Major General Richard Shirreff, commander of the British forces in Southern Iraq, has called for a renewal of the "military covenant between the nation and its soldiers", to provide proper support for the military in terms of "training, infrastructure, barracks, accommodation". Though he scrupulously avoided pointing the finger at the Government or any individual group (and rightly so, as financial support for the military was no more forthcoming from the previous Conservative government than from the current administration), the Ministry of Defence (MoD) clearly understood who the message was aimed at. They tried to excuse themselves by pointing out that the defence budget had "steadily risen" by £3.7bn over the past three years.
Let's put that figure into perspective. That £3.7bn represents an increase in spending from £28bn in 2003-4 to around £32bn (anticipated) in 2006-7. Over the same period, spending on social protection increased from £129.5bn to £153bn and on health increased from £72bn to £96bn. That's an extra £24bn each, or almost as much extra as was being spent in total on defence.
In that period, we are told that the economy has been buoyant and unemployment low, and I don't remember any outbreaks of plague or other major medical disasters. Defence commitments, on the other hand, have increased dramatically, to the extent that the army is now getting through more ammunition than at any time since the Second World War. Yet our spending on health and welfare increased by 33% and 18% respectively, whilst spending on defence increased by only 13%. And that is in nominal terms. Allowing for inflation, real defence spending has barely increased at all. We are asking our military to do more with less, while we encourage our bloated public services to do less with more.
Defence of nation, person and property is the first (and some might say the only) duty of government. The Government should be working out what our military need in order to equip them properly to carry out the tasks that they carry out on our behalf (and likewise for the police), before allocating the remainder of the budget to the other departments. If the military need more, the Government should either raise taxes appropriately or cut back spending in other departments to free up the money. Given the rampant increase in the overall tax-take, the only real option is to reduce government-spending in other areas to allow for proper provision for the military. To pursue such an active foreign policy on any other basis is beyond excuse.
The evidence is rife that the Government is making inadequate provision for our troops, whatever protestations they might make. Just in the last couple of weeks, we have heard the story of how the Parachute Regiment will not be able to make training parachute jumps for four years in order to balance the budget, and how Sgt Steven Roberts died because of "unforgivable" delays in providing body armour to troops. In a footnote in today's Times, it is reported that a woman soldier is suing the MoD because she had to leave the army after contracting trench foot, thanks to the failure to provide her with waterproof boots that fit. The best they could do were two sizes too large, so she had to make do with leather boots that were not suitable for the sub-zero temperatures in which she was operating.
The National Audit Office confirmed last month that our armed forces remain under strength, not surprising when they are being asked to put themselves in harm's way sometimes for little more than the minimum wage.
Major General Shirreff's comments echoed those made previously by General Sir Mike Jackson (former head of the Army) and General Sir Richard Dannatt (current head of the Army), and were backed by Colonel Tim Collins. But just as the Government knows better than businessmen how to identify and run profitable enterprises, so it seems also to know better than the leaders of the military what it is that the military really needs.
In future, when Blair, Brown, Cameron or Campbell are naming their latest "winner" to throw money at, consider that the loser who fails to be properly funded as a consequence may be about to be shot at.