By SIMON HEFFER
While we should applaud Sir Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, for recognising the scandal of investigations into alleged human rights abuses by British soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and promising in his interview with The Telegraph yesterday to support suspects by paying their legal costs, it is shameful that this disgrace was allowed to carry on for so long. Nearly 1,500 cases have been investigated, in an appalling waste of public money and time: but, far worse, serving and retired soldiers have had to live under suspicion while this work takes its lumbering course.
We owe members of our Armed Forces a tremendous debt. Many of them, like many of us, disagreed with some of the wars they were asked to fight: but they unfailingly did their duty. To persecute them afterwards is to misunderstand how a serviceman functions in a war zone where his life is in constant danger.
I’m glad to see that Sir Michael – who enjoys mixed reviews among service chiefs and indeed among colleagues – regards these inquiries as a “witch hunt”. He is right, too, about a European human rights law designed to stop the reopening of Auschwitz and Belsen being used to attack men and women doing their duty in the forces of democratic and civilized countries. No one will excuse a rogue soldier who commits a blatant war crime; but we are not talking about rogues here.
The Services have long experience of, and have been particularly good at, dealing with men who go too far. We should not trespass on that. Just offering a cut-off point for prosecutions, as Sir Michael has done, is not enough: the Forces have their own well-established and highly professional legal services, and if a serviceman is under suspicion, they should investigate. However, Sir Michael’s promise that a new British Bill of Rights will replace European human rights law (which pre-dates our EU membership) must be acted upon. For years there has been talk: it is now time for action, and the iniquity of the European law’s use in this case should be the final straw.
Nor can, or should, the Government disregard the prospect that we may need to rely on the Services in the foreseeable future. Last week a 10-page memo, written last April by General Sir Richard Barrons, ex-chief of the Joint Forces Command, was leaked. It warned the Defence Secretary that capabilities fundamental to each of our Armed Forces had been lost because of defence cuts. And he also identified, in my view correctly, the potential enemy. “Neither the UK homeland nor a deployed force could be protected from a concerted Russian air effort,” he said.
The investigations scandal is bound to have an impact on recruiting, and Sir Michael has only begun, by his promises, to alter that. He also needs to lobby against the Government’s warped spending priorities. The defence budget will rise by £5 billion by 2021. That isn’t enough. In the mid-1980s, we routinely spent 5 per cent of GDP (some £40 billion at today’s prices) on defence: today we spend just over 2 per cent. The Cameron government, one of whose idiotic policies the cuts were, refused to take defence seriously. In her commendable desire to undo her predecessor’s toxic legacy, Mrs May should order a new defence review.
She has reappointed her Defence Secretary since he received Sir Richard Barrons’s memo. Sir Michael also landed his knighthood in the Cameron resignation honours list: in his case, not something of which to be proud. His colleagues thought him a lifelong eurosceptic. They were stunned when, during the referendum, he became a most ardent defender of Mr Cameron’s contemptible “renegotiation”, forever adorning the Today programme.
A man who will sell his principles thus is not someone necessarily to rely upon to safeguard the defence of the realm. Sir Michael has shown lately that he will do, first and foremost, what his ambition requires. We must hope he will deliver on his promises about the alleged abuse investigations, but more is required.
Sir Richard argued that the Navy and RAF had become too dependent on support from the Americans – and even Mr Cameron’s bosom buddy Barack Obama expressed concern about how Britain’s armed capability was being run down. We simply haven’t enough planes, or ships – and nothing like enough personnel – to fight a protracted conventional war.
Sir Michael boasted recently that he had sent a few hundred soldiers to Eastern Europe. This would be comical if it were not so tragic. Discussing the weakness of the RAF, a senior officer observed that the Russians would not even need to shoot down what few planes we have: they would just need to mount the inexpensive operation of murdering in their beds the handful of men trained to fly them.
What should terrify us all is if the day comes when a war happens that is not of our choosing. As things stand we would be easily overrun, as would most of our spineless or impoverished European partners. We can start to prepare for this now by finding more money for the Services – and by rebuilding morale among service personnel and veterans to the point where good people want to join the Forces again. We have a long way to go.
Lies, damned lies and politicians
Following the backtracking by Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, from his hysterical predictions of meltdown if we dared leave the EU, the Organisation for Economic Co‑operation and Development (OECD) tells us that, actually, things aren’t as bad as they feared. In fact, they are not bad at all.
The world queues up to invest here, the stock market is 400 points up since June, house prices are strong (George Osborne predicted an 18 per cent fall, you may recall) and we are leaving a cartel that may soon implode under the weight of a series of bank collapses.
Yet apart from David Cameron, the one decent act in whose political life was to fall on his sword at the end of it, almost all the other liars, frauds, hysterics and charlatans who amplified the pronouncements of “experts” such as the OECD and the Bank of England have neither apologised nor crawled in shame out of public life. Indeed, some of the worst were beneficiaries of the recent honours list.
I wish we had more respect for our politicians: but when they behave with such appalling and reckless dishonesty, and will not even apologise for it when rumbled, how can we admire them?
Doctors deserve privacy, too, so let’s offer them minimum-hours contracts
When a Labour government founded the NHS in 1948 it had to bribe a hostile medical profession to take part. Some of that bribery was to let doctors have private practices. Now, as the NHS creaks and lumbers towards implosion, the Government complains that some doctors do so much private work that it is harming their state-funded patients.
This may sometimes be true. However, the way to solve the problem is not to force doctors to reveal their private earnings, as was suggested last week, which is a shocking infringement of their privacy. It is to insist upon a minimum commitment of time for the NHS which, if not acceptable to the doctors, they can reject and go completely private. All employers have the right to impose conditions of service, and employees have the right to go elsewhere. I suspect, given a strict minimum-hours contract, very few doctors would do.
Obstruction merits the sack
I learn from a senior civil servant that some Whitehall mandarins believe they can obstruct Brexit to such an extent that Britain will simply give up trying to leave the European Union.
I have had enough of those who, in our democracy, think its rules can be ignored when its results do not suit them – such as the preposterous Tim Farron, whose syphilitic dog of a party, the Lib Dems, allegedly had a conference last week.
Any civil servant who engages in political machinations in this way contrary to Government policy should be sacked forthwith: a fine opportunity to save public money.
Tags: alleged human rights abuses by British soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, armed forces, Bank of England, Brexit, Britain, defence, Defence Secretary, Eastern Europe, George Osborne, Government policy, Mark Carney, RAF, Sir Michael Fallon, Theresa May, UK