Un-politics and its dangers
Q. What's the connection between (1) the public comments on Iraq policy by General Dannatt, the Chief of the General Staff, and (2) the television comedy drama "The Amazing Mrs Pritchard" in which a lively supermarket manager finds herself (without at any stage really intending it) standing for parliament, heading a new political party, winning her seat and becoming prime minister?
A. The response to both reflects a deep-seated mistrust of professional politicians of all parties, and of party politics. This is entirely understandable after the lamentable performances of the leaders of both our main political parties in recent years, up to and including the present. But it is deeply dangerous, and should be sending up alarm flares.
General Dannatt's Daily Mail and Today Programme interviews have prompted much editorial and commentariat approval as an honest assessment that most of us believe to be accurate: that our military presence in Iraq (having been established not by invitation but by our having 'kicked the door in') is not welcome, that it is part of the problem rather than of the solution, that it didn't cause but does exacerbate the violence, and that we should withdraw very soon. Amen to all that!
But many of those who agree with the analysis are also pointing out that a senior serving officer who publicly challenges the declared policies of the elected government of the day commits a serious breach of a fundamental constitutional principle. In a democracy, the elected government is entitled to the obedience and discretion of all its public servants, both civilian and military. Ministers need to heed, but not necessarily to comply with, the warnings and recommendations of its officers and civil servants, who in turn have a duty to give frank and uninhibited advice based on their professional skills and experience even, indeed especially, when they know that their advice will be unwelcome. This continuous flow and counter-flow of advice and response between officials (military and civilian) and ministers can't, though, be conducted publicly, mainly because the likelihood of publication has a fatally inhibiting effect on what both officials and ministers will feel free to say to each other, but also because public knowledge that senior officers or civil servants have expressed disagreement or reservations about a particular government policy constrains the government's freedom to pursue that policy if ministers so decide (as they must be constitutionally free to do) notwithstanding officials' disagreement.
The implication of this doctrine for officials is clear. They must be free to give their political masters frank advice in private without fear of adverse consequences for their future careers or influence with ministers. They are entitled to know that their advice is properly considered. But the opinions of unelected officials, however sage, can't override the policies of their elected masters. The duty of the official whose advice has been considered but rejected by ministers is to accept their decision and to do everything possible to ensure its successful implementation (and public defence). If the official feels so strongly that government policy is misguided, unjust, fraudulent, or immoral that he can't in conscience participate in its implementation, then he may either seek a transfer to another area of government, or else resign. (Even after a resignation there will be constraints on the former official's freedom to go public with his views where this may entail publication of classified information whose disclosure may damage the public interest. But that raises several different issues.)
It follows inexorably that General Dannatt was wholly out of order in going public with his opinions in the way he did: he should have resigned if he feels unable to carry out government policies with which he so strongly disagrees, and if he won't resign, he should be dismissed. It is a measure of the weakness of the government that the prime minister clearly feels unable to sack the erring general for fear of the storm of protest that would break out if he did so. "How could Blair sack him for telling the truth?", a Daily Mail lady journalist asked plaintively in a television programme this morning. It's because so many innocent people in and out of politics would ask just such a wrong-headed question, and because there's such widespread agreement with the General's views, that the prime minister couldn't indeed fire the General, and was forced back into the humiliating strategy of pretending, however implausibly, that he entirely agreed with everything the General had said. Many British people have come to trust an army General's analysis of the crisis more readily than that of their elected prime minister. We may still be grateful, all these years later, that President Truman was not similarly inhibited by fear of popular outrage from dismissing General MacArthur in 1951 despite that General's enormous status as a hero of the second world war.
"The Amazing Mrs Pritchard" depends on the same assumptions about most people's deep distrust of professional politicians and their instinctive preference to listen instead to those outside the political establishment. The idea that an apolitical supermarket manager could run for election to parliament, found her own new political party, win the election on a tsunami of popular enthusiasm, and form a government, all in the course of a single election campaign, is of course far-fetched: only the extraordinary talents and charisma of the magnificent Jane Horrocks make you half-believe in the fairy tale while she is on-screen. But there's a significant underlying message — that an honest and ordinary citizen, untarnished by the deceipts and compromises of the party system, just might attract sufficient popular support for a brave challenge to the politicians to sweep her (or, much less likely, him?) into power. And a less scrupulous populist leader than Ms Horrocks's Mrs Pritchard might prove more difficult to sweep out of power than it was to sweep her into it.
So there's a question to be answered: has public distrust of politicians of all parties sunk so low that there might be broad popular acceptance of the hi-jacking of policy-making by unelected generals, perhaps retrospectively sanctified by a sufficiently charismatic general being democratically elected as head of a political party, either new or already established? We have been protected from any such perversion of democracy hitherto by the professionalism and commitment to democratic principles of our senior military leaders: but how firmly committed to those principles does General Dannatt seem to be, judging by his actions last week? Of course I am not suggesting that he himself harbours personal political ambitions; but once the principle is breached with impunity, as it has just been breached, others less scrupulous may be encouraged to exploit the precedent.
On the whole I would prefer to see a supermarket manager in No. 10 rather than a General, especially if the supermarket manager is anything like Jane Horrocks, and despite the grim precedent set when a grocer's daughter did actually govern us from Downing street for more than a decade. But a decent democracy requires that power be exercised by men and women who have been tried, tested and honed in the heat of the political kitchen, whose views and foibles and limitations we know, whose innate honesty we believe in, and who demonstrate that we trust them by winning election within, not from outside, the political system. In short, by politicians, alas.