It’s budget-fiddling time in Britain, and once again, with stunning predictability, George Osborne uttered the words: “The armed forces will be excluded from these reforms.” In my opinion, this is a mistake. Of course, we’re currently staring down the post-Afghanistan defence cuts, which are leading many to leave the armed forces, or what will be left of them in a year or two’s time. What irks me about the ‘save the forces’ reflex is precisely that it appears to have become a knee-jerk political line, rather than a considered policy. What angers most people about government spending? The fact that overseas aid is ring-fenced while everyone else is suffering. What irks younger people? The fact that the generations before us awarded themselves very comfy pensions which are so unsustainable we’ll never have them, and the government refuses to touch the number-one cost of government. Tinkering with £30 million of winter fuel allowance compared to a hundred billion-odd in state pensions is re-arranging deck chairs on ships bound for the ocean floor. All these lines are, I’m sure, well tested with political focus groups, but they’re also the sure-fire way to store up anger against a particular cause/constituency in society, and that’s why I think it’s a bad idea to elevate the military by protecting them from cuts. That’s why I think such pointedly-political tinkering is bad for the UK’s armed forces in general. The question one might ask is why millions of servants of the state are having their paycheques frozen and terms and conditions altered for the worst, while a hundred thousand or so are protected? More to the point, why are the opposition spinning out army education schemes while everyone else on the public payroll are left to, err, rot?
The military is different to other public sector workers. Apart from a few police officers, no-one else is employed to use a gun, much less the kind of advanced weapon systems that might be necessary to defend the UK should some state or other be stupid enough to attack a NATO state. The problem as I see it is there are two relationships at work, the public/armed forces relationship and the politicians/public relationship. There are quite proper limits to public tolerance of the excessive spending on our armed forces. We face no existential threat, much of what has gone on for the last decade or so hasn’t been ‘properly explained’ to the general public. But at the same time, the men and women of the UK’s armed forces are signing up to put their lives on the line for the rest of society. These two tend to balance out in favour of the military. Unfortunately, the second ‘relationship’ works on a kind of ratchet: both political parties score points with the public by lauding the armed forces and placing them on higher, and higher, pedestals. Yet both sides know that it is political poison to be seen to denigrate them, or cut them. In other words, politicians have turned the military into a holy hand grenade, and won’t stop praising them for fear of it going off. I will admit that this metaphor is a cheap way to link to Monty Python, but you catch my drift. The rituals are pretty much carved into stone at this point. If another five or ten years of cuts and retrenchment continues, it will be impossible to protect the UK’s armed forces in a way that the government has thus far sought to do. If the politicians continue to score points by pouring money into the military (or refusing to take it away) then at some point the general public will get annoyed at the status of the military in society, if they aren’t at that point already. Politicians have a duty to preserve the armed forces, but that requires public support. The knee-jerk reaction to ring-fence soldiers’ pay might come at the cost of public support for the armed forces in the long term.