In the week when David Cameron sought to assure the public that his government was not just “a bunch of accountants”, there was an undeniable irony in Philip Hammond’s rhetoric over defence cuts, “As a business man, I am interested in productivity.” If the Prime Minister wants to ensure that a large number of otherwise safe Tory voters are alienated come 2015, then keeping the Defence Secretary at his post until then will achieve just that.
At a time when cuts are being made across all government departments and when wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have increased the spending on the military to unsustainable levels, creating a £38 billion black hole, there is no doubt that cuts have to be made. But Hammond’s complete lack of tact when addressing the impact of these cuts demonstrates his resolute lack of understanding for the armed forces. Few thought that anyone would eclipse the PR disaster that was the Chancellor’s Budget announcement, but Hammond has demonstrated his ability to do just that this week as condemnation from the public and all three parties rained down upon his comment that there is “no room for sentiment” with regards to plans to disband any number of historic infantry regiments with famous names and cap badges. “It is not the case that all Army units as they once did have strong geographical recruitment ties”, he further commented.
…no room for sentiment…
At a time when the war in Afghanistan continues to grow in unpopularity with an increasing number of blue on green attacks and no clear sense of achievement, Hammond is playing with fire when passing judgement on military tradition. The last round of MOD cuts in 2005 saw major demonstrations over the amalgamation of the Scottish infantry regiments. Despite the protests, there was an operational and economic necessity to do it. Indeed the harsh reality is that there is no room for sentiment when many decisions aimed at improving efficiency are made. And yet that doesn’t mean sentiment ceases to exist.
Hammond’s inability to recognise the strength of this sentiment is where he is going wrong. As Shadow Defence Secretary, Jim Murphy, said this week, “Defence is about more than inputs, outputs and spreadsheets. It is also about people, tradition and pride.” When young British soldiers continue to die in Afghanistan, defence cuts have to be treated differently. The public exposure the armed forces have received from Iraq and Afghanistan has created a fragile emotive discourse, seen in Wootten Bassett for example, that the public can relate to. With the ever increasing dilution of British identity and culture, the military continues to be a popular target for public expressions of sympathy and appreciation, especially when soldiers are laying down their lives in the service of their country. The reality of this relationship is something that Hammond’s corporate approach can’t appreciate.
…tradition and regionalism has a function to play within the military…
The protests in 2005, and those on the horizon in the coming months are proof enough of the regional identity people continue to have with the armed forces. Indeed, there is no doubt that regional identification plays a significant role in recruitment into the army. It is no coincidence that recruiting numbers in Scotland have declined since the 2005 amalgamations and the decision to station troops away from their traditional recruiting grounds. But more than that, tradition and regionalism has a function to play within the military in shaping the cohesion and ethos that underpins operational tours. Furthermore, as the Army Board’s paper “What is best in the Regimental System” states, “The Corps or Regiment is regarded as a family – the military community in which most British soldiers do all their operational service and which embraces and cares for them and their families and dependants literally unto death.” If Philip Hammond could recognise the support network, both informal and formal, that regiments provide to families, he would be more sentimental in his approach.
Images courtesy of Dave Dyet