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Politics – the art of fiddling whilst Rome burns

A slight departure for your author this morning as I veer off-piste in order to address the thorny issues of Defence and Politics which – in normal circumstances – I would normally leave to those more intelligent or indeed interested in them than myself. In doing so I am making neither a bid for someone else’s brief, nor immortality, but rather am relying upon our general editorial directive that we can post here whatever our fancy takes us.

It so happens that I went up to my local health club last night in my continuing effort both to knock out some additional steps and maintain my core fitness level at the point it has currently reached.

As per usual I jumped up onto my favoured stepping machine, untangled my fluorescent lime green ear plugs and connected them to the console in front of me and tuned in to Sky News before selecting my chosen mid-burn workout and beginning my session.

Presenter Kay Burley was soon giving the 5.00pm news headlines but after a short while interrupted herself to go straight to live coverage of a speech being given by Sir Nick Carter, head of the British Army, at some important strategic institute which I now know to be the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

The previous day he had hit the headlines by coming out of the woodwork to blast the Government over its latest plan to reduce still further the Defence budget and thereby the operational capability of the military.

Now he was going public with a blunt analysis and then argument setting out why he was quite so exercised – as naturally service chiefs habitually tend to be anyway in defending their corner, of course – but this one was different in that it was something of a tour de force and effectively addressing the public at large.

To misquote the Duke of Wellington who – in his traditional blunt aristocratic style, once said of his own troops “I don’t know what effect these men will have on the enemy, but by God they terrify me” when reviewing a new draft that had arrived in Portugal during the Peninsular War [his comment being as much directed at the slovenliness of the soldiers concerned as their likely effectiveness on the battlefield] – as a non-military person listening to an impressive-sounding uniformed man of rank with plenty of spaghetti on his shoulders and four rows of different-coloured medal-fabric on his left breast, I’m content to admit that I found Carter’s thrust and logic both convincing and to all intents and purposes unanswerable.

‘Shibboleth’ is a strange word – I don’t know whether it is the most appropriate one in the current circumstances but am going to use it anyway.

There are two fundamental shibboleths in British politics – well, there are probably more than that but I’m saying ‘two’ because it suits my theme today – i.e. firstly, that the National Health Service is a good thing to the point it is a key plank of any British contention that we live in a civilised society; and secondly, that the first duty of any elected UK Government was always and indeed remains ‘defence of the realm’.

It so happens that – both in political circles and amongst the general public – our two main political parties (Tory and Labour) are the natural organs-who-can-do-no-wrong on each of these totems of national importance.

Labour, of course, reign when it comes to the NHS and all its complexities. It established the bloody thing, for starters. It’s a public service and it costs an ever-growing stack of taxpayers’ money – those are the two issues of never-ending contention.

The Tories are at a huge electoral and PR disadvantage whenever they talk of ‘efficiencies’ and/or ‘reform’ of the NHS, as they always do.

To the average person in the street, never mind Labour politicians, that means inevitable impending cuts in both budgets and indeed the services that the NHS offers. It doesn’t matter how much Tory grandees maintain that they love the NHS (and all it stands for) even more that Labour does and/or that they’re pumping money into the NHS faster and deeper than any Labour government ever did – nobody believes them.

Labour and the NHS are forever intertwined and any criticism or reform of any of it will be unpopular.

“You cannot trust the Tories on anything to do with the NHS” is a battle-cry that unites opposition to the Tory Party.

For the Tories to deflect or overturn this article of faith is effectively impossible.

In fact at lunchtime yesterday on the BBC2’s Daily Politics show it was reported that Number 10 and/or Tory Central Office had publicly said as much and was briefing its cohorts accordingly.

Similarly, in normal times, the Tory Party has always been the party of national defence. Its politicians pride themselves on the fact.

In contrast, in the public’s mind’s eye, on Defence the Labour Party is regarded as a lilly-livered bunch of pacifists who espouse beards, long-hair, sandal, lentils, CND and anti-military marches and who – in the event of a national emergency such as Russia (or even Luxembourg or Andorra) invading UK shores – would literally wave the advancing enemy through, bend the knee and be perfectly happy to succumb to foreign rule, even if that mean total state control, the end of democracy and the rule of law as we know it, and everyone being forced to attend mass rallies in boiler suits in order to worship Chairman Mao.

The above impression, of course, has not been helped by the ascension of Jeremy Corbyn to leadership of the Labour Party largely since by word and deed over the past forty years he has been the living embodiment of everything set out in my previous paragraph.

In other words, the antithesis of the position on the NHS – on the issue of Defence, the Tory Party can do no wrong and the Labour Party can do no right.

Having apparently capitulated on the NHS, you might think that the Tory Government would be playing hard-ball on Defence and making as much capital as it could out of demonstrating how much it supported every facet of it.

Not so, of course.

First, since 2010 and ‘austerity’ – and then even after it – the Tory Government has acted against type and self-inflicted a form of ‘death by a thousand cuts’ on the Ministry of Defence.

The MOD is a case of ‘madness at bay’ just as much as the NHS is.

I won’t list here all the well-known issues – let’s just name-check the endless inefficiencies and waste of money as regards procurement of military equipment (step forward for special mention two vast and expensive new aircraft carriers that won’t have any aircraft to fly on them) and the endless cutbacks now so severe that the Navy currently has about forty more admirals than it has ships and only about 10% of the ships it does have ever leave port because most of them are unseaworthy, plus the Army can barely cobble together enough men to form a band to play at the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace – but the fact is that Britain’s military is desperately depleted.

One might go so far as to suggest that we might as well do away with it entirely, such is its state of unreadiness to defend the country (no doubt Labour would probably agree with this statement).

Anyway, to the nub of what I wished to draw Rust readers to today:

Here are links to two articles by Ewen MacAskill that appear today on the website of The Guardian.

Firstly, on yesterday’s speech by Sir Nick Carter – CARTER SPEECH

Secondly, on a statement by Ciaran Martin, head of the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre, that a major cyber-attack on the UK is inevitable – MARTIN STATEMENT



About Gerald Ingolby

Formerly a consumer journalist on radio and television, in 2002 Gerald published a thriller novel featuring a campaigning editor who was wrongly accused and jailed for fraud. He now runs a website devoted to consumer news. More Posts