Earlier this morning I had the misfortune of listening to the Labour Peer, the Admiral Lord West of Spithead, someone who I know very well and who, as a former First Sea Lord a decade and more ago, really should have known better suggest on the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme that the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nick Houghton might have overstepped the mark yesterday in his criticism of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s views on the UK nuclear deterrent. Well, I absolutely beg to differ with the noble peer and very much welcome the refreshing remarks that General Sir Nick Houghton made.
Yesterday morning, on the equally left-leaning Andrew Marr Show on BBC1, CDS (Chief of the Defence Staff) General Sir Nick Houghton, someone who I may regard as having been one of not the most successful top military leader that we have had in a generation, laid bare his fear about Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s views and open refusal to use nuclear weapons should he ever become Prime Minister.
CDS said that Mr. Corbyn’s views could “undermine” the UK’s Trident nuclear deterrent and that this worried him. I agree and even though chances of Mr Corbyn ever becoming Prime Minister are very slim and that his own shadow defence spokesperson disagrees with such views the very fact that Mr. Corbyn said what he did a few weeks ago, along with cutting spending on defence and his earlier view of pulling the UK out of NATO, I believe that such words are not only very damaging to public perception of the word and meaning of deterrence but also of how Britain will be seen in the world by its allies and peers – a state that has lost interest in ensuring freedom.
Asked by the interviewer about the prospect of Mr. Corbyn being in power, CDS said that there were “a couple of hurdles to cross before we get to that” and that “the reason I say this, and it is not based on a personal thing at all, it is purely based on the credibility of deterrence”. Importantly, and this is a view most of us share, CDS went on to say that “the whole thing about deterrence rests on the credibility of its use. When people say ‘you are never going to use the deterrent’,” what I say is you use the deterrent every second, of every minute, of every day. The purpose of the deterrent is that you don’t have to use it because you successfully deter”. I completely agree.
While I have little doubt that as a former senior Royal Navy Officer, Alan West would take no issue with the meaning of the word ‘deterrent’ and of what having ‘deterrent capability’ in all its various forms provides to the UK, this morning the noble peer attempted to suggest in his Radio 4 interview that the words chosen by CDS yesterday went a little too far in being critical of Mr. Corbyn and presumably Labour. Well, I for one beg to differ and I am absolutely delighted that CDS provided the views that he did in the Marr interview. I know too that the majority of people in the UK hold a similar view as well.
So did CDS step out of line from a political perspective? Hardly, particularly as official Labour Party policy is as far as I understand, totally supportive of the UK nuclear deterrent and indeed, of replacing and renewing it. It is Mr. Corbyn’s personal view that CDS was yesterday questioning and as the principal person responsible for ensuring UK defence policy is actioned he has a perfect right to defend it.
It is in my view probably Mr. Corbyn that has overstepped the mark and seriously damaged the credibility of nuclear deterrent capability. Indeed, he has damaged the credibility of defence deterrent capability as a whole. He just doesn’t get it because he is so driven by left leaning political doctrine that he is unable to understand or comprehend the true values of defence capability and of what having it means. Rather than question whether the neutrality of our armed forces has been put in doubt far better that Mr. Corbyn and his ilk would listen to the real arguments about what deterrence and what having all forms of deterrent capability mean. We are not just talking about nuclear deterrent capability here, we are also talking about deterrent capability in the form of air, maritime and land equipment. We have all of it first and foremost to defend and deter rather than to use for attack.
As to Lord West who I have at least twice before had the pleasure of providing opposing views to his on BBC2 ‘Newsnight’ all that I can say is that because he once again nailed his colours to a political mast he has lost the plot. Far from silencing them we need our senior military to speak out occasionally when they believe a warning needs to be given. No more than that though but I would also say that we need more former senior members of the military to speak out than currently do as well. What we don’t need though are former senior members of the military preaching political dogma in defence or supporting it. Politicians often need help to get the message about the need for strong defence and occasionally there is little doubt that Lord West has played a part in doing just that. But in his veiled support of CDS this morning and as he attempting to tow the party line I guess that he may have lost some credibility although probably not with the BBC.
By taking the Labour whip in the Hours of Lords, as he still does I believe, the sometimes maverick former First Sea Lord is no longer looked up to in the manner that befits someone that has held such high office in the military. Neither is it particularly surprising that due to its very clear leanings toward the Labour Party that the BBC should have the unfortunate habit of wheeling him out to cover a range of defence matters even though his period of being well briefed in such matters ended rather a long time ago.
For the record, Lord West was First Sea Lord from September 2002 until February 2006 and was succeeded by Admiral Sir John (now Lord) Band. Unlike the vast majority of retired senior military officers who find themselves in the House of Lords after retirement from the military the good Lord West chose to accept an appointment of Parliamentary-under-Secretary of State at the Home Office from Gordon Brown and with specific responsibility for homeland security. He did that job well as far as I am aware and since then he has been one of the small band of former military chiefs who regularly speak out on defence issues such as calling for more rather than less to be spent on defence. The problem is that Lord West is, as far as I am aware, perhaps the only one that wears true political colours all the way up his sleeve and in doing so, this surely mean that his views have far less credibility than might otherwise be the case.
CHW (London 9th November 2015)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Tel: 07710 779785