THE TIMES Gordon’s whiff of cordite

From The Sunday TimesNovember 25, 2007

Gordon’s whiff of cordite
In The Art of War, the Chinese classic by Sun Tzu revered by military strategists, the cunning general attacks the enemy when he is sluggish and disinclined to fight back. He uses surprise, striking when his enemy is preoccupied with other battles. Britain’s former military chiefs, in concentrating their fire on Gordon Brown in recent days, have played it by the book.

The prime minister might have thought he had enough on his plate with the loss by the government of the personal records of 25m people. He will have hoped for a period of calm to sort out the Northern Rock debacle. He has been praying that the downturn in the economy will not destroy Labour’s 10-year reputation for competence. Admiral Lord Boyce, General Lord Guthrie and assorted top brass had other ideas and have opened up a new flank against Mr Brown. It threatens to leave him permanently wounded.

There have been botched cabinet reshuffles aplenty in recent years and Tony Blair was a specialist in them. But even he never came close to Mr Brown’s cackhanded design of his first cabinet. High on the list was the notion that Des Browne, hardly a political giant, could combine the job of defence secretary with that of Scottish secretary. How could the prime minister not see that this was shooting himself in both feet?

It was, Lord Boyce said, an “insult” to the armed forces at a time of war. Lord Guthrie described it as a “serious slight” appointing a minister “not fully committed to defence”. Liam Fox, the shadow defence secretary who was on to this early, put it colourfully: Des Browne, he said, was splitting his time between fighting the Scottish National party and fighting the Taliban.

It should be straightforward to sort out. Douglas Alexander, international development secretary and another Scot, could be given the Scottish secretaryship as well as his existing responsibilities, leaving Mr Browne to concentrate on defence. The government would be seen to have listened and acted. Unfortunately, the present prime minister prefers to brood. Reshaping his cabinet in response to the criticism would be hailed by the Tories as a U-turn and he knows it. The danger is that he may bunker down.

The more fundamental criticism is that Labour has left the armed forces short of resources as a result of the prime minister’s stewardship of the public finances when he was chancellor. “In every year of this government we have been increasing expenditure compared with the cuts of the previous government,” he said in response to the military chiefs’ attack. Britain, according to the defence and Scottish secretary, is second only to America in its level of defence spending.

Both claims are open to challenge. Defence spending fell in Mr Brown’s first year as chancellor and on Treasury measures dropped in 2002-3 and will do so again this year. At current exchange rates, Britain is close to being outspent by France and almost certainly by China. The Defense Intelligence Agency in Washington estimates Chinese military spending to be as high as £60 billion a year, double that of Britain. What is indisputable is that defence spending has come down from 4.5% of national income in the late 1980s to 2.5% now and is a poor relation under Labour compared with health and education. CIA figures show Britain is 70th in the world in the share of national income devoted to defence.

The retired admirals and generals can be criticised for not kicking up more of a fuss when they were in command. Medals are won in the heat of battle, not a few years later in the House of Lords. Even so, their line of attack is correct. We expect more and more of our armed forces but leave them underresourced and unappreciated. The lack of proper funding and equipment for our service personnel is a national scandal, as is the casual indifference and lack of respect that too many people show even to those injured in conflict. Soldiers do not make the decision to engage in unpopular wars. When ordered to fight in them, they are doing so on our behalf.

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