Alan Mak: The Government’s new NHS Reservists will ensure we adapt to today’s health challenges

14 Jan

Alan Mak is the MP for Havant. He introduced the NHS Reserve Staff Bill in Parliament to create the NHS Reserves in November 2020.

“Our NHS is the beating heart of this country” the Prime Minister stated after receiving his own lifesaving treatment for Coronavirus. His words reflected those of everyone in our country when it comes to the health service.

For many voters on the doorstep, the NHS remains a central issue they want us to focus on. YouGov tracks weekly the issues that are on the mind of the British public. Since the start of the pandemic, more than half of voters have consistently said health is one of the three biggest issues facing the country.

Therefore, as the party of government, it’s more vital than ever that we demonstrate our ability to manage and shape an NHS that can respond not only to today’s immediate demands, but which is also fit for the future. Adapting to societal change, innovating to meet patients’ needs, and reform to become more agile and productive are all key. These must remain key Conservative priorities, as they have been throughout our stewardship of the health service.

For over 40 of the 73 years that the NHS has been in existence, it has been under the care of Conservative governments. We have nurtured and transformed it from the fledgling organisation proposed during Churchill’s wartime administration to the £162 billion NHS that today deals with one million patients every 36 hours and 20 million hospital admissions every year.

Despite its growing and committed workforce, unexpected peaks in demand still arise. Whether it’s dealing with Coronavirus admissions, seasonal upticks, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, health and civil emergencies or major incidents such as traffic accidents, the NHS needs a flexible workforce.

We also need to continue tackling the backlogs caused by Coronavirus. The Health Secretary has rightly recognised we need to take action and as he said in his Conference speech “No government, no health secretary, no society can accept” an NHS waiting list that has been driven by pandemic pressures.

A commitment to innovation and ensuring the health service moves with the times are just two reasons why the Government has announced that the NHS Reserves will be launched as a new member of the NHS family. In November 2020, I proposed the NHS Reserve Staff Bill in Parliament, and I’m delighted to see the NHS Reserve Programme being rolled out across the country.

The new NHS Reserves will provide both clinical and non-clinical staff to supplement full-time NHS workers during times of high demand.

It’s part of the refreshing, reforming zeal the Health Secretary is bringing to the job. He wants to “embrace innovation and to build a truly modern” and “sustainable service for the future”. The NHS Reserves achieves this by building upon the work many NHS Trusts have already done throughout the pandemic through the return to work of thousands of former NHS staff.

Following the introduction of my bill in Parliament, NHS England launched initial NHS Reserves pilots. They proved popular, with 17,000 reservists already recruited from just eight pilot schemes. From April this year, the NHS Reserves Pilot will be expanded and fully implemented across all 42 integrated care systems in every part of England.

The Reservists provide NHS employers such as hospitals and trusts with a flexible but reliable workforce to supplement the permanent workforce and to help protect elective care.

While the priority for patients is ensuring that they have care when they need it, they also need to have the utmost confidence in the treatment they receive. The hallmark of the NHS has always been and always will be the quality of care received.

Everyone in this country knows that they will receive the highest compassion, support and care from our world-class doctors and nurses. So it’s vital that whether care is provided by regular staff or a reservist it should be the same high quality. That is why the NHS Reservists will have the skills, knowledge and experience necessary to provide care and treatment, night or day, 365 days a year. Through the NHS Reserve system they will be given training and in-role experience to keep qualifications up to date, just like their Armed Forces counterparts.

As a Conservative family, we should be proud of our party’s stewardship of the NHS. I hope the creation of the NHS Reserves will show that once again it is us Conservatives that are leading the way when it comes to thinking about how our health service adapts, innovates, and thrives in response to new challenges. Whilst the Covid-19 outbreak has brought so many negatives, the new NHS Reserves can serve as permanent and positive legacy that we can all support with pride.

As the Prime Minister said the devotion, duty and love of those in the NHS makes it the organisation it is today. We have the opportunity to build a better NHS through those who are willing to serve as NHS Reservists, giving it the flexibility it needs to provide care no matter the pressures on its service.

I hope ConservativeHome readers will consider signing up as NHS Reservists in the future.

Snap guide to this session’s Government legislation 14) National Insurance Contributions Bill

21 Nov

The Bills announced in each session’s Queen’s Speech are the fulcrum of the Parliamentary year.  But they are easily lost sight of, separately and wholly, as the political cycle moves – and a mass of other news and events crowd them out.

So during the coming months, ConservativeHome will run a brief guide, on most Sunday mornings, to each Bill from this year’s Speech: what it is, whether it’s new, its main strengths and weaknesses – and whether it’s expected sooner or later.

13. National Insurance Contributions

This four part bill proposes changes to three different classes of National insurance contributions (NICS).  The first part bundles together two changes to secondary Class One contributions, which deal in turn with those relating to freeports and to veterans.

The third part sets out an exemption for Covid-19 Test and Trace Support Payments for Class 4 and Class 2 NICs, which are paid by the self-employed.  The fourth mirrors minor changes to Disclosure of Tax Avoidance Schemes in this year’s Finance Bill: those affect tax avoidance in relation to other taxes; these, to it in relation to NICs.

Responsible department

The Treasury: this Bill is an example of its rare legislative presence outside the bounds of the Finance Act.  So Rishi Sunak has charge of it in the Commons. Viscount Younger is the sponsoring Minister in the Lords.

In the lower house, the Bill was taken through its stages by Jesse Norman when he was Financial Secretary to the Treasury.

Carried over or a new Bill?

New Bill.

Expected when?

Currently under consideration.

Arguments for

This is a tidying-up Bill, released not to the usual proclamation of its virtues from the Government (like, say, the Environment Bill, the last I wrote about in this series), but by an unadorned list of documents  – thereby indicating that it is relatively uncontroversial.

Ministers want to boost freeports, support veterans (the Conservative Manifesto proposed a reduction in employer NICs for a full year for every new employee who has left the armed forces), bring the tax treatment of the self-employed further into line with that of others in relation to Covid, and keep the tax avoidance book up to date.

Arguments against

Labour didn’t divide the Commons against the Bill at Second Reading. “We support the intention behind many of its measures,” James Murray, a Labour Treasury spokesman, told the Commons – before going on to question some of the detail.

For example, he asked why the freeport relief won’t be available until next year; why the veterans’ relief is proposed for only a year rather than three years, as the freeport relief is; why the self-employment relief wasn’t issued earlier, and how effective the Government estimates the tax avoidance measures contained in the Bill will be.


The politics in this Bill touches mainly on an innovation, freeports, and two groups of people: veterans and the self-employed.  The first is claimed as a benefit of Brexit with the potential to boost economic growth and levelling up.  The counter-argument is freeports will bring no substantial economic benefits.

The veterans and self-employed are a contrast, at least in terms of this Bill.  The relief for veterans is a manifesto commitment, forseeable as requiring legislative change at the time of the last election.  The self-employed relief is a piece of Covid-driven improvisation, alongside other reliefs of a similar kind.

Controversy rating 1/10

I opened this series with a piece on the Online Harms Bill, giving it a rating of nine out of ten.  This Bill is a reminder that much in any Queen’s Speech is far less controversial.  Oppositions and backbenchers tend not to oppose measures that raise spending, tidy up avoidance (or claim to be doing so) and cut taxes, in effect.

Veterans and the self-employed are traditionally Conservative-voting interests.  Some of both who either voted Tory in 2019 or might consider doing so in future are currently waverers.  Measures like these ones aim to keep them within  or drawn them into the Conservative fold.  There is no laboratory test of their effectiveness in so doing.

Sarah Ingham: In these woke-not-bloke days, the military’s main mission is being increasingly overlooked

12 Nov

Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.

This week, we remember.

Yesterday was Armistice Day: at 11 o’clock many observed the Two Minute Silence. The first was in 1919, on the anniversary of the guns finally falling silent in what the victory medal awarded to 5.7 million Allied veterans stated was the Great War for Civilisation.

On Sunday, the annual service at the Cenotaph will honour the dead of both World Wars and subsequent conflicts. The Queen will attend but will be absent from Saturday’s Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall.

A Remembrance poppy is not just a symbol of respect for past sacrifice but a reminder to civilians about present-day military service. As the Second World War and even National Service becomes the stuff of history rather than living memory – the last National Servicemen were demobbed in 1963 – few consider themselves members of the “Armed Forces Community” of serving personnel, veterans and their families.

With the total full-time strength of the regular Armed Forces currently hovering around 159,000, employees of Tesco or NHS Scotland are probably more familiar to most of us than Service personnel.

Since the end of combat operations in Afghanistan in 2014, the Armed Forces have largely been off the civilian radar. When they have come to our attention, it’s generally because of the helpful if slightly hum-drum stuff of Military Aid to the Civil Authorities rather than the heroics of battle. Building Nightingale hospitals or dealing with floods might show off the can-do spirit of the Forces but lacks a certain derring-do.

A recent exception has been Operation Pitting, the August rescue mission to evacuate thousands from Kabul following the unanticipated Taliban advance. Suddenly, Forces’ personnel were more than first responders with weapons-training. The public was getting some bangs – or the prospect of some bangs – for its buck. Or rather for the £39.8 billion annual defence budget.

Jo(e) Public seems unbothered if the Armed Forces remain largely invisible, venturing out for crowd-pleasing displays of clockwork-like ceremony, such as at the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral. After all, despite their comparatively low profile, in the Hansard Society’s 2019 Audit of Public Engagement, 74 per cent were confident that the Forces would act in the public’s best interest. The Government scored 33 per cent. The favourable findings reflect stellar levels of public support for the military ever since the late Blair era.

Neither the Government, some MPs nor some Ministry of Defence civilian staff seem fully to share the public’s admiration. Instead they appear actively to dislike a culture which has made Britain’s forces globally respected military players, reflected by the Royal Marines’ recent performance against the US Marine Corps. (One American military blog reports that the RM are the US troops’ favourite foreign military to train with, not least because they ‘almost drank us under the table’.)

On Monday, Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, had ‘full and frank discussion about a range of issues’ with senior Army commanders. Sir Mark Carleton-Smith, Army Chief General, stated there were ‘core and cultural issues’ which need addressing. The carpeting seems to have been prompted, in part, by a Defence Committee Report, Protecting Those Who Protect Us: Women in the Armed Forces, largely based on a survey of Servicewomen and female veterans.

Almost two-thirds of female personnel have experienced bullying, harassment and discrimination, including sexual assault. Such findings are at odds with the Army’s Values and Standards, formalised in 2000, which prioritised ‘respect for others’. Institutional soul-searching and wheel reinvention can be expected over the coming months, together with a long overdue overhaul of complaints’ procedures.

When not inevitably banging on about career-family life balance, the report also stated that ‘without compromising physical standards for ground close combat roles’, women’s fitness tests ‘should have due regard for hormonal changes linked to pregnancy and menopause’. Although the levels of abuse in the report produced shock-horror headlines, less widely reported was that 90 per cent of women who participated in the voluntary survey would recommend a career in the Forces to other women and 84 per cent said their overall experience of Forces’ life was good or very good.

The Defence Committee tut-tutted that aspects of their culture highlight the Armed Forces are still a man’s world. On Tuesday this point was almost conceded by General Sir Nick Carter, the outgoing Chief of the Defence Staff, who observed to members that a ‘laddish culture’ was not exactly discouraged, not least because ‘ultimately our soldiers have to go close and personal with the enemy’.

For all the CDS’s focus on the ‘long term cultural change’ needed to quell anti-social behaviour within its ranks, what is being overlooked is the military’s main mission: defeating the country’s enemies, often by killing them.

Those who would prefer to see an inclusive rainbow flag rather than the Union Jack flying permanently over MoD’s main building seem to forget the demands of combat effectiveness.

In the past few decades successive governments have been keen that the Armed Forces should reflect the civilian society they serve. Why? Two-thirds of civilians are overweight; one third obese. The 2020 British Social Attitudes survey highlights that the proportion who agree that schools should teach children to obey authority fell from 85 per cent in 2004 to 72 per cent in 2019. This suggests that some might not have much truck with hierarchical, rules-based organisations.

Reflecting society is often a euphemism for recruiting more women and people from ethnic minorities. For all the Forces’ talk of ‘technical trades’ and playing down combat, most women would not contemplate joining up any more than they would glove up and get into a boxing ring with Tyson Fury. Nascent research suggests the majority of Our Girls already have family links within the Services.

Whether nature or nurture, most civilian women have no problem accepting the Forces remain a male domain, just like Lord’s cricket ground or the construction industry. Perhaps the MoD should start asking them. After all, despite being ruled by their hormones – a message implicit in the Defence Committee’s report – women taxpayers finance the defence budget.

In these woke-not-bloke days, laddish culture is of course only a step or two away from toxic masculinity.

As the country gathers around its war memorials on Sunday, the service and sacrifice of the fallen, their stoicism, resilience and courage, will be contemplated.

There are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, listed on those memorials commemorating Britain’s war dead who fought in uniform for Queen (or King) and country.

Lest we forget, with very few exceptions, all of them are men.

William Hall: Why ministers must press on to bed the Armed Forces Covenant into all areas of public life

16 Sep

William Hall is the Policy Lead for Conservative Friends of the Armed Forces. He is Deputy Chairman of Oxfordshire Conservatives and works in UK defence, infrastructure and education.

The Conservative Party is a broad church but one of the core areas that unites us is support for our armed forces and a belief in the importance of a strong national defence.

Progress has been made, but we must do more to support the military community. The Armed Forces Covenant must be further enhanced and strengthened so that it has a greater force of law.

The Covenant articulates that the nation has a moral obligation to members of the Armed Forces Community in return for the sacrifices they endure. The armed forces community includes regular personnel, reservists, veterans, and immediate families. Specifically, the Covenant outlines two core principles:

  • No disadvantage: no current or former member of the armed forces, or their families, should be at a disadvantage compared to other citizens in the provision of public and commercial services.
  • Special consideration: special consideration is appropriate in some cases, particularly for those who have been injured or bereaved.

That these goals should be a key pillar of Conservative thinking on defence should not be in question. The Conservative Party would stray considerably from its proper philosophical and moral course were it pursue anything other than a full-throated advocacy of support for ex-servicemen and armed forces personnel.

In the 2010 Conservative Manifesto our party was elected to government on a promise to fix the covenant that had been let fall into ‘disrepair’ by Labour. Writing on ConservativeHome, James Sunderland, now MP and supporter of Conservative Friends of the Armed Forces, said “the Conservative Party must re-affirm its support for all serving personnel, veterans and their families, not only as the traditional party of the Armed Forces, but also as the defender of the democratic rights and freedoms that we share.”

The party’s backbenchers and Cabinet appear in agreement that defence spending and focus must be a priority and the announcement of an additional £24.1 billion funding is welcome.

The Armed Forces Covenant is a statement of a principle. It does not itself infer legal obligations and rights on members of the community. Instead, it is referred to by laws which may require it to be taken into account, and is a governing pillar for the body politic. The Secretary of State for Defence must make an annual report to Parliament on the government’s progress in honouring the Covenant. In particular the Defence Secretary must have regard to the following:

  • The unique obligations of, and sacrifices made by, the armed forces;
  • The principle that it is desirable to remove disadvantages arising for service people from membership, or former membership, of the armed forces; and
  • The principle that special provision for service people may be justified by the effects on such people of membership, or former membership, of the armed forces.

The Armed Forces Covenant Fund was launched in 2015 with a budget of £10m a year to support “mutually beneficial projects and programmes being delivered by organisations across the UK in partnership with the Armed Forces Community”. It supports the obligation that the Covenant represents through four broad funding areas: removing barriers to family life; extra support after service for those that need help; measures to integrate military and civilian communities; and non-core healthcare services for veterans.

One of Boris Johnson’s first actions as Prime Minister was the establishment of the Office of Veterans Affairs (OVA), led by Johnny Mercer as Minister for Defence People and Veterans jointly with the Cabinet Office. In its first year the OVA launched a new railcard for veterans, a scheme to provide guaranteed interviews in the civil service for veterans, plans for a National Insurance Holiday for employers who hire veterans, and prioritisation of veterans for new homes.

The establishment of the OVA supports the cross-Whitehall approach that the Covenant represents. It is telling that the ministerial responsibilities straddle both the MoD and the Cabinet Office signalling a continued entrenchment of the Covenant in policy formulation in every Department. This is a welcome step in furthering the goals of the Covenant.

It would be beneficial to the continued impact of the OVA if its mission were treated in a way similar to other overarching, cross-departmental themes of the Government. The Armed Forces Community is impacted by the decisions of every Department and it is right that the political sponsorship of this is significant. To enhance this, a useful addition would be a focused team of political and non-political advisers similar to those tasked with taking forward other thematic priorities, including the ‘levelling up’ agenda.

Local authorities are a key deliverer of services to the beneficiaries of the Covenant. The Local Government Association’s (LGA) report ‘Our Community – Our Covenant: Improving the Delivery of Local Covenant Pledges’ provided concerning insight into the delivery of this service at a local level.

Of the Council Chief Executives surveyed by the LGA, 48 per cent reported that they had a good understanding of the Covenant, and 39 per cent a moderate understanding. Perhaps even more concerning is that the same report found that almost a quarter of surveyed members of the Armed Forces Community felt that their local authority did not understand their needs.

In areas with higher visibility of the armed forces in the community the local authority tended to be better at folding the Covenant into their decisions. However, a post-code lottery of council awareness is simply not good enough.

Over the last decade, the Armed Forces Covenant’s scope and impact has increasingly benefitted from the political sponsorship of the Conservative Party in Government. This looks set to continue apace. Service provision areas of high impact for the Covenant are being brought into law in order to strengthen the existing framework of regard for its principles.

As this progress continues it will be increasingly necessary to focus on those parts of public services that are most complex, unwilling to change, or unaware of the specific requirements of the Armed Forces Community. To achieve the ultimate aims of the Covenant, it will be necessary to maintain the political trajectory that recent defence announcements have signalled and to root out areas of poor performance in local authorities and service providers.

Fundamentally, the Covenant seeks to apply some very simple principles to an incredibly complicated legal and governmental landscape. It must therefore be an ongoing project and a living commitment.

A longer version of this article appears in Conservative Friends of the Armed Forces’ new Policy Pamphlet.

Ed McGuinness: Afghanistan – and the changes that should now be made to better support our veterans

10 Sep

Ed McGuinness is a founder of Conservatives in the City, and contested Hornsey & Wood Green during last year’s General Election.

This week the summer seemed to return and, as the sun rose over Westminster, MPs began filling the House of Commons once again, bringing a buzz to the start of a new political term. In a week packed with domestic legislation, the Prime Minister took to his feet to make a statement on what was surely the major story of the summer: Afghanistan.

Many have pored over the strategy of the withdrawal – and will continue to.  Even more will consider the operational and tactical decisions that led to chaotic scenes at Kabul airport. What can, I believe, be objectively said is that the bravery, dedication and professionalism of our Armed Forces and diplomatic service is without question. However, as the Prime Minister pointed out, those men and women were only the final team of the over 150,000 British service personnel who have served in the country since 2001.

It was therefore welcome that the Government laid out extra support, in the form of an extra £5 million, for veterans of the conflict who are undergoing mental and physical health issues as a consequence of their service to the nation.  A quick calculation, assuming that five per cent of those who served are undergoing or require treatment, is that this new measure will provide an extra spend of around £650 per person.

But however welcome this extra funding may be, it is not is not enough in and of itself. There is a tremendous amount of knowledge and best practice in the public domain with respect to promoting aspects of service life: one need only look at the number of military charities that are out there. And the Veterans Affairs Office was a good start to coordinating the Government action to protecting and promoting veterans’ interests from a top-down perspective.

However, structures do not make a strategy, and I believe that there are three changes that could be made to strengthen the bonds between the Government and the Armed Forces.

First, the Government should make the Minister for Veterans Affairs a Cabinet-level position – or else place it under the purview of the Secretary of State for Defence with a Defence Minister (it currently resides in the Cabinet Office), so that it has the requisite clout when negotiating for funding with other departments.

Second, there ought to be a serious consultation with the Armed Forces charity sector. In 2020, there were around 2,000 Armed Forces charities. Some of these charities have a very broad remit, and some very specific. The Government should establish an umbrella organisation to act as a forum to share best practice, identify areas not covered and allow better co-ordination. Most importantly, this would allow for the identification of where public funding can be more efficiently allocated to better support serving and retired service personnel.

Third, and perhaps the most difficult objective to implement, is a mindset change. There needs to be a recognition that the Armed Forces are a unique public service. Whilst many public servants, especially the emergency services and health services, will undergo traumatic experiences through their careers, there is no expectation that those public servants will explicitly lay down their lives in the service of the nation, although it is recognised that many have made brave sacrifices.

Furthermore, the Armed Forces are the only public service whose major purpose is to actually stand ready to act for the majority of the time, rather than to be acting all the time. To this end, resourcing the Armed Forces for “outcomes” is not an appropriate mindset. Instead, Ministers should resource single living accommodation for serving soldiers, provide sufficient funding for equipment and good food, and make sure there is adequate housing (including families) and employment for retired soldiers. Changing mindset from quantitative outcomes to qualitative is more appropriate in this respect.

The withdrawal from Afghanistan was painful for a whole spectrum of people, for a whole series of reasons, but it presents an opportunity to reform our approach to the Armed Forces and how we support soldiers. There has been a hugely positive change in mindset over the past 20 years when it comes to soldiers’ mental and physical health.  But in order to solidify this and build on it more reform is needed.

Not all of it requires lots of additional funding; most simply requires a willingness to engage and support. Our Armed Forces come to our need, domestically and overseas, time and time again. Our efforts to support them should never be exhausted – there is always going to be scope to do more, and it is government’s duty to do so.

Robert Halfon: America has abandoned the Afghans. But we must stick with the Kurds.

8 Sep

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

Western withdrawal from Afghanistan has jangled nerves in allied nations. One such place is the Kurdistan Region in Iraq.

The situation in Kurdistan and Iraq is quite different from Afghanistan. American armed forces
 in Iraq and Kurdistan will end combat operations by the end of the year. But Iraq and America 
have recently agreed that 2,500 American troops will stay to assist, advise, and train.

The Americans stress the continuing importance of their strategic relationship with Iraq and are
 building the single biggest consulate in the world in Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan.

The UK
 supports a strong Kurdistan Region in Iraq and also has a sizeable diplomatic presence in Erbil.
The presence of American troops and bases in the Kurdistan Region is certainly desired by its
 people and government. American, British, and German soldiers are providing invaluable training to the Peshmerga, and
 are seeking to unify it under the authority of the government rather than the two main parties – a
 legacy of the past.

A strong Peshmerga is ever more necessary, as the fall of Kabul to the Taliban will embolden 
what Tony Blair calls Radical Islam elsewhere. The Peshmerga have proved a dedicated and capable ally in resisting such extremism. They held
 out almost alone for several years after ISIS took Mosul, and then attacked Kurdistan in 2014.
 Eventually, the Peshmerga and the revived Iraqi Army dislodged Daesh from its genocidal
 caliphate. RAF jets were essential to this achievement.

But it is not complete. Isis is smaller, but regrouping in the gaps between the Iraqi Army and the
 Peshmerga. Erbil and Baghdad are building better relationships, but judicious American and 
British engagement can help them to do so more quickly.

Of course, we should carefully examine the experience of Afghanistan, but my great fear is that 
isolationism on the left and right could take root.

Friends of the Kurds can say that there are times when there’s one thing worse than a Western 
intervention – and that’s no Western intervention.

Not all interventions have been disastrous, let alone about imposing our values. John Major’s
 no-fly zone and safe haven for the Kurds in 1991 averted certain genocide, and helped the Kurds
 create an autonomous region that increased health, education, living standards, stability, and
 opportunity. Our jets saved Kurds from ISIS in the last decade.

Such interventions are the baby that should not be thrown out with the bathwater amid any
 isolationist backlash. They go with the grain of change desired by our partners and enable their self-defence, with
urgent and direct aid in existential emergencies, and self-improvement.

The need to deploy military muscle in extremis is on the spectrum of liberal intervention, and
 provides the solid assurances without which other engagements are more difficult.

Our wider range of cultural, commercial, and political engagements clearly say that the fate of the
 Kurds remains important to the West. It also gives them the confidence and stability to further
reform their institutions.

The Kurds are an ancient people, but they have only had a coherent and recognised near-state in
 Iraq for a generation. They have come far in that time but have much further to go. From my visits over many years, I can testify that they welcome our involvement in ventures as
varied as training MPs and judges, measures to advance transparency and tackle corruption,
boosting agriculture, and film, for example. I suspect many films about Afghanistan could be 
produced in Kurdistan.

A major imperative close to my heart is their desire to modernise their education system and
 encourage new thinking in a more vibrant civil society as they reduce their reliance on oil and
 state employment while designing new futures in technology, tourism, and light industry.
One of our country’s great soft power offers in higher education. My predecessor as MP for 
Harlow, Bill Rammell has recently become Vice-Chancellor of one of their prestigious English 
language universities.

Another such university in Kurdistan has just taken in female students from Afghanistan. It
illustrates the deep generosity of the people of Iraqi Kurdistan, so often exiles and refugees from 
injustice themselves.

Iraqi Kurdistan also continues to host nearly a million refugees and displaced people from Syria 
and from the areas once occupied by Isis to which they cannot yet return. That has been an
 enduring and willingly given duty for them.

Their respect for religious and national minorities as well as improved women’s rights powerfully 
defy Radical Islam. All countries act in their own national interests and not just for altruistic reasons. American and
 British engagement is both. The fall of Kabul highlights how much more we need Iraqi Kurds as 
allies and partners, and vice-versa.

Ex-servicemen enrich the Commons, but we should beware giving their views special status on matters of war

21 Aug

One feature of the reaction to this week’s parliamentary debate on the debacle in Kabul has been the praise for contributions from Tom Tugendhat and other MPs who were formerly members of the Armed Forces.

Beyond admiration for the technical skill of some of the oratory, these members were able to speak movingly about their on-the-ground experience in Afghanistan, including the risks they had taken and the comrades they had lost during this twenty-year war.

As a result, there has been a perhaps natural tendency to give their perspective particular weight – although as our editor has pointed out, this seems not to apply to everyone. John Baron, another soldier-turned-MP, enjoys a much lower profile for his consistently anti-intervention position. Indeed, Tugendhat at one point went so far as to attack Joe Biden, a civilian, for criticising the collapse of the Afghan National Army:

“To see their commander-in-chief call into question the courage of men I fought with, to claim that they ran, is shameful. Those who have never fought for the colours they fly should be careful about criticising those who have.”

Such sentiment is understandable. But civilian oversight of the Armed Forces is a pretty central plank of what makes a western democracy today. On top of that, in the US the President is Commander-in-Chief. Criticism of the military by civilians, let alone the elected government, is legitimate.

There are other reasons too to be cautious of giving excess weight to ex-military voices in these debates. Again, it is understandable that people who worked on the ground to try and build a new Afghanistan, and lost friends in the process, should be frustrated to see it all collapse like a house of cards the moment the United States decides it can no longer spare a few thousand troops and auxiliary contractors.

But as we noted last week, the sunk costs fallacy is not a good argument for staying in. And whilst this week’s speeches were long on emotion, they were somewhat shorter on practical plans for creating a self-sustaining Afghan state. Given what we are now learning about the fragility of the Islamic Republic and the ineptitude of much of the occupation, it is tricky to see how we might have achieved even in another ten years what we did not in the preceding 20. Sometimes, a virtue of civilian oversight is the capacity of people less invested to call time on mission creep.

(Likewise, the Government cannot so easily handwave the practicalities of resettlement as can an eloquent backbencher. Tugendhat says he is “not going to get into the political auction of numbers. We just need to get people out.” But the ‘auction of numbers’ is the business of government.)

It is also difficult to imagine the Conservative Party endorsing this attitude towards external criticism when it comes to civilian professions (although much easier to envision the left doing so). Should people who aren’t doctors and nurses hesitate to criticise the NHS? Or non-teachers hold their tongue on school standards and education reform?

(Schools actually provide an interesting case in point about the limited applicability of specialist front-line experience to the business of government. New Labour expected great things of Estelle Morris, a former teacher appointed Education Secretary in 2001. But she resigned in 2002.)

None of this means that we should not value the ex-military perspective, nor even that Tugendhat et al are wrong in wanting to make an ongoing military commitment to Afghanistan. But there is a danger in affording them special status, perhaps best captured by Dr Johnson:

“Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea.”

We should remember always that MPs and citizens with no military experience have just as much right to weigh in on these questions as anyone else.