Monday, 15 October 2012

We Should Not Distance the Armed Forces From Politics

Today is likely to mark the start of a difficult time indeed for senior members of the armed forces as the government begins a crackdown on the political involvement of former military officers. Philip Hammond, the Defence Secretary, announced yesterday that he would "shut down the access" of former officers if they flaunted their former roles to lobby the MoD for business interests.

The immediate aftermath of this announcement saw the resignation of Lieutenant General Sir John Kiszeley from his post as the President of the Royal British Legion. As part of a sting operation by the Sunday Times, General Kiszeley was found to allegedly have boasted to clients about his access to ministers, and among other things about his ability to use the Remembrance Day ceremony as an opportunity to promote his commercial interests with government officials.


The former Chief of the General Staff, General Lord Richard Dannatt, is another figure under close scrutiny. Widely known for his support of the Conservative Party prior to the 2010 general election, Lord Dannatt captured widespread media attention in 2009 when he openly criticised the Labour government's attitude to equipment procurement for front-line troops. Now a crossbench peer in the House of Lords, Lord Dannatt is accused of using his contacts within the MoD to evade a ban on discussing a high-profile contract. This news in particular comes as a surprise, since while in the past Lord Dannatt has certainly been highly vocal in his support of the interests of soldiers, even at one stage receiving an offer to act as a Tory defence advisor, he has carefully avoided becoming entangled in political controversy. After the general election he famously stood down from his advisory position, deferring to what he described as sources of "proper military advice".

General Lord Richard Dannatt
These revelations therefore are likely to be damaging to all involved, and it remains to be seen whether there will be any long-term impact elsewhere within the armed forces, and indeed among more junior ranks. While business lobbying is clearly not a fair or transparent use of contacts belonging to former officers, it would be a huge mistake for the government to keep former military personnel from active political involvement. The military provides its members with vital experience outside the more common channels to power, such as law or finance. It also operates within an environment in which the decisions that are made have important and immediate consequences, fostering a robust and decisive leadership style that encourages commanders to quickly take responsibility for their courses of action.

The use of contacts within government to further the careers of former servicemen and women who choose to trade those contacts for financial profit is as unacceptable and dangerous as using them to further the interests of foreign powers (as one of the accused officers is alleged to have done). To make use of them in an official capacity as a member of the government however is natural and sensible. For example, Desmond Swayne, the MP for New Forest West, is known for the tremendous value he provided to the Prime Minister during his long innings as David Cameron's Parliamentary Private Secretary. Soldiers, sailors and airmen have been equipped, at state expense, with some of the most useful tools available for political leaders. It would be a mistake to bar them from involvement in government after the end of their service.

Credit for the top image is due to E J Wilkins (http://ejwilkins.shutterchance.com/image/2009/08/12/at-rollestone/).