Last stand of a dying government

May 22, 2008
Matthew Carr

Labour wants to restore pride in the military. Decent houses would be a start, says Matthew Carr

This week's announcement that Gordon Brown is contemplating a new national holiday to celebrate the armed forces marks a new low for a government whose cynicism and hypocrisy often seems limitless.

The idea is one of various proposals in the 'National Recognition of the Armed Forces' review conducted by the millionaire Tory defector, Quentin Davies MP. Other suggestions include encouraging servicemen and women to wear their uniforms in public; making it a criminal offence to 'discriminate' against or insult them; and creating more cadet forces in comprehensive schools.

Many other countries have their own version of Armed Forces Day, including the United States, China, Israel and Burma. But the idea represents an innovation for Britain, which generally expects its armed forces to maintain a low-key presence during peacetime. So what explains New Labour's sudden infatuation with the military?

The main aim of the review, according to Davies, is to redress the 'divergence' in understanding between the British public and the military. This statement ignores the discrepancy between what New Labour says about its armed forces and the way it actually treats them.

This is a government that sends its soldiers to war without ensuring that they are properly equipped, that cannot guarantee them proper treatment or compensation when they are wounded, and that provides them with sub-standard accommodation leased to the MoD by private companies. Only last week, a staggering internal report submitted to the head of the Army, Sir Richard Dannatt, revealed that many soldiers are so badly paid that they are obliged to take out food vouchers to pay for their meals to get through the month.

All this has taken place against a background of foreign military adventures that have left a trail of death, destruction and political chaos in their wake. Far from serving the interests of the nation, these wars have tarnished the reputation of the military and the country in whose name they fight. They have also produced a crisis in recruitment and retention in the military to the point when even senior military commanders have warned that its resources are desperately strained.

One unstated aim of New Labour's proposals therefore is simply to boost recruitment. For this reason the proposed holiday will be very different from Remembrance Sunday, with its sombre emphasis on sacrifice, death and commemoration. At a time when the military is running out of soldiers, the government does not want the population to dwell on the human cost of war. Instead Armed Forces Day will be upbeat, with parades and uniforms, marching bands and flag-waving crowds.

These proposals also represent a desperate attempt by a dying and discredited administration to inculcate a new sense of patriotic 'Britishness' into the population, with jingoistic military values at its core. One stunningly reactionary proposal recently floated by some tabloids has suggested that the military might be a model for a dysfunctional British society and that soldiers should be brought in to teach in problem schools to ensure discipline.

New Labour is not unaware of the potential political advantages to be gained from military populism. So can we expect to see Gordon 'Courage' Brown taking the salute during parades of soldiers and weapons? Will anti-war protesters be arrested for 'insulting the honour of the armed forces?' Will British schoolchildren learn teamwork and 'skills' by parading with automatic weapons in the playground?

That New Labour should have appointed Davies, a millionaire merchant banker, to preside over a new cult of militarism is not surprising. Those of us who believe that the purpose of the military should be defending the country, not engaging in wars of choice and foreign occupations, will resist such cheap populist gimmicks.

Let us ensure that soldiers receive proper treatment, not discount tickets to the Premier League. And let us reject the attempts by this grubby, dishonest government ­ and its successors to create a new generation of cannon fodder in preparation for a new era of permanent war.

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