The principle that military officers – like other public servants – should not comment on or seek to influence political matters is in theory an essential part of the British constitutional system. But in recent years a number of British military leaders have breached this principle, usually by briefing sympathetic journalists in order to put pressure on politicians through the media. Sometimes this practice has had important consequences for Britain’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the issue has now come up again as Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader has put a spotlight on his stance towards defence.
In September the Sunday Times claimed an unidentified ‘senior serving general’ had said that the British Army ‘just wouldn’t stand for it’ if a Prime Minister Corbyn were to downgrade Britain’s defence capability and scrap the Trident nuclear missile system. And now Sir Nick Houghton, the chief of defence staff and Britain’s most senior military officer, has questioned Corbyn’s position on the nuclear deterrent during a Remembrance Sunday interview with the BBC.
Sir Nick’s interview triggered a minor political and media debate, focused less on the content of his remarks than on whether it was right for him to make them. Corbyn himself believes that the interview breached the principle that the military should not intervene in political matters. The prime minister’s official spokeswoman has rejected this allegation, saying it was ‘reasonable’ for Sir Nick, as the government’s senior military adviser, to speak publicly on the issue.
Without doubt there is a strong element of politics-as-usual in this debate. During the general election campaign the Conservatives attacked Labour’s policy on Trident then, and clearly see Mr Corbyn’s more radical position as a tempting target. But there are also larger issues at stake.
Political control and the SDSR
In this context, the most important current political-military issue is not the controversy over Sir Nick’s criticism of Corbyn, but rather the lack of controversy over the current Strategic Defence and Security Review, due to conclude at the end of this month.
The last review, in 2010, was highly and publicly controversial. The requirement to make major reductions in defence spending triggered an intense battle within Whitehall over the scale of the cuts and where they should fall. This in turn led to a wave of briefings and leaks, as the various institutional interests within defence sought to use media pressure to influence the government’s decisions in their favour.
Cameron seems to have decided that this painful experience should not be repeated in 2015. His decision, even before the start of the review process, to spend at least two per cent of GDP on defence seems calculated to limit potential criticism over cuts. The way the process has been controlled and run by the Cabinet Office – the central government secretariat – has reduced the ability of individual ministries and armed services to influence the process and even to know what is going on. The structuring of the review on the basis of cross-cutting, cross-departmental themes (for example ‘state threats’ rather than ‘defence’) makes a lot of conceptual sense, but has also strengthened the centre at the expense of the departments. In turn Sir Nick seems to have convinced the heads of the Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force that they have more to gain for their institutions by cooperating with the process than by independent semi-public lobbying.
This is a picture of a defence policy-making structure which seems designed as much to reduce the risk of unauthorized political pressure from within Whitehall and the armed forces, as to make good policy.
Against this background, Sir Nick’s remarks to the BBC seem less exceptional. He himself might not normally lobby politicians through the media, but there is a wide perception in Whitehall and in Downing Street that such practice is not unusual, and needs to be defended against.
This situation brings dangers for all. Downing Street may be happy now to applaud Sir Nick because his comments support their political agenda. But next time he may say something less helpful, for example over defence cuts or plans for war in the Middle East.
Sir Nick may have protected his relationship with the current government with his criticism of Corbyn. But he has also alienated many on the left, and a future Labour government may as a result treat Sir Nick’s successors with greater suspicion. Some may also suspect that his support for Trident is part of a backroom deal with the government, in exchange for which he will get more of what he wants for conventional defence.
The greatest losers in all this are the public. Decisions on defence and security ought to be made as far as possible on the basis of objective and disinterested analysis, rather than through Darwinian competition between interest groups. The respective power and influence of public servants and politicians should not depend on their short-term political interest, bureaucratic skill or personal relationships.
Britain needs a much clearer system of rules on the roles and responsibilities of politicians and public servants on defence and security policy. It needs a structure like the US Goldwater-Nichols Act, which both establishes a clear political-military chain of command and provides a framework for scrutiny of the performance of politicians and military officers.
The US system has not of course produced perfection. But it has encouraged a much more active and public debate of this crucial public policy issue, and greater discipline among the US military. It is hard to imagine a US general publicly attacking the policy of a figure such as Donald Trump, no matter how far this was from the Pentagon consensus. Whatever the rights or wrongs of the policy under discussion, this approach leaves the responsibility and authority for decision-making where it belongs – with the people and with their accountable representatives.
To comment on this article, please contact Chatham House Feedback