Rory Stewart MP elected Chair of the Westminster Defence Select Committee

So, Viscount Haldane has not been appointed the new Chairman of the Defence Select Committee of the Westminster Parliament. This is not a surprise, since he has been dead since 1928. But he would have done a fine job, I’m sure, had the speaker or any other member of parliament chosen to exhume him.

As I mentioned here, Haldane created the British Expeditionary Force, without which Britain and France would have been defeated in 1914; he created the Territorial Force, configuring it for war, which provided invaluable reinforcement to the Regular Army with troops that were at the very least semi-trained; and he galvanised the Liberal government to think about defence at least as much as they thought about social change. He is rightly regarded as a great reforming Secretary of State for War, before the post was merged with that of the First Lord of the Admiralty to create the new Ministry of Defence.

The new Chair – as it seems we must now call Chairmen – of the Defence Select Committee is Rory Stewart, Conservative MP for Penrith and The Border. That is up north, by the way, if anyone was confusing the border with the Welsh border; Conservatives can be elected beyond the southern constituencies.

He strikes me as a good candidate, not least because he has spent some time in the Army, albeit years ago and on a Short Service Limited Commission with the Black Watch. But there’s nothing wrong with these so-called ‘gap year commissions’. In fact, they are extremely valuable. They are designed not so much to bring people into the Army, but to give them a sniff of military life with a view to taking understanding and good will into the civilian world where it is hoped (expected) they will assume positions of responsibility and influence. It’s about civil-military connection rather than military capability.

He’s also done his walking tour of Afghanistan, worked for the Foreign Office and written a few good books. Not necessarily a guarantee he will do well in the job, but it’s a good start and his words on the limits and complexities of intervention are welcome in a political culture that seems a little too binary for my liking.

But we shall see. He certainly represents the new generation of politician, and I can’t help thinking many of them are a notch above their predecessors.

Perhaps this is a particularly interesting time to take the Chair. James Arbuthnot’s tenure was concerned with operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and the possibility of the same in Syria. Syria is still a live issue, but it seems this recent bout of interventions is over for a while.

What he will – and must – concern himself with is how the British Army – and the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force – reconfigure themselves after the latest round of cuts. Army 2020 is fast approaching. He must make sure the politicians have not made a horrendous mistake in cutting regular troop numbers, and he must make sure plans to rely more on the Reserves – formerly Haldane’s Territorial Force, later the Territorial Army – are workable.


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.

Another government IT setback!

When governments want to save money, they generally start using fancy business-sounding rhetoric to give the impression that no capability will be lost and savings will be achieved almost entirely with efficiencies. Governments rarely say they will simply start doing less, more’s the pity. This is rooted, I would guess, in the post-war socialist settlement that planted so firmly in people’s minds the belief that a problem can only ever really be solved by an increase in government activity, and certainly not by a decrease.

The result tends to be over-ambition in government: promises of more and more even when resources are constrained, as they are today. And when over-ambition meets information technology projects, the result is usually pretty ugly. There was that NHS IT project which has reportedly cost up to £10 billion so far; and the new Universal Credit IT project to bring together all benefits in one efficient system is under pressure as I write. And now the Recruitment Partnering Project seems to be suffering difficulties. Though thankfully we are not talking billions.

The project is designed to bring Army recruiting online, thus enabling financial savings of up to £300 million. Capita, the outsourcing company, have won the main contract, but the online recruiting system is being built by the Atlas Consortium, and it is they who are having difficulties. To add to the complication, it is holding up Army recruitment at a time when the Regular force is reducing to some 82,000 and the Reserves increasing by some 10,000 as part of Army 2020 restructuring. I’ve voiced concerns hereherehere and here, and it looks like they have another headache.

Gartner, an IT research company, has looked into the problem and noticed the following: the project is two years behind schedule; £15.5 million has already been spent, which might have to be written off; they might have to spend another £50 million on a replacement system; recruitment applications have been lost and targets missed, and Major General Shaun Burley, head of British Army personnel management, has warned there might be 10,000 unfilled posts by the middle of 2015; and the wrong bidder was picked, despite warnings that existing Defence Information Infrastructure (DII) providers, Atlas Consortium, might not meet the agreed timeline.

The main culprit, however, is said to be the Army Recruitment and Training Division, for failing to provide the online system Capita needs to run Army recruiting. They offered to develop a hosting platform but were not taken up on the offer, partly because their quote was £15 million higher than the Atlas bid, and also because there seems to be an MOD policy to use DII, and thus Atlas, for IT projects unless a good case can be made to look elsewhere.

Specific problems there may be, but it looks like they fit into two broad categories: a) governments rushing projects, especially if financial savings are involved; and b) MOD, and thus government, not being that great at IT project management. Perhaps Gartner’s most damning observation is this: the Army ‘underestimated the complexity of what it was trying to achieve.’

This is not to argue that the state and the Army cannot run projects at all; clearly they can. But it is worth asking if they are running the sort of projects appropriate to their training and skills. If we think of contract negotiations between the private sector and the government as a tennis match, then there is only going to be one winner. Inspection of the national budget should tell us all we need to know.

Gartner also noticed that the military project management team was inexperienced and under-resourced. In this case, it seems that the government’s desire to reduce the Regular Army led to members of the team being either moved or made redundant. New personnel had to come in and they obviously lacked the sort of continuity and deep knowledge required to make such projects work. Besides, the military tendency to move people every two years hardly lends itself to the management of projects which tend to last at least twice that time. It might be that Civil Servant project managers, either permanent or recruited for whole projects, would make better sense; and where military input is required, they can be attached to the project as military advisors, concentrating on what they know.

Money slips through government fingers like water through a sieve, so we should perhaps not be surprises or even that worried by Gartner’s findings. But the purpose of the overall project is to improve Army recruiting and enable the Regulars, reduced to a mere 82,000 personnel, to be at full strength to provide the backbone of any future military campaign. If this goes unchecked, and General Burley’s warning comes true, then Army 2020 is even more of a risk than I thought. Let’s hope there’s time to sort it out, because if there isn’t then it will be soldiers yet gain suffering the consequences.

What’s happening to journalism

Journalism is a dead industry. Or dying, at least. That’s what we hear. Citizen reporters are using new technology to provide for free what professional journalists currently provide for a salary. All they need is a smart phone and a social-media account and these insurgent hacks are good-to-go. It costs nothing to produce and nothing to view; and who needs training? They simply hold their phone in the air and start beaming whatever seismic event is taking place in front of them.

How can professional journalism compete with this? And, more importantly for those still earning a living by the trade, how can they make it pay? This might prompt most people to say, ‘who cares what happens to the phone-hacking cockroaches?’ But journalists – and other writers, such as Alexander Chancellor in The Spectator recently – are, for understandable reasons, a little more concerned.

He recounts an address he gave recently to journalist-hopefuls at Nottingham University, in which he found himself torn between wanting to explain how today’s youth would have to be particularly stupid to aspire to a career in journalism, and not wanting to discourage the bright young things from pursuing their cherished dreams. Still, obviously not too torn, because he gave them the gloomy news anyway.

It’s a good question: ‘Where are the new jobs going to be when every news organisation in the country seemed to be getting rid of people instead of hiring them?’ And possibly a question with no redeeming answer to someone (and I hope this sentence is not taken the wrong way) nearer the end of his journalistic career than the beginning.

When one has spent a life in a particular organisation, there is always something sad about uncontrollable change. Old soldiers, sailors and airmen grieve stoically when their regiment, ship or squadron drops off the order of battle. But they rarely, if ever, stop the change. If something lives, you know it will die; and, if you take an optimistic view of life, it might re-emerge in a new, improved form.

Sticking with the military theme, we might think institutions like the Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force, conservative as they are, respond poorly to change. But that’s not quite true. One need only look at the way all three services implement the ever-changing demands of their political masters with grumpy but loyal commitment. In 2006, the Army lost 6,000 posts, renamed and lost distinguished regiments and reorganised after three decades of deployment in Northern Ireland; and over the coming years it will do the same, only this time it will lose 20,000 posts and integrate the Territorial Army into a new Reserve force central to all future regular commitments. This is quite a change, with considerable risk; but the Army will get on with it, as it always does.

What’s this got to do with journalism? Nothing, really, except to say that things always change. Fantastic advances in technology are shattering the assumptions that have underpinned journalism since the invention of the printing press. We might wonder if late-medieval scribes had a little panic when Gutenberg revealed, with Steve-Jobs evangelism, his filthy, job-destroying machine? They probably did, but we might then note how the printing press gave rise to a whole new set of employment opportunities; and there is no reason to believe that, when we’ve worked out how to marry journalism with today’s developing technology, we will not have a vibrant new industry that looks like journalism, but not quite as we have known it.

Mr Chancellor knows this, of course; he’s far too shrewd an observer of our species. But perhaps he’s not yet thought about the matter as one might think of greater societal change. Perhaps his observation – that fewer people are to be employed professionally in journalism – is not a sign of decline, but of advance. Think of all those former journalists now free to take up more productive employment.

One of the ways – perhaps the chief way – society advances is through diversification. Indeed, a society that can produce a greater variety of goods and services is generally considered a more prosperous society. They are freed from the risks and the poverty characteristic of societies still largely dependent on one or two rudimentary industries. It is still fashionable in certain political circles to think the West enjoys lower child mortality, more abundant food and better medicine because of socialistic provision, but this ignores the creative power of capital and trade – the means of diversification and prosperity.

And key to our ability to produce more of the things that make our lives better, is being able to create more with less (or, rather, to make what we want, but with lower human input) – Productivity. Take agriculture. Societies where agriculture forms the main source of wealth are poor societies, harassed by poverty’s attendant problems: greater ignorance, higher mortality and less freedom. The great triumph of developed societies is their ability to get people off the land while still being able to feed themselves. Every person freed from dependence on the land is a person doing something else to make our lives more varied and interesting: education, science, business, art, philosophy etc.

The principle continues through all trades and industries. More efficiency, especially in labour, leads to greater capacity for other things, thus enriching society and creating what we recognise today as advanced and diversified culture. Every time we substitute robots for people to build cars, we free people to do other things; every time we find a more efficient method of producing what we want, we reduce the need for labour, freeing that labour to do something else to enrich society. Some people, generally of a Luddite tendency, still see labour-saving advances in productivity as a regressive step; but this is a mistake. Not everyone can work on the land: who will make the ploughs?

Back to the point, and back to journalism. Perhaps we need to look at this present revolution in journalism as we do other labour-saving advances? Perhaps technology, by enabling the citizen-journalist, is simply making journalism better and more efficient. Perhaps the professional journalist, with his or her tendency to filter and edit the news, has always been an undesirable hindrance to our understanding of what is truly happening in the world. After all, if Time magazine wasn’t witness to the latest great tragedy, then it didn’t really happen! Now we are all witness, and we can testify with the touch of a button.

But it is not all doom and gloom for the professional journalist. If the human race is good at one thing, it is good at finding ways to make money. Citizen journalism will need polishing-up for the more discerning market. It will need editors, copywriters, distributors, platforms and more, all of which means jobs – just slightly different jobs, that’s all, and perhaps fewer; but that’s all right. Perhaps journalists of the future will be less journalist, more editor. Perhaps journalists are, in fact, simply going to be ‘the people’: people who do something else but know the issue on which they write in far greater detail than any journalist could manage?

No, journalism isn’t dead; it’s not even dying. It’s simply changing, and if anyone wants to make money from it, they will have to do what all businesses do without the crutch of state subsidy. They will have to provide something for which people are willing to pay, be they readers, advertisers, philanthropists or anyone else. But it was always thus; it’s just that things have got a bit more competitive, that’s all. And that’s a good thing, no?

The TA is good, but there are serious risks to Army 2020

I’m a little late on this, but a letter from Maj Gen James Everard, Assistant Chief of the General Staff, that appeared in last Saturday’s Daily Telegraph has been nagging somewhat.

SIR – Con Coughlin (Comment, July 6) is inaccurate and patronising about the Army Reserve. He claims they do not show the same commitment or make the same sacrifice as their regular colleagues. Worse, he suggests that they join to “dress up” or “play at soldiers”.

The facts speak for themselves: since 2003 more than 28,000 Army reservists have deployed alongside their regular colleagues on operations. Some have been severely injured; 70 have received operational awards; and 26 have died. The day before the article was published, the latest reservist killed on operations, WO2 Thomas, was returned to Britain.

Those in the Reserve volunteer knowing they are making a major commitment; they often sacrifice time with families and career opportunities. Within weeks of deploying they are indistinguishable from their regular colleagues, and their contribution is far from “relatively modest”. They expect no special treatment and get none. Nothing could be further from the “all-expenses paid jolly” that Mr Coughlin alludes to. The Army relies on Reserve soldiers to serve in the front line today, and increasingly will in the future.

Now, I am almost completely in agreement with ACGS.  It is never easy to hear outsiders level criticism at the Armed Forces, whether regular or reserve; and when made in the characteristically blunt and uninhibited fashion of a Con Coughlin, it is enough to provoke a letter of rebuke to a newspaper.

But we should remember that we are all, in some way, partisan.  Having a go at your opponents is not just something for politicians and their media attendants.  And it is sometimes easier for military people to become indignant over criticism (Not that I’m saying ACGS is getting indignant here).  After all, what do civilians know?  They risk nothing yet are quite happy to criticise those that do, even reservists they suspect wear the uniform mostly to look good.

Yet, to be fair to Con Coughlin – if it is indeed right to be fair to any journalist – he does seem to base his claim/suggestion that reservists are mostly “playing at soldiers” and enjoying some sort of “glorified adventure holiday” on someone else’s words.

“I reckon that only one in 10 members of the TA are actually worth bothering with,” a senior officer in the regular Army told me recently. “The rest are just in it for a bit of fun at the weekend, and are horrified when you suggest you want them to go somewhere dangerous, like southern Afghanistan.”

This doesn’t sound like much of an endorsement, even if it’s the opinion of just one serving officer who might or might not have had a run in with the TA.  I am a little out of the loop to know how accurate this picture might be today, but I suspect whoever said this is not being entirely fair.

Yet the thing that nags me is not so much the less than fulsome comments, or indeed the degree of their truth, but the fact ACGS picked this matter to raise in a letter to the Daily Telegraph and not something of greater importance.

The reservists I’ve come across mostly give the impression of positive and extremely capable individuals – some of them more so than their regular counterparts, as the article admits.  However, they are reservists for a reason – they do not want to serve full time.  Therefore, while they may be good at soldiering, they have other priorities, namely their job.  And this, surely, is the main sticking point of the plan.  Army 2020 reduces the size of the Army, and reservists are expected to fill the shortfall.  Is this likely?  Is this even possible?

The government, as mentioned in the article, is taking an “enormous leap of faith.”  We are effectively saying that the British Army will only be able to deploy with support from the TA.  This seems to me – no offence – to be a retrograde step that undermines the whole rationale of a regular, professional army.  We moved away from citizen armies for a reason: they might be larger than their professional counterparts, but they are not as good.  They do not receive the same amount of training and they are not at the sole call of the government.  Professional soldiers are not committed to parallel careers.

The TA, as it stands, might not be perfect.  But it’s an excellent source of semi-trained and, above all, willing manpower that could be mobilised relatively quickly if the balloon really does go up.  And now we are changing all that, and adopting a new structure that, no matter what people say, is more about saving money that utilising the self-evident talents of reservists.

The risk is not just that the TA might not be able to increase its size in order to meet its target of 30,000 reservists.  The risk is also that serving members of the TA, and their employers, might take exception to the demands proposed.  Currently, reservists volunteer for deployment, but this new scheme would require mandatory mobilisation not least because it would make no sense to be in the TA and not deploy if that was the primary purpose of the force.

I know why ACGS would want to defend the TA, but we really do need to discuss the risks, not least because we are more likely to mitigate them if we understand them.  Why doesn’t he write a letter about this (perhaps he has and I’ve just missed it)?  The answer lies somewhere in the idea of constitutional propriety.  Soldiers do not meddle in politics and the decision to restructure the Armed Forces is primarily a political matter.  Therefore, he cannot be seen to question that decision, let alone oppose it.

I mentioned earlier that this characteristic of our Armed Forces is a double edged sword, and when you combine this sense of constitutional appropriateness with their can-do attitude, there is a danger that political decisions are not questioned as strongly as they might, or ought.

But that’s the way it is.  It’s happening, and we better hope that the plan to increase the TA and fundamentally change the nature of their service works.  Because the Regular Army is highly unlikely to delay its cuts, and if the TA cannot fulfil its part of the plan, then we will all be in serious trouble.  In fact, on second thoughts, we won’t be in trouble.  Soldiers will be, as they deploy to meet the next commitment with even less punch than they have now.

Army 2020

I really want to write something pithy and insightful on Army 2020, mostly because I was a soldier once and feel I ought to have something to say.  But it’s difficult.

You see we’ve been here before.  In 2006 the Army went through a similar restructuring (or cutting) process.  When senior officers and politicians spoke about it they gave the impression we had found a new best structure; it was called Future Army Structure.  And you won’t be surprised to hear there was a snappy sounding acronym for it: FAS.

This new structure took about 6,000 posts from the establishment to leave a force of just under 102,000 soldiers.  A number of units dropped off the order of battle, and you may remember Scottish ire at having to merge their distinctive and historic regiments into a new outfit called The Royal Regiment of Scotland.  They retained old illustrious regimental names but only as descriptors of each battalion of the new regiment.

But they got on with it and made it work, as everyone did, as is the soldier’s way.  And everything seemed to be progressing nicely when someone decided what was needed most was to lop another chunk off the establishment.  It seems that the future of FAS wasn’t really a future at all – only a hiccup.  Why?

The Chief of the General Staff, Sir Peter Wall, has written that we must retain a credible military option to underpin diplomacy.  This new force will have three core purposes: 1) Intervention and conventional deterrence; 2) Overseas operations in multinational alliances; and 3) UK activity comprising assistance to the civil authorities and sustaining a new Army Reserve.

This sounds positive enough, and sensible even, but I’m not sure I don’t detect an air of resignation.  He knows strategists and politicians are looking in new directions.  The threat of conventional invasion does not exist; terrorism and cyber attack are more likely scenarios; and if we do need to strike an enemy we can use unmanned air systems, rely on allies or co-opt local proxy forces.  Our Libyan intervention might just become a template for our preferred method of intervention in the future.  CGS even suggests this might lead to future reductions in conventional forces.  Who’d bet against it?

Government spending is always a matter of priorities.  Considering government spends just under £700 billion a year, what other conclusion can there be?  The money exists; it’s just that it’s being spent on other things, which is unlikely to change.  If the history of democracy tells us anything, it tells us that people will always find ways to vote themselves more benefits and advantages while assuming that someone else will be called on to pay for it.  If we wanted to we could find the money.  It’s just that other things are prioritised above defence.

There are risks to this latest restructuring project, not least the implication of reducing manpower by 20% (not withstanding us finding more potent ways of using less), and we should also be wary of relying on the TA to take up the slack.  But these arguments can be taken up later.  I suppose we might end up in 2020 with an army that is better structured for our commitments and the threats we might face, and that our future capacity to deploy military force might not be far short of its current level, but these are secondary considerations.

Only one factor drives this, and that’s cutting costs.  We can argue over why the budget was allowed to get so out of kilter, but the imperative remains to reduce expenditure rather than increase spending.  After all: there’s nothing left in the kitty.  And the best way to do this is by reducing manpower, which is what this plan delivers.

And I’m not sure I can get too animated about it.  We’ll still have an army.  It will be weaker, it will be less convincing on the world stage, it will in all likelihood continue to break harmony guidelines (assuming the plan is not to stop sending the army overseas ever again) and it’s structure will not quite achieve what the architects hope.  But what’s new about that?