UK Politics

General’s Major Mistake

Matthew Parris doesn’t approve of those in uniform who overstep their mark.

Today he takes issue with the recent remarks about British aims in Iraq made by Chief of the General Staff Sir Richard Dannatt:

That some of us might agree with every word Sir Richard said to the Daily Mail about Iraq and about the Government’s treatment of wounded servicemen is beside the point. There is a constitutional principle at stake, and it is fundamental. The Armed Forces are not in charge of government policy; ministers are — democratically elected ministers. The Armed Forces are there to implement policy, not attack it. They can and must offer advice, of course, but the advice that Service chiefs offer ministers must be absolutely private. It is not their job to try to influence public debate by making statements to the news media. The general knows HM Government’s policy in Iraq: the Prime Minister has made it very clear. It is to stay for as long as it takes to establish and guarantee a democracy there. There is absolutely no way this can be reconciled with an imperative to withdraw “some time soon”.

He concludes the Tories and Lib Dems have behaved foolishly over this issue too:

The opposition parties’ response has been pathetic. Sir Menzies Campbell, who ought to know better, seemed yesterday to be siding with the general. How would Sir Menzies have felt if the general had lambasted Liberal Democrat defence policy? I rather think that Sir Menzies would have taken issue not only with the criticisms themselves, but with the appropriateness of a Service chief’s having entered the fray at all.

Sir Menzies, at least, may plead that the CGS was echoing Liberal Democrat concerns. Liam Fox, the Shadow Defence Secretary, can make no such claim. Except that, incredibly, he now seems to be doing so. Until yesterday we understood Tory policy on Iraq to be four-square with the Government’s: “Tough it out”, “Stay for the duration”, “As long as it takes” etc. But Dr Fox is now claiming he reached similar conclusions to the general’s when he himself visited Iraq.

The cheek of it! What dolts does Dr Fox suppose us to be? So the Tories think we should leave Iraq some time soon, and that our presence is only making matters worse, do they? If so I must have missed the announcement at what I took to be their conference in Bournemouth last week. You would have thought this spectacular U-turn might have attracted some attention.

I’m not sure that Dannatt deserves – as Parris recommends – to be sacked, but the columnist is certainly right about the opportunism of the opposition parties. Until they understand that foreign policy deserves a proper longterm strategy – as opposed to being used as a party political football – they will struggle to appear credible against any Government, even one with as many problems as the current one.