The genial throat-slitter sticking his knife in Brown

From The Sunday TimesNovember 25, 2007

The genial throat-slitter sticking his knife in Brown
It takes a lot to brass off five former military top brass. But when two field marshals, an admiral, a general and an air force marshal rose in the House of Lords last week to direct deadly fire at Gordon Brown for his neglect of the armed forces, a few people must have wondered why such brave words had eluded them when they were running the show. It is one accusation that cannot be levelled at Lord Guthrie.

Charles Guthrie, chief of the defence staff (CDS) between 1997 and 2001, never hid his dislike of Brown. “You don’t think I understand defence, do you,” the former chancellor once snapped at Guthrie during a row about a proposed budget cut. “No, I bloody well don’t,” came the reply.

The 69-year-old general and former SAS trooper, reputed to have “slit more throats than anyone else in Whitehall”, gave the wound another tweak on Thursday when he recalled that the only time he saw Brown at the Ministry of Defence “was when he came to talk about the Rosyth dockyard, which was in his constituency”. The prime minister “must take much of the blame” for the services’ parlous state, Guthrie said.

Guthrie’s relationship with Tony Blair was another story. He was Blair’s favourite general, whose charm and heroic aura are said to have persuaded the novice prime minister to send British troops into Kosovo, and later to Afghanistan and Iraq. “I could say anything to him because he knew I wasn’t going to spill the beans,” Guthrie recalled.

His influence was such that he managed to dissuade Blair from invading Zimbabwe, he claimed earlier this month: “My advice was, ‘Hold hard, you’ll make it worse’.”

Genial, white-haired, with a sheepish grin and a voice that one interviewer found “so plummy that he sounds like a 1940s radio broadcast”, Guthrie is pukka army. He once recoiled in horror when Lord Levy kissed him on the lips – perhaps the government’s chief fundraiser put too high a price on the soldier’s title of “gold stick in waiting to the Queen”. Guthrie remains a keen horseman, tennis player and skier. In 1971 he married Catherine, daughter of a lieutenant-colonel in the Coldstream Guards, and the couple have two grown-up children, David and Andrew.

In 2002 Guthrie told the Lords that Saddam Hussein was “a serious threat” to “the security of our own citizens”. He has done some serious backtracking since then, conceding that the invasion of Iraq was “probably wrong” while arguing that because Saddam “behaved as though he had weapons of mass destruction”, the decision felt right at the time.

The old warrior’s second thoughts have also led him to reproach Blair for selecting the intelligence that he wanted to believe in favour of invasion. Fine thanks, one might think, for a prime minister who elevated Guthrie to the peerage in 2001 and recalled him from retirement to act as his personal military adviser after the September 11 attacks and later as his envoy to Pakistan. (On a similar mission an Indian diplomat assured him that nuclear war with Pakistan would cost India “only” 30m casualties.)

His enemies called him “Treacle Guthrie”. But for Max Hastings, the journalist and military historian, the label “Tony’s crony” didn’t fit Guthrie: “I remember Charles saying to me, ‘I feel I can best safeguard the interests of the armed forces by commanding the confidence of the prime minister of the day’. He worked very hard at inspiring Blair’s confidence so that he could fight hard for the things he cared most about.”

Guthrie “loathes” Brown, according to Hastings: “Because he had the government’s support, he felt he could take a pretty tough line with Brown and was frequently abusive. Once Charles sent Brown a long note about something and the chancellor didn’t bother to reply. Charles rang him up and gave him the most frightful bollocking.”

Hastings rates Guthrie “by miles the best CDS of recent times” in “playing the sinuous games of Whitehall politics” and “knowing everyone”, unlike the current military hierarchy – “they’re all too wet”.

In public Guthrie kept shtoom, while managing to publicise his views without leaving his fingerprints on them. Hastings recalled: “He used to lunch regularly with me and half a dozen other journalists. He would tell us what he thought and it would all get in the papers. He made sure he wasn’t in the frame.”

Another senior journalist who enjoyed such lunches agreed that Guthrie was the best chief of defence staff in recent times, with one proviso: “Guthrie’s generation have involved us in two quite ghastly wars. Although they would say it was the politicians that did it, they must shoulder their share of blame.”

In Anthony Seldon’s book The Blair Effect, Blair’s “high regard” for Guthrie is credited with victory over Brown’s stringencies in the 2000 spending review: “Guthrie could point to the things Blair wanted done – Sierra Leone-type interventions and a lead in building up European defence capabilities – and argue that this could not be achieved on a declining budget.”

Blair and Guthrie exploited the fact that conflict resolution in the developing world was a cause close to Brown’s heart. Guthrie remembered that in the 1998 spending review, “at the last moment Brown tried to take a lot more money out of it”. Guthrie was “a couple of hours” from resigning, but “got enough” to change his mind.

The head of Britain’s armed forces felt obliged to point out that “being a force for good does not just mean cuddling orphans and giving aspirins and cups of tea to old ladies”, but was also about “being the best fighting troops in the world”. In an interview with The Sunday Times in February 2001, he grumbled that the army was in danger of losing its edge by spending “too long wading through mud acting as the world’s policeman”. Seven months later terrorists attacked the Twin Towers.

Guthrie was born on November 17, 1938, the son of Ronald and Nina, who sent him to Harrow before he trained at Sandhurst: “Mostly I joined up because I was a very keen sportsman at school. I ended up playing rugby for the army and combined services.” Commissioned into the Welsh Guards in 1959, he served in Germany and Aden before joining 22nd Special Air Service.

Asked if he ever slit someone’s throat with a knife, Guthrie admitted to having been “blown up twice” and to feeling frightened, but is apt to take refuge in recollections of the petty irritations of jungle-bashing in Malaysia: “There was a member of my patrol who had this annoying habit of pushing away a branch, which then came back and slapped me in the face. We became great friends, but it drove me crackers.”

After a plethora of postings and promotions, by 1994 he approached the top of the tree as chief of the general staff, or head of the army. Three years later Michael Portillo, as defence secretary in John Major’s government, singled him out for the highest job: “It was an exceptional appointment because for the first time ever we didn’t follow Buggins’ turn. I thought it was quite important that he had substantial experience of combat – and because of that a lot of credibility.”

British troops were then involved in Bosnia and other conflicts seemed pending, Portillo recalled: “He was seen as brave, not just under fire, but he was likely to tell you what he thought. He was not going to bend the knee to ministers.”

As CDS he was not completely averse to public controversy, ruling out women soldiers in fighting roles and drawing the line at recruiting the disabled. More recently he has blamed the unexplained deaths at the Deepcut army barracks on cheeseparing ministers and asserted that terrorism cannot be beaten by security measures alone.

Despite being “propositioned” to write his memoirs, Guthrie has contented himself with co-authoring a recently published slim volume, Just War, which measures the ethics of modern conflicts against Christian criteria. A devout Catholic who visits Lourdes every year, he is vice-president and knight of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, formerly the Knights Hospitallers who cared for crusaders in Jerusalem.

He is also a servant of mammon, working on the boards of several firms, including NM Rothschild, the City bank, and Colt Defense, the arms manufacturer.

As colonel commandant of the SAS he remains in touch with events in Iraq and Afghanistan through regular visits to the regiment’s headquarters in Hereford. Brown can only hope that the rumours that Guthrie is practising his old garrotting skills are untrue.
I wonder what they make of this statement then?

Hastings rates Guthrie “by miles the best CDS of recent times” in “playing the sinuous games of Whitehall politics” and “knowing everyone”, unlike the current military hierarchy – “they’re all too wet


Book Reviewer
UKNDA certainly seems to be pulling its weight - anyone read the 'Hate on Sunday' - it's got UKNDA stamped all over it!
For such an intelligent man, it seems strange that he can be a devout catholic. The big fairy in the sky is even less believeable than Saddam's WMD and Guthrie believed in both.
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