It’s a bit like your cat starting to talk to you. You’d be too surprised to bother about whether or not he made sense, was logical, spoke grammatically. The big thing would be that this was The Cat That Talked. With General Sir Richard Dannatt, chief of the General Staff, too, it doesn’t matter whether or not he spoke sense about Britain’s policy and prospects in Iraq.
The big thing here is that this is the serving Army commander who talked politics against the elected British Government.
Who publicly counterposed his political opinion and judgement on a major matter of policy to that of the elected government.
It is not the proper business of a general to have his own political line and publicly confront the government or the Prime Minister.
Something far more important is at issue here than whether or not he made sense: that the Army should keep out of politics; that it should obey the elected government; that it should carry out and not try to determine, government policy, or what the government chooses to do with the armed forces.
It took us generations of effort, conflict, civil war, to establish the principle that the armed forces are subordinate to Parliament. The effort of King James II to move his own private Catholic Army into London, triggered the Revolution of 1688, which finally established that principle.
Dannatt has opinions about far more than British policy in Iraq, and he was not shy about communicating those, either, to the readers of the Daily Mail. We will see what they were.
How did the Prime Minister respond to this open challenge by the Chief of Staff to the rights and prerogatives of government and Parliament? He pretended that there was no problem. Ignoring the enormous constitutional issue raised by Dannatt’s behaviour, little Mr Blair rushed to publicly express agreement with the general.
Oh, there was no conflict of views, he said. Oh, and he agreed entirely with the gabby general.
Everybody knew that he had said seemingly opposite things very recently.
It was a pitiable display of weakness.
That Blair did not react as any self-respecting constitutional democrat would have acted, and dismiss him, may indicate that he fears provoking a cris with the Armed Forces.
And how did the British press respond? The Tory Daily Mail, which is often hysterical in its concern for “law and order”, crowed with triumph on page 1: Blair had been humilated and forced to agree, or pretend to, with Dannatt!
And the media liberals? Surely they would see how out-of-order Dannatt had been? Surely they would rush in where Mr Blair feared to tread? The backboneless “liberals” do not as a rule like to look unpleasant things in the face!
The Observer editorialised: yes, it was natural enough, and therefore proper, in this day and age, when private soldiers can post their opinions on the Internet, that the chief of staff should openly express his views too. The Chief of Staff publicly disputing policy, political line and assessments of ends and means with the government is the same thing as an anonymous private soldier blogging? They are not in the same order of things!
This was craven liberal political poltroonery.
Sir Richard is not only a political-military strategist, he is a social philosopher too — albeit of the officers’ mess, late in the evening, variety. What’s wrong with Britain? he asks. It has lost its sheet-anchor, the moorings of its Christian civilisation, that’s what.
Britain has gone rotten at its moral core: why else would Islam have become a problem in Britain itself?
Here too the diagnosis is late evening officers’ mess small-talk. But a chief of staff talks big, not small, when he counterposes himself to the government.
Dannatt has a vision of the world, too, and what’s going on in it. It is a war of civilisations. Iraq — he agrees with Blair and Bush — is an outpost of that war. His difference with Blair? He is more willing to throw in the towel. The commander of the British Army in Iraq tells al-Qaida and political Islam in general that all is lost, that the goals for which his civilian political masters are using the Army are unattainable. Simultaneously he proclaims that what he and his government are doing is fighting an anti-Islamic war of religious civilisations, a crusade for Christian values!
Does it matter? Yes — it matters a great deal. There is an atmosphere in Britain now, which the Chief of Staff reflects, of exasperation, cynicism, almost desperation. There is more than a touch of social hysteria in it.
We have a Prime Minister from whom few in Britain would take even the time of day on trust. The mass circulation press preaches raucous cynicism, as well as extravagant racist scapegoating. A Prime Minister, under the sentence of political death, clings to office.
We have a Tory opposition, which stands for pretty much what the government stands for, trying, often risibly, to ingratiate itself with the electorate.
There is real bitterness against the government, “the Establishment”, “them”. It is focused and given a clear political form — hostility to Blair, the liar — by the war in Iraq. However, it expresses a great deal more.
There is a sense of crisis, of squalor and decay in a Britain where nothing seems to work properly. Water supplies, the national railway network, the London Underground... All this despite the overall “healthy state” of the British economy — an economy that now relies heavily on ill-treated cheap labour, a lot of it foreign — and many of them people vulnerable to extreme exploitation because of their “illegal” status in the country.
The atmosphere in Britain is curiously like what it was at the end of the sixties, when the Wilson Labour government was massively discredited. The left was disillusioned by the government’s attempts to bring in statutory controls over workers’ incomes. Racist — compared to now, the “mildest” of racist — immigration laws had outraged even the liberal left.
In that atmosphere, important people, such as Cecil King, chairman of the commercial group which published the then widely respected Daily Mirror newspapers, began to plot a military coup. Preliminary discussions involved Lord Mountbatten, uncle of the Queen’s Consort and early mentor of Prince Charles.
It was comic opera rather than serious politics but it reflected the atmosphere of the times.
Then too, war was an issue. Vast hordes of people demonstrated in London on a number of occasions in 1967-68 against America’s war in Vietnam and Britain’s failure to denounce it.
The comparison here is the atmosphere of hysterical disillusionment, then as now.
Is a military coup — or even half-way plausible, comic-opera plotting, like Cecil King’s — conceivable in Britain right now? No it isn’t.
Yet the performance of General Dannatt must be seen against the role which real fear of a real, and not Cecil King-style clowning, coup, played in Britain in the mid-seventies.
The fear on the part of the trade union leaders of a military coup has played an enormous role in recent British politics.
In the years of the vast labour movement militancy, between the return of the Tories to power in June 1970 and their being kicked out by the electorate in February 1974 — an election called by Prime Minister Edward Heath on the theme “Who runs Britain — the government or the trade unions?” — in those years the fear of a military coup was real.
The chief of the imperial general staff at that time, Lord Carver, later publically admitted that there had indeed been serious talk among “fairly senior officers” of the Army about “stepping in” if in their opinion “public order” had broken down.*
The coup against the left wing government of Chile, in September 1973, had taken place in a country with a continuous parliamentary democracy, older than any in Europe except Britain, Ireland, Sweden and Switzerland. It influenced opinion on both sides in Britain.
The fear of a military coup helped determine that the leftist trade union leaders of that time, Jack Jones of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, and Hugh Scanlon of the Engineering Workers’ Union, acted to restrain working-class demands on the weak Labour government, which had been returned in the February 1974 General Election.
Jack Jones, who had served as a volunteer against the Francoite armies in the Spanish Civil War, has publicly said as much.
Military “intervention” in politics in Britain is neither unthinkable nor as remote from any real British experience of it as many people like to think.
Nevertheless it is outrageous that the Army commander should publicly challenge the government.
Once in the 20th century the British Army’s generals intervened brutally in public policy with dire consequences.
In 1914 the British top brass, and some of the lesser brass at the Curragh army base in Ireland, let it be known, privately and in public, that they would not carry out the orders of the London government if it tried to use them to coerce Protestant North-East Ireland into coming under the rule of a Dublin, Catholic-majority Home Rule government — with little more than the powers of the present GLA — which the Liberal government in London proposed to set up.
With the encouragement of the most senior British Army officers such as Sir Henry Wilson, the officers in the Curragh made a formal statement that they would resign their commission if ordered to enforce Home Rule on “Ulster”.
The Tory party of that time encouraged this open threat of rebellion. They helped organise a mass armed Protestant Irish militia pledged to resist the London government.
Bonar Law, the Tory leader, publically declared: “There are things more powerful than parliamentary majorities”.
The Liberal government of Asquith — in fact a more left-wing government than the Blair government — buckled. They proposed the partition of Ireland which would be carried through ten years later.
It exempted not only Protestant Unionist majority areas from control by Dublin but kept within the northern “Protestant” state a Catholic minority bigger as a percentage of the Six Counties population than the Protestants were of the all-Ireland population; and, moreover, a territory in which the Catholics were a majority in about half.
The consequences of that botched and all-poisoning partition are still being worked out now.
By all indications Dannatt and those who might think like him pose no threat now to civil liberties, to bourgeois democracy in Britain. No. But Blair, and the invertebrate liberals, both in what they themselves do, and in their craven attitude before Dannatt, do.
It is typical of this government — the wretched government that keeps the unions legally chained up — that Blair should roll over on his back and kick his legs in the air and pretend that he likes what Dannatt has done.
It is typical of the liberal press that the Observer should editorially “understand” why Dannatt had to speak out.
It is part of the general decay of standards in the British bourgeois democracy. It goes with things like the usurpation by the Prime Minister of the — allegedly still-in-being — rights of Parliament to control the government.
It is tempting for those who despise and oppose this system, to stand back and relish the spectacle of Blair being humiliated by his chief general.
Respect has proclaimed that Dannatt has joined the anti-war movement; for these idiotic allies of Islamist clerical-fascism and supporters of the quasi-fascist Sunni supremacists of Iraq’s ruling Ba’ath Party, an alliance with Dannatt would be a move to the left. That would be short-sighted.
The labour movement and the working class, and those socialists who have not lost their political wits, have a vital interest in opposing every infringement by the state and its personnel on the rights and prerogatives of the elected government.
What Dannatt said about Iraq and the Iraqi war is true. That he dared say it publicly, in contradiction of the government, is ultimately a great deal more important than that.
*See WL Pamphlet Socialism and Democracy, £1.95 + 50p P&P from PO Box 823, London SE15 4NA