Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

We Love a Man in Uniform

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

We Love a Man in Uniform

Article excerpt

For decades parliament was dominated by leaders who had served in the military. Now, as we tire of career politicians, the soldiers are returning

Waves of nausea shake the body politic. Theresa May's limitations as a leader produce such feelings of revulsion that at frequent intervals a spasm runs through her own party, which seems about to spew her out. And yet she is still in office. For although May is considered deficient in leadership qualities, so are her rivals. If Jeremy Corbyn were a formidable parliamentarian, the Conservatives would have had to ditch her by now. But although Corbyn has the quality of having refused to play the careerist game, he is a feeble debater and has yet to humiliate May at Prime Minister's Questions, least of all on the issue of Russia.

When looking around for someone who could replace May, or indeed Corbyn, a problem arises. Few in either the cabinet or the shadow cabinet are seen by the public as potential leaders. Most of them are regarded --to the extent that anyone has heard of them--as career politicians who have never done anything in the slightest bit brave or interesting outside politics. Taken as a group, they appear industrious, conformist, pallid, selfish and dull.

Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Jacob Rees-Mogg are the most conspicuous contenders for the Tory leadership, but each has bitter enemies as well as admiring friends. While May has preserved a precarious unity by being weak, the fear is that one of the three Brexiteers might split the party by being too bold. What other possibilities exist? They are more numerous than one might think. One of David Cameron's forgotten services to the Conservative Party was to increase the number of women and ethnic minority candidates who stood in winnable seats. Conservative MPs are more diverse than when he became leader in 2005, and it is not inconceivable that one of these recruits will in due course become leader.

Over the same period, an even more unexpected development took place. Three ex-soldiers who are seen as potential Conservative leaders were elected to parliament, and so was one who may go on to lead Labour. Their names are Rory Stewart, Tom Tugendhat, Johnny Mercer and Dan Jarvis.

To understand the significance of this, it is worth glancing at the history. Between the Duke of Wellington, whose last brief premiership was in 1834, and Winston Churchill in 1940, not one prime minister had served in the armed forces. From Churchill until 1979, every prime minister except for Alec Douglas-Home (debarred by illness) and Harold Wilson (a wartime civil servant) had served in the military in either the First or Second World Wars, and so had hundreds of MPs.

Both Clement Attlee and Harold Macmillan had been badly wounded during the First World War. Their military service was of the greatest political importance. Nobody could impugn the patriotism of Major Attlee, who went on to serve loyally under Churchill, whom he greatly admired, in the wartime coalition, before defeating him in the general election of 1945 and taking charge of the greatest of all Labour governments, itself composed of many and various talents. Military experience is conducive to teamwork.

In an increasingly egalitarian age, it had another advantage. The First World War threw together subalterns from privileged backgrounds with men who had started with nothing. In the trenches they endured horrors of which civilians could have only the faintest idea. Here was equality of risk and sacrifice: indeed, even greater risk and sacrifice for junior officers than for the men they led. Anthony Eden, who in 1955 succeeded Churchill as prime minister, said that while serving in Flanders with men from his own district in County Durham, he acquired a "sense of the irrelevance and unreality of class distinction". He became a One Nation Conservative: the creed with which Stanley Baldwin, who dominated Tory politics between the wars, sought to meet the challenge of socialism, while at the same time welcoming Labour into parliament and indeed into government. …

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