Some thoughts about March

This is another collection of thoughts about a few of the events and controversies of the last few weeks, seen from the perspective of a committed supporter of the Labour Party who is also an unhappy critic of some of the things our governments have done since the glad confident morning of 2 May, 1997, as well as one who is proud to acknowledge their many successes.

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It seems out of character for the prime minister to have tripped up so badly when he told the Chilcot Iraq Inquiry that under his Chancellorship defence spending had risen in real terms every year.  His subsequent admission that this was a mistake (in four years of the period the defence budget had fallen in real terms) has naturally been seized on by the Tories and the generals, admirals, etc. as further evidence for the accusation that as Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown had starved our forces of the funds necessary for the equipment, vehicles and helicopters required to protect our servicemen as they have fought the various wars to which they have been committed.  Two things need to be said about that:

(1)  The “year on year” mistake has obscured the more relevant truth that over the period in question there was indeed a substantial 12% real terms increase in defence spending, in contrast with the equivalent period under the Tories, and even leaving aside the extra cost of Blair’s various wars;   and —

(2)  The defence budget overall is quite big enough for the purchase of almost unlimited quantities of body armour, helicopters, heavily armoured transport vehicles, night vision equipment and anything else needed for fighting wars in Iraq or Afghanistan.  But the spending priorities of all three services are decided primarily by the generals, admirals and air marshals, not by the Chancellor of the Exchequer.  If they choose to allocate so much of their budgets to fearsomely expensive toys such as Trident and the nuclear deterrent generally, to Euro-fighters and aircraft carriers and new generations of battle tanks designed to fight the Russians on the plains of central Europe, so that almost nothing is left for the unglamorous equipment needed for street fighting in Basra or Helmand, whose fault is that?  The British commanders in the field must also take some responsibility for the shortcomings:  if British troops lack the helicopters or other equipment needed to undertake specific operations with a reasonable degree of protection, their commanders shouldn’t undertake those operations.[1]

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I fear that the BA strike has a wider significance than questions such as the right staffing levels of aircraft cabins and how much BA cabin stewards and stewardesses (if that female form is still permissible?) ought to be paid.  At its heart is the proposition, apparently accepted unquestioningly by all three major parties, that most of the horrendous costs of recovery from the current economic and financial slump should be borne by ordinary middle and working class people through cuts in their wages and salaries (dressed up as wage ‘freezes’, part-time working, etc.), increases in taxes on even the lowest paid, such as VAT, and sharp cuts in public services on which the most vulnerable people in society depend most heavily.  Meanwhile the investment bankers and hedge fund managers whose greed and perfidy got us into this mess are back in business with their huge bonuses and indecent salaries, largely at our expense.  If the few working people who are still members of trade unions perceive this distribution of burden as unfair and unacceptable, and if their bosses, supported by Labour and the Tories alike, obstinately insist on exploiting the recession to impose it on them anyway, we may be in for many more strikes.  Most of the media seem surprised and outraged by the spectacle of organised labour trying to protect itself with the only weapon it has got against a ferocious and unwarranted assault on their standard of living.  Things can only get worse.

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I’ve been surprised by the number of my friends who have fervently agreed with a Times article of 9 March 2010 by David Aaronovitch denouncing the continued search for the truth about the Iraq disaster in the Chilcot Inquiry on the grounds that it’s all old hat, and that “it’s time to move on”.  Well, Mr Aaronovitch would say that, wouldn’t he?  He got the whole thing badly wrong back in 2003 and later, supporting the war and continuing to argue that it has all been worth-while, despite the mountain of evidence being expertly marshalled by the Chilcot Inquiry to the contrary.  Those responsible for this act of criminal folly are still trying to persuade us, e.g. in their evidence to Chilcot, that they were right to abandon the UN diplomatic effort to resolve the crisis peacefully when they did because the French had made it clear that whatever happened in the future they would always veto any UN resolution authorising the use of force.  In fact, in the famous TV interview on which this assertion depends, President Chirac had said exactly the opposite, as the transcript shows (and as demonstrated by the documentary evidence available for example in the comments on an earlier blog post of mine) — and as the French government made clear at the time in urgent messages to No. 10 and the FCO saying that their position was being misinterpreted.  Did Tony Blair, Jack Straw and Gordon Brown, and the rest of their Cabinet colleagues, knowingly misinterpret the French position, as they continue to do?  If not, why didn’t they or their officials read the interview transcript and the messages from Paris, and stop using the misinterpretation as the main justification for going to war prematurely and without UN authority?  Perhaps Sir J Chilcot and his colleagues will discover and publish the answers to these rather fundamental questions, even if David Aaronovitch and others now find the whole thing boring.

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Fortunately it’s unnecessary to say anything here about the crisis in the Roman Catholic Church over child abuse by priests, since everything that needs to be said about it has been said in an admirable article in the Independent by Johann Hari.  It’s available on the Independent‘s website, here, and is well worth reading if you haven’t read it already.

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According to the Guardian, the sainted Vincent Cable of the LibDems has assured the Permanent Secretary of the Treasury of his willingness to serve as Chancellor of the Exchequer if there’s a hung parliament after the forthcoming election.   This seems to make rather a lot of assumptions.  I wonder what Nick Clegg, Cable’s less well known leader, thinks of it.   It’s always rash to attempt predictions, especially of election results, but I still persist in my expectation that there won’t be a hung parliament, whatever the current polls might say, and that the Tories will have an adequate overall majority in the house of commons to enable them to govern on their own.  That expectation is strengthened by the latest public humiliation of Messrs Byers and Hoon and Ms Hewitt — and by the timely (but undoubtedly fortuitous) pregnancy of the new media favourite, Mrs ‘SamCam’ Cameron.  I also persist in predicting that a Tory overall majority will be a disaster for Britain, to be prevented if possible at almost any cost.

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On a more personal note, I wonder how many people know what a lovely place Wells in Somerset turns out to be, and what a superb cathedral it has?  The most dyed-in-the-wool and bigoted atheist (such as me) couldn’t fail to be moved by Choral Evensong in Wells Cathedral, sung gloriously every day of the year by its magnificent choir.  There’s a fuller account, with pictures, of the splendid week that J and I have just spent in Wells here —  but don’t all rush at the same time to the website of the Swan Hotel to book the Cathedral Suite there;  there’s plenty of time for everyone.  (Actually, not having converted such knowledge as I might have had of international affairs into cash when I retired, we couldn’t afford the Cathedral Suite, but our Standard Room was absolutely fine.)

[1] See Stephen Grey, Cracking on in Helmand, Prospect magazine, Issue 162, 27 August 2009:

In Whitehall, meanwhile, government officials seethed at what they regarded as General Dannatt’s opportunism in using recent casualties to spread the blame for three years of bloody stalemate. As seen from London or Washington, the story of Helmand was more often of commanders who pushed soldiers into harm’s way, sent back endlessly optimistic reports, and extended the conflict beyond the resources and political will available back home. Their complaint has merit. Politicians dispatched troops to Afghanistan, but Nato generals decided how to deploy them. Most of the crucial decisions—from sending troops to defend the platoon houses, to “mowing the lawn,” to Panther’s Claw—have been made by soldiers. If an operation was launched with insufficient troops (or helicopters) it should not have been launched at all.


4 Responses

  1. ObiterJ says:

    Defence – details of the money involved may be seen at:
    I agree that it should not be necessary to deprive troops of anything.  There is mismanagement and poor planning somewhere but the amount we spend on defence is huge.  Another interesting point (see the link) is that Treasury Reserve has also put up money for Afghanistan and for Iraq.
    British Airways – I entirely agree that the economic burden is not being equitably shared.  As ever it is middle-income Britain which is carrying the can.  They, of course, are the very people who wish to save for old age but cannot.   Even those who manage to save something are getting practically nothing by way of interest for allowing the banks to use their money.  Also, people have seen their pension schemes (which would have kept them off the back of the State in old age) ruined by a greedy and wasteful Labour government desperate to find funds for its various projects.
    Chilcot etc – I think we are agreed that Chilcot is doing  a far better job than people are prepared to admit.  It was not set up to be a judicial inquiry with court-like powers.  Had it been the whole thing would have turned into another lawyer’s bean-feast rather like the immensely expensive Saville Inquiry in Northern Ireland.  Chilcot has revealed a lot of useful information and has yet to finish its task.  Having said all of this, it is hardly possible to believe how poor Brown’s performance was and his misleading answers have done him and his Party no favours.  Finally, it will naturally suit the government to misrepresent the French position.  After all, they were desperate to find a veneer of legality for the whole unlawful enterprise.
    General election – Yes, it is rash to try to forecast elections but I would doubt that the Conservatives will end up with a comfortable majority though time will answer that one.  The most amazing thing is that Labour appears to be doing as well as it is.  The Conservatives ought to be miles ahead but they are not.  As New Labour dog’s dinner follows dog’s dinner we see the Tories dropping in the polls!  Personally, I wish they would all keep the spouses out of it.  I am not interested in Mrs Brown or Mrs Cameron.  We need to be seeing some serious policy to get us out of the mess we are in.
    The Cathedral Cities – I absolutely agree re Wells.  York Minster is similar.  Awesome!

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. Predictably, I agree with almost everything you say, apart from your condemnation of the (Labour) government’s actions over pensions. But that’s a discussion for another day and another place!

  2. Phil says:

    Regarding the election, does “almost any cost” carry the implication that a hung parliament would be even worse, from your point of view, than a Tory victory? (This may not be what you intended at all, but in that case I wouldn’t have anything to disagree with in this post.)

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Phil. No, I certainly didn’t intend any such implication. A hung parliament leading to a minority Conservative government would clearly be less bad than a Conservative government with an overall majority, since a reactionary minority government can in principle be restrained from ideological excess by the need to win the support of enough members of the smaller parties to get its legislation through the house of commons — or simply to win a vote of confidence. Clearly a hung parliament leading to a minority Labour government would in turn be preferable to a minority Conservative government, although a minority Labour government determined to protect the poorest and most vulnerable in society from the burden of paying the huge costs of economic and fiscal recovery from recession might well be partially frustrated by the need to carry (for example) the LibDems with them in order to pass its legislation and policy proposals through parliament — i.e., the limitations on its freedom of action imposed by not having an overall majority in parliament could be a negative factor in the case of a minority Labour government. But I entirely agree that an outright Tory victory would be the worst possible outcome. It gives me no joy to say that I also think that as matters stand, it’s also the likeliest one.

  3. Roland Smith says:

    The  suggestion that defence spending priorities are decided not by the Chancellor of the Exchequer but by generals and admirals (and air marshals) does rather ignore the fact that there is also a Secretary of State for Defence.  Is he not supposed to have some role in the process?  If defence spending has been got badly wrong under a Labour government (which seems undeniable), ought not successive Labour Defence Secretaries to be held responsible?  Also, it is factually incorrect to suggest that enormous sums were spent on Trident while Gordon Brown was Chancellor.  Trident had already been bought and paid for (although of course there are some continuing costs).  The next big expenditure on the nuclear deterrent will come if we go ahead with a successor system to Trident.   

    Brian writes: Thanks, Roland. Of course Defence Secretaries (and indeed prime ministers, foreign secretaries, and their collectively responsible Cabinet colleagues) have a significant responsibility for the ways in which the defence budget is spent and the priorities set for spending it. But it is surely obvious that the service chiefs can, if they wish and if they can get their act together, decisively influence those priorities and those decisions. If the chiefs of staff are united in telling ministers that the top priority has got to be generous, not merely adequate, spending on ensuring that our servicemen on active service anywhere in the world are properly equipped, armed, transported and protected (and looked after when they are wounded), and projects such as renewing Trident, Euro-fighters and aircraft carriers must be allocated only whatever money is left over in the overall defence budget after that top priority has been looked after, it would in practice be impossible for ministers to overrule them, however reluctant they might be to have to give up their symbols of Britain’s imaginary great power status. Unfortunately inter-Service rivalries and competition for resources push the top brass into giving top priority to big dramatic projects — those big ships, fast aircraft and enormous bombs and rockets, not to mention the utter fatuity of having nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed submarines permanently on patrol around the world to deter a non-existent enemy from nuking us — in preference to boots and body armour for the guys in the field, helicopters to transport them, and proper weapons and communications equipment to make them operationally effective. In the last resort, the military chiefs should be ready to say that they won’t be able to engage in military operations in support of government foreign and defence policies unless these basic requirements are met as a matter of overriding priority. In practice the mere threat of their adopting that position would be enough to ensure that they would never have to adopt it. Remember what happened over Southern Rhodesia and UDI?

    There’s also the powerful point about the responsibility of the military commanders in the field made by Stephen Grey (who knows whereof he speaks) in the paragraph of his that I quote in the footnote to my post above.

    I’m sorry if I failed to make it clear that I was using ‘Trident’ as short-hand for ‘renewing Trident’, and not talking about the original acquisition of the existing boats. I must have picked up this lazy habit from the media, which regularly fall into the same trap.

  4. Surreptitious Evil says:

    Without wishing to detract from your completely correct point that Typhoon / Astute / FRES (just to pick one from each service) are suppurating sores on the Defence Equipment budget, I think it is slightly misleading to claim that the strategic nuclear deterrent is equally the fault of the top brass.  The requirement for and uses of the strategic deterrent are purely political.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. I fully accept that the ultimate decision on the future (or lack of one) of the British not-independent nuclear deterrent is a political one that can be taken only by politicians. But it’s still worth pointing out that it would become politically almost impossible to continue to maintain the UK nuclear deterrent if the three Service chiefs and the upper ranks in all three services had the guts and nous to form up to ministers, supported publicly by their eminent predecessors in the House of Lords, to say that (1) the nuclear deterrent is draining away money that’s desperately needed to keep our conventional forces viable, especially if ministers persist in their hyper-active world-wide military policies — in other words, we can’t any longer afford both; (2) since our nuclear deterrent is wholly dependent on American support and approval, it’s not independent and entails an unhealthy yoking of UK defence and foreign policy to Washington’s, which damages our position in the EU and more widely; (3) there’s no credible threat to UK security or interests of a kind that can be deterred by the possibility of UK nuclear retaliation, so there’s no rationale for maintaining a deterrent; (4) there’s no reason to suppose that the UK without its own nuclear deterrent would be any less secure than (e.g.) Germany, Italy, Spain, Canada or Australia; and (5) our insistence on keeping our own nuclear deterrent plays a part in undermining the credibility of the bargain inherent in the non-proliferation treaty, under which the recognised nuclear powers move in good faith towards nuclear disarmament and in exchange the non-nuclear powers refrain from acquiring nuclear weapons. (The argument that we dare not give up our nuclear deterrent because we can’t foresee whether we might need it in totally changed circumstances at some undefined future date is of course an argument for every country in the world to have and keep nuclear weapons for all time, and indeed to continue to develop and expand them, just in case….)

    If a campaign based on these arguments were to be spear-headed by the Service chiefs in private and the military establishment in public, our political leaders in both parties would rapidly begin to see merit in them — especially as it would release such enormous amounts of money in the defence budget for more productive purposes, including reducing the budget deficit.

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