We Zoomers are looking for our Falklands moment – and for our Margaret Thatcher.

6 Apr

At a dinner during the recent Blackpool Spring Conference, members of the ConservativeHome team discussed which major event first sparked their interest in politics.

This lead, unsurprisingly, to a discussion of how old we were and where we had been when we had heard the dreadful news on September 11 2001.

“I was eight, and at school”, came one reply. “I was at university, writing an essay”, came another. It was my turn. I looked a little sheepish. “Erm, I don’t really know where I was. I was 1.” Silence from the assembled team. “I was probably in my nappy.” I helpfully added.

They were incredulous. Various comments went around about my making them feel ancient. But there was also interest and astonishment at that central revelation – that there are people now working in politics who can’t remember a world before 9/11.

In fact, as someone born in 1999, several big political events penetrated my young consciousness. I can remember watching unemployment tick up in 2008, David Cameron and Nick Clegg waving from Downing Street in 2010, and Russian tanks rolling into Crimea in 2014.

I only really got into politics later that year, with the Scottish independence referendum. Since then, things have hardly been quiet: three general elections, Brexit, pandemics, wars, and Love Island. Certainly, all these referendums and elections and moments of historical importance have shaped my outlook and prevented me from junking my political interests for something more worthy.

But as we mark the fortieth anniversary of the Falklands War, it strikes me that that conflict had a similarly crucial affect on the young psyches of my parents as the various events of the last few years have had on mine.

Both were teenagers in 1982. Mum wanted to join the SAS. We still have a letter from Downing Street politely declining her request to enlist on the basis they took neither girls nor 13-year-olds. Dad wanted to be Ian Botham. Or, erm, Gary Numan.

Nevertheless, both were wise enough not to be teenage politicos. Having grown up during the 1970s (“Brown.” according to Dad. “Everything was brown.”), their experience of the news was limited to strikes, inflation, and a scary lady in blue becoming progressively more unpopular. Britain was a miserable country, where the memory of the Second World War acted as an immediate reminder of how far we had fallen.

So when the Argentinian junta – enthusiasts for sunglasses, inflation, and attaching electrodes to dissidents’ unmentionables – occupied those soggy little faraway islands, it was naturally a shock. And quite exciting, for a pair of teenagers still coming down from the highs of the Iranian Embassy siege and Bob Willis taking 8-43 at Headingley.

They both followed the war obsessively. Dad can still remember listening on the radio as Port Stanley was liberated. For both, they understood it as a turning point. This supposedly clapped-out, impoverished, relic of a country actually wasn’t actually any of those things. Britain was still Great, and we had found ourselves in the South Atlantic.

Today, 40 years on, those few weeks still hold an important place in my parents’ imagination. The Sheffield, Goose Green, Lieutenant Colonel Jones, Exocet, ‘Rejoice!’, and all the rest – words and images that sum up the moment when this country changed.

Yes, there was still more to do with reforming the unions, staring down Scargill, and falling out with Geoffrey Howe. But the impression I have always been left with is that is when you could tell the rot had stopped.

Of course, that afterglow wasn’t permanent. We may be far from the ‘sick man of Europe’ today – indeed, one would make the case we have long been its healthiest member – and the reforms that Thatcher introduced have lasted. But we are once again a country that has lost its pride.

My generation doesn’t really go in for patriotism. We may like a street party, enjoy the Olympics, and fervently believe that “it’s coming home” every time Harry Kane scores on the international stage. But the Falklands is as ancient for us as the Second World War was for my parents. We can’t imagine that world anymore, especially as lives pass and memory becomes myth.

For those of us worldly-wise enough to be young Conservatives there is a natural longing to recreate those halcyon days. The popularity of Liz Truss amongst teen Tories is not just down to her disco-dancing talents. Her aping of Thatcher, upsetting Russians and posing in tanks, appeals to those yearning for a figure of the stature, willpower, and magnificence of Grantham’s greatest daughter.

Having dated a few strong-willed OUCA Presidents and female Oxford chemists in my time, I can certainly understand the appeal. Freud would have a field day. We Zoomers are looking for our Falklands moment and for our Margaret Thatcher. After years of financial crises, Covid, austerity, and war, we are in desperate need of a victory to prove to us there is something to rejoice for.

The Ukraine Crisis and President Zelensky’s slightly scratches this itch. But it is someone else’s war. All the wars Britain has been involved in since the Falklands have been international interventions done in the name of highfalutin causes like human rights, fighting terrorism, and keeping in with the Americans. British lives have not been fighting for British soil.

Similarly, the pandemic saw many comparisons made with the Second World War. Whether through the V-E Day anniversary, Captain Tom’s deification, or the genuine sense of a combined national effort, it was our chance to ape the Home Front that every English schoolchild had studied. And since I was dishonourably discharged from my school RAF section for being rubbish at marching, it is the closest I will likely get to realising my dream of recreating the Battle of Britain.

But still. The pandemic was not a victory. It produced no heroes, however often we may have clapped. It did not prove to us that Britain was still brilliant. Instead, it saw the state rob us of our freedoms for two years whilst racking up a lot of debt, to protect us against a disease that largely affected the old and vulnerable. I want to forget it.

One of the reasons I backed Brexit as a 16-year-old was that I thought it could be a springboard to national revival. Three years of wrangling and the Government’s underwhelming approach to our new freedoms has ended those illusions. Britain may no longer be a nation in retreat, but it is hardly one heading for any sunlit uplands.

Perhaps I am being too gloomy. After all, Thatcher had been a teenager during the Second World War. For her, the task force’s endeavours were an opportunity to recapture the spirit of her beloved ‘Winston’, and prove Britain still was the country it had been. And it must have been the same for millions of others.

So. there might be something permanently nostalgic in the national psyche. I’m a particularly bad offender: with a young fogey wardrobe, passion for Bowie, and well-thumbed copy of Brideshead Revisited, I am as lost in the early 80s as DI Alex Drake in Ashes to Ashes. Maybe I’m just pining for my own fantasy of what the Falklands War meant.

And yet I can’t help yearning for proof that Britain still has it in her, and for a Prime Minister willing to make tough but necessary choices. Sometimes, conflict is unavoidable, both in international relations and domestic politics. The Falklands proved the former, and Thatcher’s triumphs at home certainly proved the latter. Re-reading John Hoskyns’ Just in Time recently has reminded me of both the battles she had to fight and just how worthwhile they were.

Whether on Ukraine, housing, the NHS, or a half dozen other topics, we could do with some of her Iron today – and with some of her victories. Unhappy the land that has no heroes? No, unhappy the land that needs a hero.

Or, in this case, heroine.

Julian Brazier: The Integrated Review is groundbreaking, but doesn’t go far enough in addressing the Army’s weaknesses

19 Jun

Sir Julian Brazier is a former Defence Minister, and was MP for Canterbury from 1987-2017.

Recent exposure of the weaknesses in the Ajax light tank further fuel the view that the Army has drawn the short straw in the Integrated Review (IR). Its re-equipment programme is in trouble, while many are focused on the cut in regular personnel numbers.

First some context. The IR is genuinely groundbreaking. It prioritises a more powerful Navy (rightly for an island nation with Britain’s maritime tradition) and Strategic Command which owns key portfolios like cyber, space and special forces.

The Review emphasises transformative technologies and artefacts like artificial Intelligence, quantum computing and drones. It recognises that, with civilian technology rapidly evolving, this can only be delivered through a whole force prism: regular forces, reserves, contractors and civil servants (including GCHQ’s experts and civilian technologists).

Against this template, today’s Army is hampered by a grim legacy. First, the bravery and professionalism of our young officers and soldiers was not matched by the wisdom of its senior commanders in the two major Army-led conflicts of the past generation, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The surrender of Basra, and its recovery by a combined force of Iraqis and Americans, was a national humiliation. The “Platoon Houses” strategy in Helmand flew in the face of established principles of war, cost soldiers’ lives, led to the deaths of many civilians in Helmand, and drove angry young Afghans into joining the Taliban. Again, we had to be bailed out, this time by reinforcements from the US Marines.

The resultant heart-rending trickle of returning dead and maimed young men and women fractured public confidence in the Army’s work. As General Sir Nicholas Carter, the current Chief of Defence Staff, has remarked, the British people sympathise with soldiers but have lost empathy for their job. This was compounded by the outsourcing of recruiting a decade ago to Capita whose dismal performance left the Regular Army thousands short and handicapped the growth of the Army Reserve.

It must be hard for the current generation of generals to listen to lectures in the media from their predecessors who bequeathed them this poisoned chalice.

This legacy is worsened by a third factor. While Royal Navy and RAF investment is mainly concentrated in a few huge long-term programmes from Trident successor to Tempest, as the manpower intensive service, the Army has large numbers of smaller programmes, usually with shorter life-cycles. The result has been that, in successive hiatuses in MoD’s finances over the past generation, the easiest option has been to cancel Army’s equipment, leaving it with an ageing portfolio.

The centrepiece of the Army is its warfighting division. Despite new technologies, our major allies – and potential adversaries, like Russia, China and Iran – recognise that armour remains a key component. Britain plans two future tanks: 148 upgraded Challenger main battle tanks and a family of 589 Ajax light armoured vehicles for armoured reconnaissance roles. Sadly, neither is a good story.

Taking Ajax first, reported weaknesses include excessive vibration leading to an inability to fire on the move, damage to the health and hearing of crews, a de facto speed limit of just 20mph, and an inability to reverse over a 20mm step – all this in a role where agility is critical. Nevertheless, the suite of advanced weapon systems for the Ajax family is remarkable and, if these issues can be overcome, offer an important step forward. It is too soon to give up on Ajax – despite the £3 billion already spent.

In contrast, the proposal to re-turret Challenger, has little upside. Fixing an existing gun, in a new turret, to a tank without the matching turret ring, combines high technical risk with depressingly low technological ambition. If, as it is alleged, only one prototype is planned, and the development and production phases will be telescoped, it will also fly in the face of costly lessons of the past. Furthermore, the projected number is too few to be credible or economic.

It would be better to proceed with only one risky programme, Ajax, accept a trough in main battle tank capability, save money in the short term, and then participate in either the American or German programmes for a new generation of tanks.  If Ajax fails, MoD could up the number of those and top up with an off-the-shelf recce vehicle.

Army reformers have moved forward where they can. Sandhurst is full again and soldier recruiting has recovered. Soldier retention has improved too although for officers it has been damaged by the bizarre Future Accommodation Model (FAM), imposed by MoD.

The latter allocates houses based on family size rather than rank so a private with a large family gets the house which a young company commander would have occupied until recently. This is a system used by no other army in the West and discriminatory to those who cannot have children. (It equally affects the RAF, but not the Navy; with its people concentrated in three large coastal cities; owner occupation for naval families is the norm, an option the others cannot follow).

The new programme of “rangers”, second line special forces, is an important innovation, alongside the shift towards more drones, after the lessons from Armenia. Given the tight financial constraints, the choice of Boxer to replace the Warrior as the infantry’s battlefield taxi also looks sound.

The Army Reserve has rebuilt, and reserve units are now routinely carrying out tasks from armoured recce in Poland to peacekeeping in Cyprus to Covid testing here. The Army has also set the pace in integrating senior reservists into their decision making – a process which the RAF and Strategic Command are now following but the Navy, perhaps emboldened by recent financial victories, has studiously avoided. Not surprisingly, the latter are now falling behind in areas like cyber.

Lord Lancaster’s innovative paper FR30 points to additional ways that Defence can grow capability affordably, but emphasises that individual reserve units need to be larger if they are to play the front line roles they do in our English-speaking allies.  More than half the US Army is in the National Guard and USAR, including most infantry brigades. Moving more capability to the reserves makes sense.

What is urgently needed is to halt the Challenger upgrade programmes before more money is wasted, wait to join the next generation of tanks, fix Ajax, and stem the flow of young officers, not least by scrapping FAM. This would enable a credible regular armoured division, backed by a genuine reserve capability which enabled the fielding of a large, capable army at longer notice.

Britain’s army can become the best again, but only if the land forces element of the IR is revisited.

Julian Brazier: The future of the Army – and why Haldane’s approach remains the best.

30 Sep

Sir Julian Brazier is a former Defence Minister, and was MP for Canterbury from 1987-2017.

Much of the public discussion around the Integrated Review of security and defence is focused on one issue – the size of the Army. Here on ConHome, Allan Mallinson recently asked a critical question: What is the Army for? It’s a good question – for too long we have been shaping our forces around “defence planning assumptions”, despite the fact that many of our wars and campaigns have been wholly unexpected; the First World War, the Falklands War and 9/11’s triggering of the Afghan campaign are examples. While the purpose of the Royal Navy and RAF are obvious, with Russian incursions into our air space and territorial waters and Chinese threats to our shipping routes, the Army is more like an insurance policy: there for when you need it.

Richard Haldane was the last minister to ask the fundamental question. Field Marshal Haig – not a man known for humility – wrote in 1918, six years after Haldane’s tenure ended:

‘… the greatest Secretary for War England has ever had. In grateful remembrance of [Haldane’s] successful efforts in organising the Military forces for War on the Continent…’

Haldane believed that Britain, with her commitment to a strong Navy, could never afford a peacetime Regular Army large enough to be sustainable in a major war. So, first, he honed a highly professional regular expeditionary force as a gallant vanguard. Then, he brought together the various reserve elements which Field Marshal Wolseley had built up (and drawn on in the Boer War) into a Territorial Force twice the size of the Regular Army. This ‘Second Line’ would be a vehicle to mobilise the nation.

That Second Line delivered surprisingly fast. Sir John French, our first commander in France, commented that:

‘“Without the assistance which the Territorials afforded between October 1914 and June 1915, it would have been impossible to hold the line in France and Belgium.”

Haldane’s vision extended further. Alongside the Territorial Force, he developed OTCs and cadet forces in universities, schools and communities, all positioning the Army closer to the wider public. Hitherto, cultural isolation had encouraged notoriously little public support for soldiers. Unlike the Navy, with a merchant marine (then) visible in ports in most of our great cities, the Army badly needed citizen advocates.

In the Second World War, Territorial units fought in every theatre. Some of our most innovative leaders, from Bill Slim (Birmingham OTC) to David Stirling (pre-war Guards reservist), came through “Haldane” routes rather than regular officer training.

Today this is the model across the English-speaking world. The National Guard and USAR – America’s twin volunteer reserve forces – together number the same as her Active Army. The Canadians and Australians also have a higher proportion of volunteer reserve units in their armies than we do. In autumn 2002, one fifth of our forces in Iraq and one eighth in Afghanistan were – simultaneously – from our small reserves. The Americans used much larger proportions.

At the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Army was well over a million – today it is under 250,000, but Russia can still mobilise an enormous army. One Russian soldier captured by the Ukrainians was a tractor driver from Siberia in his day job.

The Regular Army needs high professional standards (which it has), good quality training (currently hampered by Covid), modern equipment including digitisation (far more to do), decent conditions of service (housing is the Achilles’ heel) and a command structure able to operate at levels above its actual strength. We have just two divisions, but we need to think and plan for corps and armies, in war. They won’t, mostly, be regulars.

Some say what is needed is technology rather than mass, but digitisation is far ahead in the civilian world. It is no accident that Defence’s best cyber defence unit – as measured in the top US competition – is an Army Reserve unit. More broadly, mass will continue to be critical in the messy business of land warfare. The concrete urban sprawl which covers so many of the world’s trouble spots can suck up brigades to the acre, as recently seen in Mosul. Our present structure, 80,000 regulars and 30,000 reservists, is small.

The good news is that the Army has made progress in integrating reserves. A philosophy of backfilling regular units, rather than using formed bodies which build leaders and comradeship, had wrecked the Territorial Army by 2010. The smallest ever reserve officer intake to Sandhurst dwindled to just seven cadets. Last summer all 100-odd places were filled, with more turned away.

Capability is rebuilding too. Reserve battalions have started covering the Cyprus UN commitment again, a reserve light recce squadron is currently patrolling the Russian border in Estonia and, nationwide, reserves have been visible manning Covid testing stations.

At a time when some are questioning our ability to operate armour affordably and at scale, the one reserve armoured regiment, the Royal Wessex Yeomanry has progressed from backfilling individual crew members for regular regiments to exercising regularly at squadron level. The Army Reserve remains exceedingly small, as a basis for regeneration, but the direction of travel is right.

The other two services have a long way to go. Unlike the Americans and Israelis, the RAF still discards its expensively trained pilots (£13 million for a fast jet) when they finish full-time service. Fixed wing transport apart, it has no flying reserves. The opportunity to run-on Tornados in reserve formations was lost. There is hope, however, as the RAF Board have appointed their first reservist – with a successful military and civilian career – to join them.

The picture in the Naval Service is mixed. The Navy has a highly cost-effective Reserve Flying Branch – manned by ex-regulars. In contrast, the Royal Marines Reserves are expensive (e.g. regular Lieutenant Colonels commanding company-sized reserve units), unscalable because they have almost no young officers – instead being run by a generous scale of costly regular permanent staff – and are now hamstrung by slashed training budgets.

One development would have Haldane turning in his grave. The property and advocacy for the reserves and the management of the cadet forces are handled by an independent set of regional institutions called Reserve Forces and Cadet Associations (County Associations, when Haldane established them). These attract high grade people onto their councils who serve unpaid; one regional chairman, for example, is both former chief executive of a major power company and a former reserve major general, another owns his own 500-person business. The small, locally embedded, staffs they employ are far more efficient than the wretched organisations who ‘manage’ MoD’s estate.

In a fit of institutional hysteria, MoD is seeking to turn these RFCAs into a conventional quango – the first shots were fired against this in an excellent House of Lords debate. This idea should die.

That great historian and Territorial officer, Richard Holmes, used to say that anyone who designs reserves around defence planning assumptions has forgotten what a reserve is for. We need to extend that view to the Army as a whole, and Haldane’s approach remains the best: a high quality regular leading edge, with reserves providing both depth and integration with the nation as a whole.

Virginia Crosbie: The UK is a beacon of hope across the world. We cannot let Coronavirus divide our family of nations.

13 Aug

Virginia Crosbie is the Member of Parliament for Ynys Môn.

The Coronavirus has been used, often cynically, by campaigners to further the cause of the breaking up of the United Kingdom. Each nation of the UK has had full responsibility for health policy for two decades, yet each nation has faced similar challenges. The immense purchasing power of the UK enabled the provision of PPE and ventilators when both were at peak demand on global markets; it now has the most comprehensive testing system globally and, working together, we are leading the world in developing a vaccine and therapeutic treatments for this terrible virus.

The might of the UK Treasury has protected millions of jobs and livelihoods through unprecedented packages of financial support. This has helped to further protect the health systems of each nation, and to save lives, by enabling workers to stay at home. The UK Armed Forces have provided invaluable support in combatting this cruel, yet invisible, enemy. They have built the Nightingale Hospitals, have coordinated the logistics of PPE provision and they have helped to contain local outbreaks, including one in my constituency of Ynys Môn, by supplementing local testing capacity.

Our Armed Forces are among the finest in the world. RAF fast-jet pilots trained at RAF Valley on Anglesey have recently helped to end the genocide of the Yazidi people in Northern Iraq. They protect UK airspace daily from terrorist threats and help to deter an increasingly hostile Russia. RAF Valley is the second largest employer on Anglesey, providing hundreds of high skilled jobs, just as Royal Naval ship construction supports thousands of jobs in Scotland.

With VJ Day approaching, this year marking 75 years since the end of World War II, we should never lose our pride in our shared military history and of our contribution to the vanquishing of tyranny. It was the fighting men of Wales, Scotland, England and Northern Ireland who stood alone against the tyranny of Hitler and Nazi Germany. Together with their allies, they pushed his forces back across Western Europe and ended the greatest manifestation of evil and racism that the world has witnessed.

In the Far East British soldiers, sailors and airmen, many of whom endured the horrors of Japanese imprisonment, helped to roll back the forces of Imperial Japan and to end their brutal conquest of South East Asia.

Our shared economy is the world’s sixth largest economy. Our currency, the world’s fourth most traded, protected the UK from the austerity measures imposed on other countries by the ECB, including on the Republic of Ireland. It gave us the freedom needed to become Europe’s fastest growing economy and fastest jobs creator by 2019. The UK has among the lowest rates of youth unemployment across the G7.

Crucially, the UK has the most ambitious green industrial policies in the world and is the first major economy to enshrine a commitment to net zero carbon emissions by 2050 in legislation. A green recovery is crucial to the rebuilding from the devastation of this pandemic and, working together, the nations of the UK can lead the world in developing the technologies crucial to cutting emissions globally.

The UK is a major power with considerable economic, cultural, military and political influence worldwide. It has a permanent seat at the UN Security Council. If the Union is fragmented, each constituent nation would lose this influence. We have a long-shared history and have a very integrated society. Across the globe the UK is viewed as a beacon of hope, compassion and prosperity. Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are equal and cherished partners within a hugely successful political union. Breaking up this family of nations would be a tragedy. It is a family we must fight to protect.