Magazine article The Spectator

I'm Sorry, but the Tory Party Policy on Iraq Is Too Clever by Half

Magazine article The Spectator

I'm Sorry, but the Tory Party Policy on Iraq Is Too Clever by Half

Article excerpt

Hoo-ha was the term used by General Sir Richard Dannatt, Chief of the General Staff, to describe the furore provoked by his recent public dissent from the government's defence and foreign policy strategy in the Middle East. It remains a constitutional disgrace that the general is still in post, not because his analysis was wrong (it was spot-on) but because his duty must now be to lead the British army in operations whose overall strategy the Cabinet, the news media, the public and his own forces know he believes to be fundamentally misconceived. No wonder there was a hoo-ha.

But hoo-has rarely have a single cause.

Three elements have contributed to this one but only two have received the attention they deserve.

The first element was, of course, the general himself. His doubts should have been expressed privately to his political masters. If overruled, he should either have bitten his lip or resigned. The second element was the foreign and military policy he was criticising. He was right: the policies are delusional.

There has been no shortage, however, of voices arguing about both the folly or wisdom of the government's policy, and about the proper response of a CGS. But the third ingredient in this witch's brew has largely escaped notice. From the Conservative party there has been what amounts almost to silence. This virtual silence from the official opposition, when a huge and evident problem in foreign and military policy -- Iraq -- is filling much of the country with anger and worry, must have played its part in the loosening of General Sir Richard Dannatt's tongue.

I do not mean that the CGS has consciously decided that if the politicians won't speak, then the army will have to (though that is how one near-apoplectic questioner put it to me in a Times debate in Cheltenham last Sunday). I mean that in a healthy democracy, where opinion is running strongly among the general population, a national sense of grave and growing crisis should be reflected in vigorous argument in Parliament. People will take heart that they have someone to speak out for them -- if not in government, then in the opposition. When ministers and prime ministers tell lies or hide truths, their dishonesty will be confronted by other leading politicians. There will be no popular feeling (as there is now) that absurdly optimistic statements are going unchallenged, and that an administration is getting away with murder. When democracy functions well and there are huge questions to be asked, shadow ministers will ask them from the opposition front bench. In this way, democracy works not only towards the resolution of crises, but also towards providing reassurance that a crisis is being acknowledged.

Failure by the political class even to admit the existence of a crisis can be hugely unnerving. It is in these circumstances that a man of Sir Richard's moral feelings and military expertise, and heavy sense of responsibility for the lives of his troops, could have reached the conclusion that if he did not speak, then who would?

I raise this thought having just watched the Conservative shadow defence secretary, Liam Fox, being interviewed by Andrew Rawnsley about Iraq, Afghanistan, General Richard's remarks, the size and cost of Britain's military commitment, and the defence and foreign policies of the official opposition.

After about ten minutes of fruitless inquiry on Mr Rawnsley's part, the interview was concluded without either Rawnsley or his viewers having learnt anything at all about any of these important subjects. …

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