The British Army might be on the verge of disbandment – not good.

Scotland might be about to leave the United Kingdom. It’s worth saying this one more time, in the hope the enormity of separation might actually sink in.

The consequences will be staggering. 300 years of unrivalled history will be ended, possibly the era of greatest internal peace these islands have ever experienced; the island of Great Britain will be split, just like Timor (well, perhaps not just like Timor); and an artificial national barrier will cut the British people in two, ushering in an era of separate development, divergent history and increasing friction.

None of this is good. There is one consequence of people in Scotland (note: not the Scottish people; see here) voting ‘Yes’ later this month we haven’t much discussed. That is the impact on the British Armed Forces. David Blair, however, writing in the Telegraph, has noticed. He uses the phrase, ‘broken into pieces’.

He’s not much wrong, either. Salmond, despite his pacifist rhetoric, expects to take Scotland’s share of fighters, frigates and battalions. None of this sounds like much, but, when we remember that the British Army has just been cut by 20,000 soldiers (20% regular combat strength), it is worth considering the impact of a further cut to what remains one of the few serious military powers in the Western world.

But combat strength is not just about numbers. British military doctrine considers this part of the physical component of fighting power. There is also the moral component, which might be translated for the non-military mind as morale, spirit, heart, motivation and a sense of pride and duty. And this is where the British Army will be hit hardest. What will happen to the name? We might keep it; Britain is, after all, comprised of England and Wales, Great Britain being England, Wales and Scotland. But it will be something of a sham. Without Scotland, the British Army cannot lay full claim to the name.

But what’s in a name? Quite a lot, actually. A name carries history; and the history of the British Army is as important to the morale of the British Army as anything else – indeed, it is from history, from former battles and wars that we draw much of our store of morale. Goose Green, Imjin River, Market Garden, Battle of Britain – these battles and operations inspire the present generation, in all services.

It is true, the Royal Navy will not have its name challenged; it will remain the navy of Nelson. Neither will the Royal Air Force have its name challenged; it will remain the air force of Douglas Bader. Tracing a direct line to former military greats is important; it is tradition, and it is the core ideology of the British regimental system. Break that link and we break that history; the army of the rUK will have to start again. Pity that.

But perhaps the British Army will keep its name. It might do that. But as I’ve said: it will be denuded not only about 10% of its strength, as will the other services, but it will lose much of the power of its history. Reputation is important. It affects the morale of both friends and foes; ‘Win the war before you even begin to fight it!’ said someone quite wise. The absence of the British Army will not make the world a better place – promise.

If the people in Scotland who have a vote (see above) decide to go their own way, then there is probably nothing we can do about it. Democracy is still it. But it will present all sorts of challenges, not least for our military structures. Do we fully comprehend that? I wonder.


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.

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?