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.
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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.)
 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.