Labour needs to be an honest friend to the forces

by Atul Hatwal

At the start of autumn, Uncut revealed that morale amongst the armed forces had plummeted, the first decline since the annual surveys began in 2007.

The obvious reason is the government’s bungled strategic security and defence review (SSDR). But as deep as the cuts to defence budgets are, and as badly as they have been managed by the MoD, the SSDR alone does not sufficiently explain the depth of the collapse in morale. There’s a missing element.


While in opposition the Tories turned a slogan, “backing our troops”, into the entirety of their party’s policy. General Dannat’s love-in with David Cameron was symptomatic of a military establishment that felt the Tories endorsed their world view and would act as a political arm of the defence chiefs of staff.

Needless to say that’s not what has happened. Unprecedented redundancies, massive equipment cuts and attempts to row back on promises like putting the military covenant into law, are what the Tories have delivered in office.

No wonder the military are feeling badly let down.

The lesson from the Tories’ opposition experience is one that Labour would do well to learn. Supporting the forces is fine, being an unquestioning cheer-leader is not, no matter how politically expedient.

Without an honest dialogue about the challenges faced by the military, Labour will find itself exactly where the Tories are now if we are somehow transported back into power at the next election and faced with another SSDR.

Nowhere is this more relevant than understanding the changes that will be needed to ensure the experiences of Basra and Helmand are never repeated.

Defeat is a word that does not feature in official descriptions of British forces activities over the last decade. But that is exactly what happened.

Colonel Peter Mansoor, an aide to general Petraeus said in 2010 about British performance in Iraq, “I don’t know that you could see the withdrawal from Basra in any other light than defeat”.

A Telegraph editorial earlier this year stated that the defence select committee report into the British deployment in Helmand was “a shocking exposé of how soldiers on duty were let down by their senior officers and politicians”.

Yet this is a reality that remains largely unreported in the mass circulation press or by broadcasters. It’s almost as if there is now a dissonance between the imperative to back the forces and any assessment of British performance that is not from the pages of a Kipling novel.

There are robust analyses out there. The recent book Losing Small Wars, British Failure in Iraq and Afghanistan by Frank Ledwidge, a former intelligence officer who served in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan, gives an excoriating and detailed account of incompetence at the highest levels in the forces.

But views like these are marginalised at the periphery. Discussion of British military performance currently resembles the immediate aftermath of world war one, where sedated acquiescence has taken the place of reasoned analysis of the choices made by the generals.

In business, even banking, if senior executives had so egregiously missed their targets there would be redundancies. But so far no commander has been held to account and there is no process under way where this might conceivably happen

Too often, the more senior the officer the more they become like Macavity the cat.

And where bitter truths about reverses have to be accepted, the convenient  scapegoat is the politician who will have sent brave soldiers to their doom without the proper equipment.

As long as this delusion holds and Britain’s defeats remain glossed over in the public consciousness with a sheen of patriotic infallibility, lessons will not be learned, mistakes will continue to be made and soldiers will keep on dying.

Bringing the debate on what actually went wrong in Basra and Helmand out into the public arena might not be politically easy, particularly given the Labour government’s role in these operations. But it would help save lives and change the types of missions Britain undertakes in the future.

Part of Labour’s role as an opposition should be to ask these questions.

The recently established Labour friends of the forces is a promising organisation. The Tories should not have a monopoly on such an important institution. But part of being a friend involves being able to tell uncomfortable truths. After two major defeats in a decade and cuts more severe than at any point in their history, the armed forces deserve the truth.

Atul Hatwal is associate editor at Uncut.

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7 Responses to “Labour needs to be an honest friend to the forces”

  1. swatantra says:

    The trouble is the Armed Services are put on a pedestal by both Parties and they start believing in their own publicity.
    The fact is they are there to do a job, and if the nature of the job has changed then we need a change in the structure. Labour was afraid to cut.And we mustn’t be afraid to say it.
    In its Policy Review it has to suggest a major overhaul of the Armed Services and make them fit for the purpose in the present day and politicaland economic climate.

  2. Clr Ralph Baldwin says:

    There are no political parties for the armed forces, they are above this and at the same time must remain so as they are defenders of and not participants in our democracy in the same way the courts are supposed to to be separate from parliament due to the very great power they wield.

  3. figurewizard says:

    Soldiers being sent into combat without proper equipment was not a delusion. Not having enough flak jackets in Afghanistan was an early example of shortcomings in equipment. The continued use of lightly armoured land rovers, which caused so many avoidable deaths and injuries and shortages of helicopters, thanks to the budget for these being slashed a few years previously were simply added to the list as that war went on.

    The financial black hole that is the ministry of defence uncovered in 2010 with as many staff as troops is another non delusional issue. Putting all this behind Labour will not be easy and while many of those as ministers or advisors when in government sit on its front bench today it may well be impossible.

  4. Henrik says:

    Yep, exactly on schedule. The comrades figure enough time has passed that folk will have forgotten their record in office vis-a-vis the military and their criminal negligence thereof, their utter lack of strategic competence and their astonishingly ignorant involving of the nation in two endless wars that it’s now safe to start sniping at the generals.

    Let’s reflect a minute on who was in office in 2001 and 2003 and who was responsible for setting policy and resources for, just for example, less than a division being asked to hold Basra and environs in the face of a huge and enthusiastic Shia insurgency. Let’s recall, with amused affection, ‘Dr’ John Reid despatching 3 Para battlegroup to Helmand, expecting 800 shooters to take and hold an area the size of Wales. Let’s reflect on a government which, involved in two wars, felt that the appropriate person to be Defence Secretary was the man whose primary portfolio was SoS Scotland.

    Seriously, Labour needs to grasp that it has zero credibility on either defence or the use of military means to support national policy. It wasn’t always thus, historically, Labour actually has quite a respectable record on defence, but, since Denis Healey, who at least knew the score as a gallant and decorated officer, Labour’s competence has ebbed away to its current pathetic level.

    Leave it comrades, talk about the economy. You’re as bad at that as you are at warfare, but at least fewer people get killed.

  5. swatantra says:

    There area lot of uncomfortable truths that Labour has to face up to.
    And Labour has to confront The Forces with reality. Britain in future has to work with Europe on Defence.

  6. Henrik says:

    @swatantra: working with Europe on Defence is a viable option, provided we accept that an EU defence establishment would be moribund and incapable of – and unwilling to – countenance the use of military force in the pursuit of national interests, which is what it’s for. I realise this is an unpleasant concept and many would want it otherwise, but ‘defence’ as a concept is fundamentally different for the UK than it is for, say, Italy. We have global interests and are a global player; should we decide to get out of that business and settle for a different strategic role, as part of a Eurobloc, some sort of national debate would have to take place.

    Military force is generally deployed by sovereign entities in defence of, or in pursuit of, national strategic priorities. The EU is not a sovereign entity and has no national strategic priorities. Note here that the French, to quote just one example, are wildly enthusiastic about the use of their military to project French – not EU – influence where this matches their strategic aims.

    By all means, let’s cooperate on equipment programmes and continue the good work NATO has done on interoperability in the last 60 years or so. By all means, let’s experiment with small integrated international deployments – we know how to do that, have been doing it routinely with the Danes and the Estonians and the Poles for years – but let’s remember that as a nation state, as a G8 member, as a state entirely dependent upon international trade, we have to maintain our own sovereign armed forces to pursue our interests.

    Iraq and Afghanistan were classic examples of strategic, political incompetence. The purely military phase in each case went splendidly – the Iraqis were defeated and the Taliban turned out of office. No political thought had gone into post-conflict planning, there was no master plan for ‘what good looks like’ and the military were left to cope with consistent mission creep, inadequate resourcing, disloyal and incompetent political leadership, piss-poor medical support arrangements and what I can only characterise as a wholesale betrayal by the Government of the day.

    The armed services did their best, but generals don’t do politics under our system and function best and most effectively when given a clear end state to achieve. Absent this, they have to make it up as they go along, with the results we’ve all seen.

    No amount of mawkish rhetoric about ‘our brave boys’ can excuse this. Labour has no moral right to take any position about the military until it puts its own house in order.

    ….and yes, I’m angry. I was a professional soldier for many years and I have watched, fuming, as Labour first betrayed and now moves to smear folk who took the Queen’s Shilling and put themselves in harm’s way in the not unreasonable expectation that the political leadership knew what it was doing and had their best interests at heart. It did neither.

  7. swatantra says:

    Its a nonsense thaa say that the Armed Forces are above reproach; they are under the control, and direction of the Govt, otherwise we would be be under military rule. Basically our interests are Europes interests, or at least should be.

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