Gordon Brown can no longer afford to treat Britain’s war casualties so shoddily
The prime minister’s visceral lack of sympathy for his warriors is beginning to lose him public sympathyMon 7 Jan 2008 15.15 GMT
Iam drinking coffee this morning out of a mug decorated with caricatures of wounded teddy bears in battledress. If this appears further evidence of my depravity, I should explain that the mugs, like similar mouse mats, keyrings and pad blocks, are sold in aid of Help For Heroes. This is a charity launched three months ago on the initiative of a public-spirited cartoonist named Bryn Parry, who does all the artwork for its merchandise. Its purpose is to raise £5m for facilities for patients at the services’ rehabilitation centre at Hedley Court in Surrey, where some of the most grievously wounded casualties from Iraq and Afghanistan transfer on leaving hospital.Advertisementhttps://69cf46aea2c3889ee724b8021789de70.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
Parry’s efforts, aided by a team of unpaid volunteers, have already raised £2.2m towards a new swimming pool complex. The need for this has been highlighted by the behaviour of some civilians, who complained that the presence of Hedley Court amputees at the nearby public baths was spoiling their enjoyment.
Parry’s fine campaign seems to deserve the support even of those who oppose British commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan. But, in the minds of some of us, it also begs an obvious question: why is the state not funding the pool? Ah, says a voice from the Treasury, there is a longstanding tradition of reinforcing public health provision with charitable support, the fruits of which are visible in every hospital in the land. True enough. But what makes Hedley Court special is that all the occupants of its beds suffered their disabilities fighting for Queen and country.Advertisementhttps://69cf46aea2c3889ee724b8021789de70.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
It seems extraordinary that Gordon Brown and the Ministry of Defence can view with equanimity the spectacle of appallingly injured soldiers dependent upon private generosity for the prospect of a swim.
Yet this is, of course, of a piece with the wider disconnection between the government and its warriors. Those at the sharp end feel starved of resources. A brisk exchange is soon expected between the prime minister and the Armed Forces’ Pay Review Body. The AFPRB is likely to recommend a substantial pay increase, not only to enable those in uniform to catch up with better paid civilian public servants, but also to address difficulties of recruitment and retention. Downing Street, however, is thought most unwilling to endorse a major hike.Advertisementhttps://69cf46aea2c3889ee724b8021789de70.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
This is partly for reasons of precedent, when millions of other state employees stand in the pay queue. But the government is also deeply irritated with the armed forces. It perceives their senior ranks as dominated by Tory voters, apparently bent upon causing political embarrassment.
Those of us highly critical of the management of defence should concede a few points to ministers. First, there has never been a moment of British history when commanders professed themselves satisfied with their means. I recently came across an essay written in 1969 by Professor Laurence Martin of King’s College London, entitled British Defence – the Long Recessional. Martin addressed the perceived mismatch between British defence commitments and resources. “There is a disturbing contrast,” he wrote, “between the sophisticated precision with which Britain’s now impressive system of military management allocates the output side of British defence policy and the crude political axeblows with which the overall size of the effort is determined.”
Sound familiar? And, as it happened, 1969 policy was in the hands of Denis Healey, the ablest defence secretary of the past 60 years. We might go back further still, to 1958, and a letter to the Times written by a young King’s College lecturer, Michael Howard, deploring the climate of ignorance in which defence commitments were made. “Outside the armed forces themselves there is no community of well-informed laymen capable of or interested in developing any kind of expertise … Public debate is left very largely to passionate but ill … informed ideologues of the left, and equally passionate and barely better-informed supporters of government policy, often themselves retired service officers, on the right.”
We should not, therefore, delude ourselves that there was ever a halcyon era in which commanders were content, and politicians demonstrably informed and sympathetic. Moreover, the Treasury is absolutely right in supposing that defence budgets are prey to chronic waste, most of it on ill-judged procurement.
I suggest one small but useful gambit that could deliver handsome public relations benefits to today’s chiefs of staff. All three services possess an absurdly extravagant number of senior officers. If the chiefs announced one morning that they were axing say, a third of generals, admirals and RAF marshals – which could be done without the slightest loss of operational effectiveness – they would demonstrate that no stone was being left unturned to make best use of squeezed budgets. The symbolic value of such an initiative would be out of all proportion to its financial significance.
There are, then, a few points that the defence secretary, Des Browne, might make to his own advantage. But none mitigates the core facts: British forces are trying to do too much with too little in Iraq and Afghanistan; Gordon Brown’s promised 1.5% real-terms spending increase will be nowhere near enough to make the numbers add up, without slashing something big.
I suspect that the prime minister’s attitude is rooted, first, in a visceral lack of sympathy for the armed forces, whose activities he regards as getting in the way of the real business of government. Second, he may cling to a delusion that, once Tony Blair’s imperialistic follies have been purged from the body politic, Britain will no longer fight wars in places like Afghanistan. More soldiers will therefore soon become unnecessary.
Yet the 21st century, which has begun inauspiciously, is unlikely to become more stable or secure. There seems every reason to suppose that Britain will indeed need soldiers fighting and peacekeeping abroad, hopefully in better causes than Iraq, through the decades ahead. There are good arguments for reducing Britain’s inventories of fast jets, anti-submarine escorts, maybe even heavy tanks. But it seems overwhelmingly likely that we shall need as many helicopters, transport aircraft and boots on the ground as we can afford.
Britain’s infantry still commands the respect of the world, and is vital to sustaining the credibility of the armed forces. We need more footsoldiers, and to take better care of those we have. The apparent indifference of Gordon Brown irks the army. No government that really cared about defence would entrust its political stewardship to the likes of Des Browne, with the added insult that he doubles as Scottish secretary.
Until a few months ago, it seemed unlikely that the mistreatment of defence would cost votes. The government could therefore afford to shrug off its critics. Now, however, there are many indications that the public has awoken to what is going on – or rather not going on – and dislikes it. The shoddy treatment of casualties, above all, has focused attention on the soulless, often apparently mindless, conduct of the MoD. Now that the prime minister is fighting for his political life, he may find it prudent to offer a little Help For Heroes himself, instead of leaving it all to Bryn Parry.
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