A new chairman for the Defence Select Committee

James Arbuthnot has been an MP since 1987, and has chaired the Defence Select Committee since 2005. It has kept him busy. His time scrutinising defence matters has coincided with the British government prosecuting several wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, and embarking on two bouts of serious defence restructuring. In 2006 we adopted the Future Army Structure, and now we have Army 2020.

But this is all about to end for him. He has decided not to contest his North East Hampshire seat at the next election and, by way of anticipation, is relinquishing control of the committee to give him time to think properly about what he will do next. He is currently sixty-one years old, so there’s a bit of powder left in the old flintlock yet.

The Select Committee system is not that old, beginning in 1979, but it has a crucial role to play in parliamentary affairs. While MPs and Peers are, of course, expected to hold governments and ministers to account in their respective main chambers, there is only so much time available for questions and debates. It is the committees that provide the extra time. Not only are further questions raised, but they are done so at greater depth than might otherwise be achieved.

The question of ‘Who gets to chair the committee?’ is therefore important. Get a complacent, lazy buffoon and important things are missed; get an observant, energetic mastermind and problems are identified and remedied. There’s a spectrum there somewhere, and I make no comment on where Mr Arbuthnot sits, but it is important the right person succeeds him. Getting the right person might not be quite so important in other areas of government activity, but it is certainly important – nay, crucial – when considering life and death matters of defence.

Douglas Carswell MP asks this question, and concludes that only ‘free-thinkers and rebels’ need apply. He mentions a few characters that might fit the bill: ‘Julian Brazier, author of some good ideas about reservists, the uber-sound Julian Lewis, James Gray and Bob Stuart, the widely respected Keith Simpson, the excellent Crispin Blunt, Tobias Ellwood and Rory Stewart.’

Mr Carswell has a reputation for wanting Parliament to flex its muscles a little more brutishly when it comes to tackling government ministers – who he seems to think are too often occupied in a conspiracy of either incompetence or malice. So it is understandable that he is pondering what is little more than a procedural matter.

He wants someone who has defied the party line on at least one occasion; who can work with people from a different political party; who is alive to the pressure he or she will be put under by a defence industry looking for preferential treatment; and who has a good idea of what defence policy is for. Someone who satisfies all four of these criteria is, presumably, perfect.

I have no idea which individual best satisfies Mr Carswell’s criteria, or if indeed Mr Carswell’s is the criteria being used to choose Mr Arbuthnot’s successor, but the question makes me think of Viscount Haldane. He is the man recognised for transforming the British Army just over one hundred years ago, and creating something strong enough to help France stop Germany overrunning the country.

What did he do? Not enough, some might say, considering how the Great War progressed. But had his reforms not gone through at the time, it is generally accepted that things would have been a whole lot worse – swift German victory over France, German concentration on the Eastern Front, victory over the Russians, a European continent dominated by the Kaiser and his aggressive chums.

To prevent that lot he restructured the Regular Army and created a force of five cavalry brigades and six infantry divisions, all with the necessary engineers, artillery and supply services attached. He then created the Territorial Force, bringing together the Militia, Yeomanry and Volunteer forces operating at that time as three separate entities with no real wartime purpose. The Territorial Army that we have come to know exists because of his foresight and determination to create an army fit for its primary purpose – namely to fight a war. His first order question was always this: ‘What is your purpose in war?’

We might benefit from his return to the War Office (now rather less impressively called the Ministry of Defence), but he would do equally well chairing the Defence Select Committee. He was a successful barrister, who reached the pinnacle of his profession when he sat on the Woolsack as Lord Chancellor; he was quite prepared to defy his own party, disagreeing with the Liberal Party line over imperial strategy and the importance of a strong navy; and he understood what defence was for.

Haldane deduced that British interests were best served by a strong navy to protect Britain and its imperial interests; by an efficient and mobile army capable of foreign service, that could be expanded by a well trained, motivated Territorial Force with links in all parts of the country. Some might disagree – some thought Britain needed a large conscript army capable of fighting the Germans; and, we never know, had we had one we might have defeated Germany much sooner. But agree or disagree, he was capable, perhaps more than anyone at the time, of thinking strategically and having a strong view of what defence policy was for and how to create an army to implement it.

Viscount Haldane, therefore, is my choice. It’s just a pity he’s not around anymore.

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