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The UK must honour its fighting forces

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 03 September 2009

To the background of this country’s continuing military engagement in Afghanistan, Eric Joyce MP lays out the reasons why UK service personnel “must come first in our thoughts and actions”.

Labour was returned to power in 1997 on the back of Gordon Brown’s personal success in reversing previous public opinion on Labour’s economic competence. With less celebration, Labour’s then shadow defence ministers had performed the equally Herculean task of not so much turning Defence into a Labour strength, but neutralising it as a weakness in comparison to the Conservatives.  If the former won the deal in 1997, then the latter sealed it.  It gave people confidence they could vote for an invigorated New Labour confident that the new government’s first and gravest duty, assuring the security of our citizens, would be responsibly discharged.  Labour had become ‘sound’.

Amongst politicians today, Defence is probably the area of greatest cross-party consensus. The resourcing issue, too, is an equal-sized headache for Alistair Darling and George Osborne.  Yet in  Defence the Conservatives now sense an opportunity not just to score a point or two in the wider ‘long campaign’, but to convince the public that Labour has returned to our old, ‘unsound’ ways. If they succeed, what I believe is still a winnable general election will be lost. Conversely, to win Labour must convince the public of the truth; that our record on Defence is an honourable one and that our empathy with Defence remains as strong as ever.

In the best of times, when security risk seems predictable, Defence has a fairly low political profile.  Most folk see it as an insurance policy. In the late 90’s, when the nature of international risk was going through revolutionary change, Labour’s Defence Secretary George Robertson responded by seeing through a Defence Review widely praised on all sides. Today, in these still-changing times, all parties are committed to a new review. For good or ill, the strategic picture has been parked for the time being. Public perception of Labour’s continuing competence on Defence will therefore now seen wholly through the prism of the conflict which will dominate our screens until the UK election; Afghanistan.

The present orthodoxy within both main parties, that an early a withdrawal of western forces from Afghanistan would increase terrorism on our shores, does not of itself cover UK involvement. The United States has more than enough capacity to do the job by itself and this much is evident to the UK public. The real question is whether the people in the UK retain their fighting spirit, our historical preparedness to shoulder more than our share of the burden in what is, in truth, a time of war. For the moment, I think most people are.  But these are difficult times and, from now on, continued support for the mission will depend first on whether or not politicians are seen to treasure those who fight for us, then that people sense there is a geopolitical return for our apparently disproportionate effort. 

The first of those is self-explanatory; service personnel, not big procurement projects or jobs, must come first in our thoughts and actions.  That means people in uniform, not civil servants however talented, must dominate the MoD, albeit of course under the political direction of ministers. For politicians, it means maintaining our empathy with our armed forces and understanding that petty, back-channel attacks on respected senior officers are indistinguishable from attacks on the services as a whole. For our almost indescribably capable senior officers, it means speaking with an awareness of the consequences of their words not just on the fighting spirit of their servicemen and women, but also of the UK public.

In addition, the United States must deliver more in the UK interest.  President Obama needs to show in practical ways his appreciation of our effort. For many, it seems that Britain fights; Germany pays; France calculates; Italy avoids.  If the United States is seen as valuing each of these approaches equally then I think they may will end up shouldering the burden themselves, with the destruction of NATO’s credibility that would bring with it.

The Tories have their own problems too, of course.  The present instinct of their front bench to pretend some obviously operational matters are somehow down to politicians, to exalt in daily tit-for-tat, confirms in people’s many people’s minds that they are not grown-up enough to be trusted to raise their game above petty politics.

Finally three things, at least, are perhaps worth mentioning here.  First, while we cannot set a timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan, it should be possible soon to say that our commitment there will reduce markedly during the lifetime of the next government.  The public wants to see much more coherence and direction in that respect.  Second, while our ‘uniforms’ operate in a markedly different political ecology from their US counterparts, they should feel more free to range across the defence-politics nexus in recognition of the war footing the UK is presently on. In my view, this would help de-politicise the Afghanistan issue rather than, as some politicians fear, the contrary.  Third, where there are public tests of our commitment to the well-being of service personnel, such as with the ex-gratia payments issue, we must score an A* even if that means overruling strong advice from accountants and lawyers.

And above all, Labour must remember that service folk and their families are our people.  We say that we honour them for their risk, bravery and sacrifice and we must at literally all costs continue to show by our actions that we mean it.

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