Tag: James Arbuthnot

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.

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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.