Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.
Meanwhile, in Ukraine, war continues. As the leadership candidates launched a volley of misguided blue-on-blue attacks, which dismayed Conservative supporters but delighted their political opponents, it has been easy to forget about the bitter fighting east of the Dnieper.
The sorry, bathos-filled end to the premiership of Boris Johnson and the subsequent battle to be his successor has ensured Ukraine has become the latest far away country of which we know little. It’s been hard to know which was the bigger weapon of mass distraction: the 40.3 degrees at Coningsby or the 31 votes for Tom Tugendhat.
Who knows, but if the recent few days of hot weather had come a fortnight ago, the media’s hysteria might have been focused on the rising mercury in our thermometers rather than on the wandering hands of Chris Pincher.
Whether Rishi Sunak or Liz Truss ultimately prevails, the in-tray on the new prime minister’s desk in Number Ten will be overflowing. At the top of the pile will be inflation running close to ten per cent and the cost-of-living crisis, both of which stem from the self-inflicted disaster of lockdown – that dog which has yet to sigh, let alone bark, in the leadership contest.
Moscow’s “special military operation” in Ukraine is further weakening Europe’s fragile post-lockdown economies. Commodities have become the Kremlin’s favoured weapons of war. As Russia gradually restricts the supply of gas, oil, and coal to Europe over the coming months, it could well strangle industrial output. Its blockade of the Black Sea has interrupted the supply of grain from Ukraine, the world’s fifth largest supplier of wheat.
Vladimir Putin might well have taken to heart Vladimir Lenin’s maxim that every society is three meals from chaos, or MI5’s reported view that Britain is four meals from anarchy. With the 2010 Arab Spring across the Middle East and North Africa being triggered by high food prices, Moscow has a blueprint for destabilisation.
On Wednesday, the EU Commission unveiled its emergency gas rationing plan, demanding its member states cut energy use by 15 per cent. Ursula von der Leyen, Commission President and former German defence minister, complained “Russia is blackmailing us.”
(Having induced smirks of condescension from a German delegation back in 2018 when he warned them not to be dependent upon Russian energy supplies, Donald Trump is enjoying the last laugh, not least when he checks the $/€ exchange rate.)
After beating back the Russian invaders from the outskirts of Kiev, the Ukrainian forces are seemingly locked in the grind of attrition to reclaim territory in the country’s south and east lost since February. The reports from the frontlines are contradictory, with little clarity about who might eventually win through.
Two weeks ago, the first units of Ukrainian soldiers arrived in the UK for enhanced training. About 10,000 personnel are expected to be trained over the next few months at sites around Britain, “using the world-class expertise of the British Army,” according to Ben Wallace.
The first state-on-state war in Europe since 1945 – perhaps leading to yet more economic and political upheaval across the continent – should be a matter of the gravest concern to anyone aspiring to become prime minister.
Instead, we have recently been treated to military cosplay. Truss, the Thatcher tribute act, in a tank; Johnson joyriding in a Phantom jet. Then the supporters of Penny Mordaunt – who was gazetted the same day as broadcaster Dan Snow and a Labour councillor – implying that as an Honorary Captain in the Royal Naval Reserve she can command a warship, from which most will mistakenly infer an aircraft carrier.
Who else played buzz-phrase bingo to enliven the longueurs during the two leadership debates? Was your pen poised to cross off ‘tax cuts’, ‘service’, ‘military service’, ‘reporting for duty’, ‘ready to serve’, ‘ready to lead’, ‘front-line’, and ‘my country’?
It is time for all MPs to stop using the Armed Forces as props. It is natural for politicians to want to bask in the public’s goodwill towards service personnel, but they should be mindful the current reverence for the military is an historic anomaly. It linked directly to how few have undertaken any form of military service, and admiration for those who saw combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Old-school sit-com series and comic films such as Dad’s Army (1968-77), The Army Game (1957-61), Carry on Sergeant (1958) and Private’s Progress (1956) cannot be made today. Their reek of “casual racism, homophobia, white privilege, colonialism, transphobia, bullying, misogyny and sexual harassment”, identified by Mordaunt in her critique of It Ain’t Half Hot Mum (1974-81), is indeed unacceptable.
As crucially, the millions who fought in the Second World War or who were national servicemen are fading away. And with them goes not only mass first-hand military experience, but also irreverence for the Forces and their “blanco and bull”.
Britain’s Armed Forces have become ever smaller, down from 871,000 in 1952, coinciding with the Korean War, to 179,000 in 2012, following the Coalition’s cuts to defence. Their strength today is around 159,000 personnel. Successive governments have decimated them, while lauding their ethos.
After VE Day 1945, in a message to all ranks, Dame Leslie Whateley, Director of the Auxiliary Territorial Service, told the 200,000 women under her command:
“You have already proved that you know the true meaning of service, ‘An act performed for the benefit of a cause and not necessarily to the benefit of an individual.’”
Just as Clement Attlee tried to balance the demands of the fledgling National Health Service with National Service, there are some choices to be made between welfare or warfare.
The example of self-effacing public service has been set for 70 years by the Services’ Commander-in-Chief. In these perilous times of war in Europe, MPs would be wise to avoid giving the impression that they regard Britain’s Forces primarily as a scenic backdrop.