There can be no ifs or buts about General Sir Richard Dannatt’s position this weekend. This is not a finely balanced question. The general should resign, and if he will not, then the Prime Minister should instruct the Defence Secretary to remove him. If neither Tony Blair nor Des Browne dare do it, then we have learnt all we need to know about the paralysis now afflicting the Government....and here:
That some of us might agree with every word Sir Richard said to the Daily Mail about Iraq and about the Government’s treatment of wounded servicemen is beside the point. There is a constitutional principle at stake, and it is fundamental. The Armed Forces are not in charge of government policy; ministers are — democratically elected ministers. The Armed Forces are there to implement policy, not attack it. They can and must offer advice, of course, but the advice that Service chiefs offer ministers must be absolutely private. It is not their job to try to influence public debate by making statements to the news media. The general knows HM Government’s policy in Iraq: the Prime Minister has made it very clear. It is to stay for as long as it takes to establish and guarantee a democracy there. There is absolutely no way this can be reconciled with an imperative to withdraw “some time soon”
Gen Sir Richard Dannatt, the new Chief of the General Staff, is well placed to use this tactic. A serious-minded evangelical Christian, he is visibly honest. Although he has plenty of experience in Whitehall, he is respected by colleagues for putting the interests of the Army above those of his own career. He is clearly worried by the strains on his soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. He wanted to tell the Daily Mail just how much hardship they faced, and how much more support (for example, in the medical treatment of the returning wounded) they needed.... and here.
Yet his interview, and his explanation of it on the Today programme yesterday, suggest that he has not mastered the simple-soldier ploy. What he said strayed into politics as if by mistake. He does not seem to understand how news works. Senior soldiers cannot afford to be that simple.
Throughout our history, serving British generals have on the whole shut up. They have followed the Duke of Wellington who said, using a term from Moghul India: "I am nimukwallah. I have eaten the King's salt." They believe in being frank to power, but only in private. If they start to express their views all over the place, they become a force of opinion in the land. Eventually, their opinion is backed by force. That is what happens in banana republics.
The relationships between politicians and senior military figures have often involved creative tension. An exasperated Winston Churchill declared of General Montgomery that he was “in defeat unbeatable, in victory unbear-able”. Those comments were not, however, made to the country at large during the very heat of battle. General Sir Richard Dannatt’s interview, by contrast, was on the record and offered, despite the apparent unease of ministers, as British troops are engaged in conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has been hailed, not least by those against all involvement in Iraq, for his candour. His judgment is less certain than his wisdom on this occasion.Very tough week. Not a fun weekend either from the sounds of it.
The Chief of the General Staff himself appeared to appreciate the damage that he had done by under-taking another round of interviews and issuing a “clarifying” statement yesterday. An individual who had stated in print that “spinning, at the end of the day, is not helpful”, appears to have discovered that spin has its uses. It is to be hoped that the combination of this retraction and Tony Blair’s message of support for the head of the Army will close the matter. For if the clash had been left where it was, General Dannatt would have been marooned in a position where he could not be sacked, yet the politicians with whom he operates may well have lost confidence in him.