May 1

The armed forces and the Constitution

Now that a decent interval has passed, you may or may not agree with the British Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Richard Dannatt’s extraordinary public intervention about the British presence in Iraq.  He said the "original intention" of the mission was "naive".   The West would have to settle for "a lower ambition" than the creation of a liberal democracy in Iraq. He said the British “presence in Iraq exacerbates the difficulties we are facing around the world" and  "exacerbates the security problems" there. The British should "get ourselves out some time soon".



There is nothing unusual about these views. The majority of commentators in the mainline media of the US, the UK and Australia hold similar ones. The opinion polls suggest minority support for the intervention, but a reluctance to endorse an immediate withdrawal. ACM of course takes no position on these matters. Our brief is about our maintaining our constitutional system, not about specific foreign and military policy.



The point for constitutionalists is that the Chief of the General Staff is not a politician, and does not normally engage in public debates about policy. According to Matthew d’Ancona, the editor of The Spectator, writing in the London  Daily Telegraph on 15 October 2006, the British Government was so “desperate” that they affected that Sir Richard had been tricked by the Daily Mail into making this statement. But as Mr. d’Ancona says, “as seasoned a Whitehall hand as Sir Richard must have known what he was saying and the likely impact it would have. In a few sentences, he ripped Mr Blair’s Iraq strategy to shreds.” It is difficult not to come to the conclusion that Sir Richard knew precisely what he was doing.



What struck me when I heard the comments was not the content, not what he said, but that he made them to the media. This seems to me to be a gross breach of constitutional convention. Sir Richard was perfectly entitled to put these views to the Minister of Defence and the Prime Minister.  Indeed, he had a moral duty to do so.




So  I thought we were about to see a repeat of the dismissal of General Douglas MacArthur who was relieved of his command by President Harry S Truman in April 1951 for publicly disagreeing with government policy, and the fear that he might act against it. The General wanted to pursue the Chinese”volunteers” as they retreated from Korea into China  and wished to deploy nuclear weapons for this purpose. When President Truman indicated to the General that cease-fire talks would be opened , the General issued his own ultimatum to China. Truman relieved him of his command.  The same fate did not await General Dannat, for reasons which can only be explained by internal British politics. But the principle is clear.



While admitting that Sir Richard is a man of “great valour, experience and piety, utterly devoted to his country and his troops,” Matthew d’Ancona says that his intervention was nevertheless “outrageous”.



“ Whether or not his view are correct, or other soldiers agree with him, is utterly irrelevant. In saying what he did, he breached a fundamental constitutional principle that has served this country well since the Glorious Revolution. One of the many things held against James II was that he brought army officers into Parliament. In our constitutional monarchy, the Sovereign is commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of the Crown, a power exercised by her ministers through the royal prerogative.” Mr d’Ancona adopts the point made by  Samuel P Huntington in his book The Soldier and the State "that war is the instrument of politics, that the military are the servants of the statesmen, and that civilian control is essential to military professionalism".



As Mr. d’Ancona says,  in so flagrantly challenging this country’s well established strategy in Iraq, Sir Richard “was also flagrantly challenging the clear division of responsibility between politicians and soldiers in our system. He sowed doubt as to where the authority of the Crown truly lies. You may agree with everything or most of what he said about Iraq, but it is always dangerous to change a time-honoured constitutional convention because it is expedient. If the General was honest, he was recklessly, rather than admirably, so”.



The likely successor to Mr. Blair, the Chancellor Gordon Brown will have to determine future British policy in Iraq. Mr d’Ancona says that Mr. Brown will do this “as the Queen’s first minister. …As the head of the Army, Sir Richard has the right and the duty to express his views as strongly as he wishes in private. But he is not the conscience of the whole nation. By marching on to the public stage, as he did, and seeking to bounce Mr Blair’s successor into rapid withdrawal, the General has made an already difficult decision immeasurably harder”.



The conclusion is clear. The General acted unconstitutionally, In not correcting this, the British government has left an unfortunate precedent. The General should at least have been “counselled,” which would probably be punishment in itself.













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