentators noted that he was the first Old Etonian PM since Alec Douglas Home, something we thought we might never see again. Indeed, it seems that immediately post-war being an Old Etonian was ncessary to be PM. But when will we next have a Prime Minister with a military background? Or even an opposition leader, or senior Cabinet Minister?

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PM refuses to rule out the use of force in Libya

I’ve seen various articles in recent days where the Prime Minister has been quoted as saying that he refuses to rule out the use of force in Libya. Sadly it seems to be the the same old story of politicians cutting Defence to the bone and then when the proverbial hits the fan being only too happy to over-commit whats left.

I’m not sure on what mandate an international force could intervene in Libya. After the fiasco surrounding the United Nations and the lack of a resolution for action in Iraq, it is extremely unlikely that any unilateral action could take place. The international community has little stomach for intervention at present – the debacle in Iraq – and to a lesser extent Afghanistan – has made politicians very wary of military action. US political and public opinion has never been overly keen on foreign intervention at the best of times, and with Gadaffi promising ‘another Vietnam’, many will be wary of getting involved. And the problems in Libya at the moment are not just limited to that country alone – they were sparked by protests in Tunisia and then Egypt, and there is similar unrest in other North African and Middle Eastern countries. How come the international community considers intervention in one case but not in others? Admittedly there is a difference in that Gadaffi is using his aircraft to bomb civilians protesting against him, and he has a track record of being an extremely difficult character.

Secondly, where are these military units going to come from that the Prime Minister plans to send to Libya? I wouldn’t mind betting that the Chiefs of Staff almost fainted when they read that Cameron plans to commit their ever-shrinking forces in another troublespot. Even as part of an international force within the UN, or more likely NATO – the UK would be able to contribute virtually nothing. It shows just how little Cameron and his Government understand about Defence, and how wrong it is that people with such poor judgement are running the Country’s defence.

Regular readers won’t need reminding that the Royal Navy warship leading the evacuation of British Citizens – HMS Cumberland – was on her last journey home before decommissioning. The other ship standing by, HMS York, is even more elderly than Cumberland. But using Frigates and Destroyers for evacuating British nationals from a trouble spot is ever so slightly overkill – like using a Ferrari to pop to the shop. A Bay Class LPD with a few Landing Craft and a helicopter or two would be ideal. If the worst come to the worst, it wouldn’t even need to dock, it could just sit off the coast and pick people up and drop off aid.

There has been talk of basing RAF fighters on Cyprus to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya. Yet the range from Cyrpus to Libya is considerable, and would prevent aircraft being on station for any length of time. The maximum operational range of the Eurofighter is 2,900 miles. Inn the Air Defence role with a 3 hour CAP it can operate at 185 kilometres, and with a ten minute loiter at 1,389 kilometres. It is at least 800 kilometres from Cyprus to the very western border of Libya, and twice that to Tripoli. Therefore Cyprus is barely an option, and the number of aircraft and air and ground crew required to maintain a worthwhile patrol would be considerable – aircraft that we simply do not have. Two years ago we could have sent an Aircraft Carrier plus escort to sit off the North African Coast. Not now – we don’t have one. It seems that ignorance of the flexibility and utility of the aircraft carrier is coming home to roost. Neither do we have the aircraft that could have overflown Libya and told us what Gadaffi is up to – ie, the scrapped Nimrod airframes.

Where are the ground forces to come from? Special Forces have almost certainly been in Libya already, providing close protection for RAF Hercules Transports evacuating Brits from remote desert locations. Given the frequency of tours to Afghanistan, and then when you factor in training, roulement, post-op shake down and the like, the maximum the Army could contribute would be in the region of one to three Battalions. Even then, that would place a huge strain alongside Afghanistan, particularly if any deployment in Lybia went on for too long. Rapid Reaction Forces used to be maintained for such an eventuality – particularly 16 Air Assault Brigade and 3 Commando Brigade – but at any given time these Brigades are usually either in Afghanistan, preparing to go or recuperating from a deployment.

If you want to be able to intervene in global troublespots as a world policeman – with the personal kudos that goes with it – then you need to back your armed forces to be able to do that job. If, however, you want to asset strip your Defence, then you have to accept that there will be things that you just cannot do any more. The situation is more serious than after the Nott cuts in 1981, when the Royal Navy just about managed to scrape together a task force.

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Churchill Defiant by Barbara Leaming

The perceived wisdom regarding Winston Churchill seems to be that after leading Britain to victory, in 1945 his Conservative party was rejected by an electorate who put their trust in Attlee‘s Labour party to build a home fit for heroes. What is very rarely mentioned is that Churchill in fact served on as leader of the opposition, and somehow became Prime Minister again between 1951 and 1955.

Churchill was by no means a party politician, having already defected from the Conservatives to the Liberals and then back again during his career. During the war he concentrated almost completely on fighting the war, leaving domestic affairs to a number of Labour politicians. Whilst this was no doubt wise for the war effort, it marginalised Churchill’s appeal when it came to post-war politics.

The consensus amonst Conservative figures after 1945 was that Churchill would shuffle off into retirment, and hand over the his long-awaiting successor, Anthony Eden. But with his usual childlike stubborness, Churchill somehow managed to cling onto leadership of the party, even during a time when his now well-known depression was raging, and whilst he was engaged with writing his eponymous history of the Second Word War. Churchill routinely handed over more mundane party leadership duties to Eden, Salisbury and Butler.

It seems that Churchill really did miss the cut-and-thrust of international diplomacy more than anything else. Apart from pride, his greatest desire in clinging to power seems to have been to finish off where he left off in 1945: with a grand three-power summit with the US and the Soviet Union, in order to end the Cold War. This was a rather simplistic way of viewing things. Britain no longer had a place at the top table of world affairs, even if US leadership of the western world – in particular that of Eisenhower – left much to be desired. But is it right to keep a political career running merely in the name of placing a full stop?

Its amazing to read of just obstinate Churchill was in continually brushing off demands for his retirement. His colleagues were of course in an impossible position. Churchill was undoubtedly faltering and a shadow of his former self, but how to retire a war hero and national treasure? His cabinet colleagues, his family, doctor, staff, US president and politicians and even the royal establishment tried countless times to convince him to retire, without success. Even a number of serious strokes could not keep Churchill down. Evidence, if any was needed, that although his faculties were failing, the famous Bulldog spirit still remained. All the same, we have to be glad that whatever we think of them, modern Prime Ministers tend to be somewhat fitter and are not so difficult to ‘retire’.

I wanted to like this book. But, sadly, the manner in which it is based on what are loosely described as ‘conversations’ with conservative party figures makes it hard for me to think of it as a work of History. The paucity of references is disappointing. Barbara Leaming is a political biographer, whose most notable work was a life of President Kennedy. An American, she also has a background in writing articles for The Times, Vanity Fair and the New York Times Magazine. It does feel very much like a work of journalism, and would no doubt make a great serialisation in American media, who are probably more fascinated by Churchill than even we are. It is, none the less, an interesting glimpse at British politics, and Churchill the man.

Churchill Defiant is published by Harper Collins

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PM and Defence Secretary at odds over Defence Review

Liam Fox, British Conservative politician.

Defence Secretary Dr Liam Fox MP (Image via Wikipedia)

A leaked private letter to the Prime Minister from the Defence Secretary, Dr Liam Fox, has shown that the current Strategic Defence and Security Review is nothing more than a cover for the Government-wide Comprehensive Spending Review. The disagreement also shows the complete disunity within the Government over the Review.

I’ve quoted below some of the most important points in the letter:

Frankly this process is looking less and less defensible as a proper SDSR (Strategic Defence and Strategy Review) and more like a “super CSR” (Comprehensive Spending Review). If it continues on its current trajectory it is likely to have grave political consequences for us, destroying much of the reputation and capital you, and we, have built up in recent years. Party, media, military and the international reaction will be brutal if we do not recognise the dangers and continue to push for such draconian cuts at a time when we are at war.

How do we want to be remembered and judged for our stewardship of national security? We have repeatedly and robustly argued that this is the first duty of Government and we run the risk of having those words thrown back at us if the SDSR fails to reflect that position and act upon it.

Our decisions today will limit severely the options available to this and all future governments. The range of operations that we can do today we will simply not be able to do in the future.

The potential for the scale of the changes to seriously damage morale across the Armed Forces should not be underestimated. This will be exacerbated by the fact that the changes proposed would follow years of mismanagement by our predecessors. It may also coincide with a period of major challenge (and, in all probability, significant casualties) in Afghanistan.

Even at this stage we should be looking at the strategic and security implications of our decisions. It would be a great pity if, having championed the cause of our Armed Forces and set up the innovation of the NSC, we simply produced a cuts package. Cuts there will have to be. Coherence, we cannot do without, if there is to be any chance of a credible narrative.

Specific cuts mentioned in the letter are reducing standing naval commitments in the Indian Ocean, Carribean and Gulf, scrapping amphibious vessels and auxiliaries, the Nimrod MR4A maritime aircraft. Dr Fox implies that we could not re-do the Sierra Leone operation again, and also that we would have great trouble reinforcing the Falklands in an emergency. The ability to assist civil authorities would be reduced, as would the assistance the military could give in the event of terrorist attacks, and security for the 2012 Olympics.

Liam Fox has long been one of the Tory front-bench who I find it possible to respect – more so than most of the public schoolboy Thatcher-worshipping ilk. A former GP, and thus one of the few prominent politicians nowadays who has had a career other than politics or ‘policy’, he’s spent a long time in the Shadow Cabinet in various roles. Having been Shadow Defence Secretary for almost five years might be expected to have some idea of what he’s talking about.

I think the severe lack of senior politicians with any kind of armed forces experience – or for that matter with any experience of knowledge of history – shows. Any decision-maker with any sense would be looking closely at John Nott‘s 1981 Defence Review as a how-not-to-do-it. Yet that is exactly what Cameron and Osborne propose. It’s rather sad to think that the Conservatives came to power after touting themselves as the party of the armed forces. Even their former pet General, Sir Richard Dannatt, has waded in on Dr Fox’s side.

Fox’s reference to the possible reaction amongst the party membership is interesting. Although it is often thought that the Tory is made up of lots of ex-Guards Officers, via Eton and Sandhurst, the only former soldier of note on the Tory front bench is Ian Duncan-Smith. There are more than a few ex-military backbenchers, but how much influence do they have over ‘Dave’ Cameron and Boy George? I can’t imagine them, nor the Tory old guard around Britain, being too happy about the hatchet being wielded over the armed forces.

It is hard to disagree either with the assertion that the safety and security of the nation is the first duty of any Government. If they fail with that, then we’d all might as well give up. It’s no good having wonderful schools, hospitals and a thriving economy if enemies – either other states or terrorists – are able to disrupt our everyday lives at will. When we’re conducting an intervention abroad, say in Iraq or Afghanistan, we get the security sorted first, in order for the reconstruction to start. Why should the principle be any different when it comes to Defence closer to home?

Another thought that is deeply disturbing… if the Defence Secretary is having to write to the Prime Minister explaining his concerns about how the Review is progressing, who the hell is producing the review? It’s not a Defence Review… its a pure and simple cuts package. At least previous reviews made some attempt at sketching out the strategic direction. That somebody in the MOD feels the need to leak such a letter is indicative of how poorly this is being handled.

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Dannatt controversy rumbles on and on

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

Image via Wikipedia

 

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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