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Bob Seely: The lessons the Conservatives must learn from the Labour Government's appalling treatment and use of the Armed Forces

Picture 9 Bob Seely served with British forces in Iraq from June 2008 to February 2009. He is on the Conservative Parliamentary candidates' list.

Another part of the wretched facade of this awful Government has buckled with the resignation of Eric Joyce. Whilst the immediate reasons are directly linked to Afghanistan, the resignation is part of a wider collapse of Labour’s defence and foreign policy. I believe it’s important to put this incident in a wider context and to see what Conservatives can learn.

What’s the background? Over the past decade, Labour - and specifically Tony Blair - have found military power to be an increasingly attractive tool, and have used it promiscuously. They began with a successful operation in Sierra Leone to restore law and order, followed by a more questionable humanitarian operation in Kosovo.

Here’s what they learned in their first five years in office:

  • On the practical side, Labour discovered that the Armed Forces are extremely effective and, unlike many other organs of the state, could deliver on whatever was asked whilst simultaneously being under-equipped.
  • That the British military could be used in the cause of ‘liberal imperialism’.
  • Due to the miserable political marriage between Blair and Brown, the armed forces were one of the few areas of Government that the PM could use without having to genuflect to his embittered Chancellor.
  • Critically for New Labour, a party both deeply insecure in its relationship with the British people and very party political, wrapping PM Blair around the Services gave Labour huge political advantages. It was counter-intuitively New Labour, stealing yet more Conservative clothing, and gave the impression of decisive action. Both aided Labour’s polling.
  • Thanks to the mass media, the role of war leader could now be achieved on a budget: "war leader lite". For example, when Mr Blair spoke to the nation prior to the Kosovo campaign, just eight Harrier pilots were in action. The PM gained all the appearance of being a ‘war leader’ with fewer associated risks than any previous leader in history.

These trends were combined with other changes: the lack of military experience of most UK citizens and a mass media that sometimes presented war as a form of real-life action movies. All in all, warfare moved closer to becoming a virtual, almost surreal, experience. Tony Blair proved you could be a war leader with zero understanding of warfare: the hero from zero. Thanks to the malign influence of Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s and New Labour’s role was meticulously milked for the UK domestic audience.

Then came 9/11 and Iraq. The build up to war was the zenith of Labour’s use of the military, as well as its misuse of power. Emboldened by his previous experiences with the Military, our ersatz President Blair pushed through the Iraq war with intelligence evidence doctored by the wretched Alastair Campbell. A ‘liberal’ cause for invasion was found (WMD). Doubts in the Foreign Office and MoD were ignored and wider concerns about propriety were brushed aside. Labour MPs were bribed and cajoled (i.e. with a vote on fox-hunting). Sadly too many Conservative MPs, instead of questioning the Government’s motives and behaviour, failed in their duty to hold the Executive to account (The above is not to deny that there may have been justifiable reasons for war; there were. But they weren’t the ones the Government used, and that’s the point).

When the trickle of casualties in Iraq became a steady flow, Labour MPs collectively lost their nerve. They became ashamed at their action in voting for a war that many would not have supported under a Conservative Government. One suspects that they were sold "war lite" by their Whips: few casualties, good pictures, boys home by Christmas, poll boosts, etc. At the same time, the Government committed to Afghanistan - and with it the strategic reserve - undermining the UK’s ability to prosecute effectively the war in Iraq.

So by 2006, a year after the last General Election, we faced an appalling situation:

  • Britain lacked the manpower and equipment to prosecute both Iraq and Afghanistan wars effectively. As the Iraq insurgency erupted, the drawdown of UK troops continued. As we arrived in Afghanistan, the insurgency there took off. We were treading water in both and taking casualties with little gain.
  • Due to the changing nature of the conflicts – and the intense environment –- equipment overstretch suddenly became a significant and deadly problem. But equipment, even bought under rapid procurement schemes, still took months and years to arrive in theatre.
  • A Government which had bitten off more than it could chew and was petrified of being found out.

In such a situation previously, Labour’s policy has been to lie; its governing tenet has been: you can fool most of the people most of the time. Whilst that can work on domestic issues, the body bags of British soldiers meant the Government had to face the reality. At the same time we inherited a Labour Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, who had no relationship with the military and immediately used them for the crudest of political motives. On two occasions - during the 2007 party conference and earlier this month - PM Brown used trips to war zones specifically to dish the Conservatives.

So, this is where we’ve got to. It’s worth pointing out that governments sow the seeds of their destruction years before they become apparent to the public. The ingredients for Labour between 1997 and 2005 included: the arrogance of the Blair years, an overly ‘political’ Government, the belief that defence could be delivered on the cheap, simple ignorance about basic military decision-making, a calm willingness to lie and deceive, and a deep lack of confidence in their own values.

There are reasons, and good ones, to continue with the Afghan operation. But to make sense of the sacrifices which are being made, war needs to be prosecuted competently, both for the sake of troops and civilians. In addition, the right strategy needs to be followed; complex counter-insurgency operation is different from high intensity war fighting. This is now happening.

Very dangerously, Labour appears to be flirting with a time limited deployment for UK troops. If this is done by a panicked Government to please its domestic audience, the likelihood will be more British deaths because it will result in a sharp increase of the Taleban targeting UK troops. The more the enemy see our political weakness, the more they will attack. Their ultimate target in counter-insurgency is not our troops, it is our Government and its political will. If the Government appears weak, it puts troops in greater danger.

The era of Labour’s liberal imperialism is coming to an end. Many of the mistakes; the lies, the spin, the contempt for Parliament, the ignorance, will not, one prays, be made by Conservatives. However, there are some lessons that are important for us:

  • Operations need to be properly funded and equipped.
  • Operational aims need to be clearly defined.
  • Government must avoiding using the Services for politics – perhaps the greatest of Labour’s failings.
  • Wars must be prosecuted effectively, otherwise drift and uncertainty is the result.
  • Much more thought needs to be given to Counter-Insurgency operations.
  • Government needs to be seen to be supporting troops – even when things are going badly.
  • Parliamentarians need to have the confidence to question the reasons for conflict – it is not unpatriotic to hold Government to account.
  • A time limited counter-insurgency deployment is dangerous because it shows political weakness. Either we’re in or we’re out. If we’re in, we’re in to win, if we’re out, we’re out asap. If Government does not obey those rules, it puts troops’ lives in greater danger.

It is perhaps an afterthought, but an important one. Soldiers don’t serve Parliament, they serve the Monarch, but they are sent to war by politicians. It is important for troops to be able to respect the people who send them in harm’s way. Soldiers discipline themselves to a high standard. Without wishing to sound cheesy, to serve in a theatre of operations, to go on operations knowing that you are reliant on your comrades for your safety, and that in return they expect the same from you, whether in cities in daytime or in the deserts in the dark, is a remarkable, humbling experience - and an honour. Our Services deserve better than the Government and the Parliament they have got. For the sake of troops who serve in Afghanistan in future, I hope the next Government and Parliament will be worthy of their respect.


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