A spat has broken out in the UK about whether leading members of the military should speak out on political matters. Appearing on a BBC politics programme, Nicholas Houghton, chief of the defence staff, was asked about what it would mean if a British leader was explicitly opposed to nuclear weapons and whether such a position would effectively make the nuclear deterrent pointless.
The British nuclear deterrent can hardly have been a surprise topic of discussion when Houghton began his interview with presenter Andrew Marr. The election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party has brought the subject back to the fore. Corbyn, a life-long member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, has repeatedly signalled his desire to change his party’s defence policy. He would like to abandon plans to replace the current force of submarines carrying ballistic missiles with a new non-nuclear fleet.
Houghton’s comments and Corbyn’s response might initially be construed as little more than a storm in a teacup – but, in fact, they reflect the increased politicisation of the UK’s senior officer corps, a trend has been emerging for more than a decade.
Houghton knows about the constitutional convention that military leaders do not enter the political arena. He would, therefore, have been prepared to walk on egg shells if this topic came up – and his initial answers on deterrence theory were factual and appropriate given his position. However, he crossed the line when discussing whether deterrence would be undermined if a political leader said they would never press the nuclear button.
Houghton suggested that he would be “worried” if “that thought were translated into power”. He added:
The whole thing about deterrence rests on the credibility of its use … If a prime minister said they would never press the nuclear button the deterrent is then completely undermined.
Corbyn has called on the government to investigate, accusing Houghton of undermining democracy and of political interference. Meanwhile the prime minister, David Cameron, is backing Houghton, as is Alan West, a Labour peer and former head of the navy.
The bigger problem
Corbyn’s reaction shows him to be an overly sensitive unilateralist and Houghton’s remarks are sure to be soon forgotten. But this incident is indicative of something more enduring – the increasing politicisation of the UK’s officer corps.
Since the early 1990, the armed services have had an increasingly powerful voice within the Ministry of Defence. In operations from Bosnia in the early 1990s to Libya in 2011 the military has increasingly become involved in defining the political goals and measures – taking control away from the civil service.
One example of this – easy to identify because the soldier in question, Brigadier David Richards, wrote about it in his autobiography, Taking Command, – is the way Richards made the unilateral decision to turn what had been strictly a humanitarian and peacekeeping intervention into a military operation without recourse to Whitehall.
This shift has partly come as a result of a lack of ministerial lead but it is also a reflection of an institutional requirement to have control. Richards, who went on to become chief of the defence staff, is quite open about seeking to set the political agenda and engage in politics.
I am very clear in my military advice to the government that we need to understand what the political objective is before we recommend what military effort and forces should be applied to it.
Then of course there is the presence of retired officers in parliament. A number have been elected to sit on both government and opposition benches. In the Lords, however, the convention has been that all Houghton’s predecessors as chiefs of the defence staff have sat as cross-benchers with no overt party affiliation.
This changed during the last Labour government’s time in office, when two former single service chiefs affiliated themselves with political parties in the House of Lords. West was the first, becoming a Labour lord and later a government minister. Then Richard Dannatt adopted the Conservative whip. Both have been very outspoken and highly critical of each other’s parties and both have complained that they were not listened to when serving as head of the armed forces.
Outside parliament, retired military officers are much more often found campaigning for particular interest groups than they used to be. They can be heard offering their views on the failures of Britain’s campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, generally pointing fingers at the government rather than the armed forces. This largely uncontested discourse has enabled a variety of myths to emerge, such as the idea that the cuts made in the 2010 defence and security review meant the Falklands could not be retaken if Argentina were to occupy them.
In questioning whether Houghton crossed the line between military matters and politics, Corbyn has raised an issue at the very heart of British democracy. Whatever one might think of Tony Blair and the Labour leadership at the time, it can only be hoped that the Chilcot Inquiry will also seek to highlight the culpability of Britain’s senior military leadership in the planning for and conduct of wars. If it did, the British military might learn to be far more circumspect.
But this is unlikely. The rise of the political general, with his presumption that only he really understands strategy and can think both militarily and politically, is deeply disturbing.
Now is an apposite time to cull the growing ranks of the senior officer core and for civil servants to have power restored to them. If the House of Lords is to be culled, perhaps a good start would be with those retired generals and admirals who have accepted the party whip.