|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
I hope that the Minister will bear in mind what has been said about European defence, notably by my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith)--the shadow Secretary of State--my right hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith), my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson). They expressed seriously held concerns about the development of the future alliance between the United States and Europe.
We have now entered a dangerous phase in the development of defence in Europe. I believe that the Prime Minister has made a fundamental mistake, and I hope that the Government will heed the warnings that senior Members have given--warnings that are echoed in the United States. The Government should bear in mind the fact that in view of the institutions that are currently being created, there is--we hope--still time to protect the current position, and to sustain defence within NATO. If the pass continues to be sold, as it began to be at St. Malo, we shall rue the day.
In debates such as this, it is possible to deal with a number of issues. Because of my professional background in defence, I find many of those issues enormously fascinating. I was particularly interested by what the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) said about the role of women in the armed forces. She is right: that will be an important subject of debate, certainly over the next year, as the Secretary of State has instructed the armed services to look at women's role in the fighting echelons.
The hon. Member for Stockton, South and I hold profoundly different views on that subject. I hope that the Secretary of State will simply take the advice that I expect him to receive from the armed forces, and that there will be no further progress in that respect. However, I hope that if we debate the matter in the House, the hon. Lady will show proper respect for our views, especially the views of those of us who have experience in the fighting echelon. I refer not least to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), who was in the Special Air Service and the infantry, and saw active service in Northern Ireland and in the Gulf. He speaks with recent authority on those matters.
One of the reasons why our armed forces are special may be our traditions and the way in which our regiments have been equipped, served and staffed. There are important questions about our future military effectiveness. Ultimately, the crux of the matter is not equal opportunities but military effectiveness. It is fine if an equal opportunities agenda can support that, but if not, serious choices must be made. I shall always choose the future military effectiveness of the armed forces, given that the primary duty of any Government is security.
Yesterday's debate began with an inelegant spat about the evidence that Air Marshal Sir John Day had given to the Select Committee on Defence earlier in the day, and about whether he had been volunteered, or told, to author or put his name to an article that appeared in a Sunday newspaper and rebutted the opinions of the Select Committee's excellent report on Kosovo.
The Minister for the Armed Forces referred to my intervention, and said that my behaviour at the beginning of the Kosovo crisis, when I called for the resignation of the Chief of the Defence Staff, had been despicable. I shall return to that matter shortly. He said:
Who actually behaves despicably? I want to focus on the use of the military to support politicians and political policy. The Government have a record of doing that. In yesterday's debate, the Secretary of State was properly incensed by the suggestion that he had instructed Air Marshal Day to write the article. I am glad about that, because it showed a sensitivity to the issue of using the military to put forward Government policy positions. The Secretary of State has not been associated with the worst aspects of that practice, which occurred during the conduct of the Kosovo crisis. However, it is part of a wider pattern of behaviour by the Government.
That behaviour began with the appointment of Alastair Campbell as the Prime Minister's press secretary, with an Order in Council to enable him and Jonathan Powell to give instructions to civil servants. They were therefore special special advisers, and a new status was created. In the Administration's early days, several heads of Government information departments were dismissed or removed, not least Gill Samuel, who was press secretary at the Ministry of Defence. I had the pleasure of working with her when Sir Malcolm Rifkind was Secretary of State for Defence and I was his special adviser.
Most disgraceful of all has perhaps been the appointment of John Williams as head of the news department at the Foreign Office. Anyone who read the bilge that John Williams produced as political editor of The Mirror knows that he should not head the news department of the Foreign Office, a post that requires a proper neutral presentation of Government policy rather than a presentation of Labour policy. It has been reported that the appointment was made in the teeth of opposition by Sir John Kerr, permanent secretary to the Foreign Office. That is highly regrettable. The Minister must understand that the Government have a record, and I hope that he will pay careful attention and give careful consideration where the military are involved.
We discussed the article by Sir John Day yesterday. I shall not say anything more about that, but instead draw the Minister's attention to another occasion during the Kosovo crisis when General John Drewienkiewicz, who headed the British contribution to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe monitors in Kosovo, had got out of Kosovo and was trying to establish his mission in Macedonia. He had an enormously difficult task to do when he was summoned back to London to appear on a press platform with the Foreign Secretary and support his views on what had been happening in Kosovo.
If it was merely information that was required of General Drewienkiewicz, that could have been delivered by a number of methods from the field in which he was operating. Instead, operational priorities were subordinated to the Government's need to present their
There are occasions when that is the right thing to do, because uniform and experience in the services gives spokesmen authority and credibility. The Army and other services have experienced that for some time. However, the authority with which people speak is not necessarily related to rank. The most effective advocates of what the military are about and the missions in which they are involved are sometimes junior non-commissioned officers. Hon. Members may remember the graphic account by a corporal and a sergeant who took part in the recent raid on Sierra Leone. They may also remember the lance-corporal from the battalion who appeared on television explaining what the training team were doing with the Sierra Leone army. Those soldiers made very effective advocates of what the military were about. Indeed, it was standard practice in Northern Ireland to use section commanders to explain what was happening, because they spoke with simple authority about the tasks that they had done.
I now turn to the demand from the Minister for the Armed Forces that I should apologise for asking General Sir Charles Guthrie to resign. The one area in which I feel that the Defence Committee report is lacking relates to the military advice that was given to our politicians at the outset of the Kosovo crisis and during the run-up to it. I was on the Defence Committee when we set up the terms of reference for the inquiry, and I made sure that that was included. I am sorry that it did not result in any paragraphs in the report--perhaps for the perfectly understandable reason that the Government were not prepared to disclose any of the military advice that they received.
One reason--perhaps the main reason--why I found myself asking the then Chief of Defence Staff to consider his position was the fact that every military commentator and every independent defence commentator outside the Government was saying that the conduct of the Kosovo operation was misconceived if it was an attempt solely on the basis of air power to bend President Milosevic and the Serbian Government to the will of NATO. Everyone was saying that what was required was the prospect of a ground invasion to follow up the use of air power. Indeed, when we reached the end of the crisis, the evidence that the Select Committee took revealed that we were within weeks, if not days, of mobilising the armed forces and the Territorial Army for that ground invasion in order to carry out our military objectives.
In response to an oral question from me in the House, Lord Robertson, who was then Secretary of State, said that the military advice that the Chief of the Defence Staff was giving contradicted the military assessment being made by everyone else outside the Ministry of Defence. We shall not know whether that was the case for 30 years, because that is when the papers will be released.
However, I put on record the fact that I do not believe that the Chief of the Defence Staff was at variance with every other military commentator. The issue turned on the fact that the Chief of the Defence Staff and all the other military chiefs in Europe and NATO had to plan within the political constraints put on them in 1998, which ruled out the use of ground forces. Attention is drawn to that in the Select Committee report. Of particular concern to me at the time was the fact that the Chief of the Defence Staff
Like me, defence commentators with a military background were most concerned about the potential politicisation of the armed forces. Francis Ponsonby, who covers defence issues in the House better than anyone else, and is a retired naval officer, said:
Following the comments of the Minister for the Armed Forces, I reviewed the matter last night and this morning, and asked myself whether I was right to do what I did. Like those who were Ministers at the time--and, no doubt, Sir Charles himself--the Minister for the Armed Forces saw my action as a stab in the back at a difficult time. That is a perfectly proper point of view, and when I said what I did, I realised that it might be seen in that way. However, I was speaking solely for myself, not for
I was speaking for the constituency which I served, and into which I was born as the son and grandson of serving officers. It was the serving and retired military who felt disquiet at the way in which the Chief of the Defence Staff allowed himself to be used to present what were properly policy issues. He should not have been put in that position. I still believe that as an informed Back Bencher, I was entitled, and right, to come to the conclusion that I did.
I note that after my letter was published in The Times, the Chief of the Defence Staff desisted from publishing further articles during the Kosovo conflict. I think that that was to do with the disquiet that I had expressed. I would like to place on record the fact that since then, I have had no cause to query the performance of the Chief of the Defence Staff. In the past 18 months he has been particularly effective. Perhaps what he should be most proud of is the political action that he had to carry out privately: rescuing the defence budget before the last comprehensive spending review. He did the job that Ministers and the Secretary of State failed to do to get increased resources for defence.
The one conclusion that I hope Ministers will bear in mind is that they should take the greatest care about using serving service men to promote what is properly a matter of policy. It causes great disquiet to those of us with a service background. The armed services should not be politicised, and special care should be taken that they are not.