The news that General Sir Richard Dannatt is likely to have a role in any future Conservative Government has provoked controversy among politicians, with fears that the so-called rule that military figures should not become involved in politics has been breached. The idea being, supposedly, that as senior civil servants military commanders are supposed to be apolitical.
Of course, constitutionally Sir Richard is a civilian, and if elevated to the Lords he will be perfectly entitled to take up an appointment on the front benches. And neither is it unprecedented for a senior military figure to move into politics. Whilst Oliver Cromwell might be an overly dramatic example, the Duke of Wellington became Prime Minister after Waterloo. In 1914 Field Marshal Lord Kitchener became Secretary of State for War, after agreeing that he would not become a political figure. Even so, there were frequent problems with him bypassing the army’s chiefs and giving military advice to the Government without consulting them first. In more recent times, Admiral Sir Alan West has become Security Minister in the Labour Government, although this appointment is outside the Ministry of Defence. Abroad, there are the examples of Eisenhower and De Gaulle.
So the unwritten rule that generals do not enter politics is a myth, probably exacerbated by new Labourites who are scared of generals who know too much and speak their mind. Arguably, more damage is done by ex-lawyers, bankers, economist and PR types who become MP’s. The thought of generals becoming ministers is not a problem in principle, but it is the practise of how the individuals concerned work together that is important. The potential for an ex-general to try and take charge of the armed forces is all to clear. The worry is that as a Defence Minister Dannatt would undermine his successors by advising the Government and effectively reducing them to paper shuffling. Traditionally British military practise has been to let the man on the ground get on with his job, unlike the american tendency to apply the 5,000 mile long screwdriver.
Sir Richard has been a frank and honest advocate of the armed forces, and one would hope that he continued that kind of approach in politics. Certainly, it must be better for the forces to have someone in power who can fight their corner than the faceless mandarins and junior ministers we have under the present government. That is of course if Dannatt does not start toeing the Tory line. His predecessor as Chief of General Staff, General Sir Mike Jackson, had all the hallmarks of being a ‘pull-no-punches’ commander, but surprisingly seemed to be house-trained by new Labour towards the end of his period in office.
What is more worrying, is Dannatt’s overt religious bent. Describing himself as a Judeo-Christian, he has spoken in alarming terms about muslim fundamentalism and the moral vacuum. I believe it is more important that senior figures look beyond their own beliefs and see the broader picture. Generals talking about Judeo-Christianity and Islam is not very helpful thank you very much.