Squaddies’ Pay: The Holy Fiscal Hand Grenade

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.

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6 thoughts on “Squaddies’ Pay: The Holy Fiscal Hand Grenade

  1. Neutral says:

    Why preserve armed forces pay? They’re not exactly overpaid right now. One could view it as matching the exceptional commitment asked of them (risking legs blown off). That’s just good manners.

    If there continues to be cuts for a further ten years, no doubt this could be reconsidered. That looks like a weak slippery-slope argument to me.

    • When one considers what the “blunt end” of the spear does, most of them aren’t likely to get their legs blown off. Nor, for that matter, are serious numbers of them likely to be put in harm’s way after 2014 (unless David Cameron does something seriously stupid). Once large scale operations cease, I think the public will grow weary of the demands for protected status rather quickly if it’s handled badly.

      One slightly more provocative argument is that if the army is fulfilling its quotas, why should we pay more for them? After all, there’s an awful lot of people out of work, supply and demand, etc.

  2. A says:

    ” The problem as I see it is there are two relationships at work, the public/armed forces relationship and the politicians/public relationship. ”

    Well… yes that is the state trinity: People/Government/Armed Forces.

    It is all well and good talking about if the people are going to start becoming annoyed with the armed forces. But the interesting question is what if the armed forces start to become annoyed with the people? As you say the soldiers are the only members of the state bar specialist police organisations which use guns…. The country is effectively disarmed.

    There is a very obvious reason why the government tiptoe around the armed forces and the people laud and praise them, and abhor any talk of cuts. You compare them at the start of this piece with the public sector bureaucrats having their pay-checks frozen. But there is a huge difference between an institution which exists to sit flabbily behind a desk collating figures and an institution which exists, at least at the pointy end, to close with and kill its enemies. Any comparison between the two in real terms is disingenuous.

    The Armed forces is an entirely independent pillar of the state trinity. The Government should not forget it.

    • If the British armed forces got annoyed at the people, there’s not much they could do about it. Our armed forces are so small that there’s no way that a full-scale coup d’etat could sustain itself. More to the point, I think we have a sufficiently strong military culture that such an eventuality is unthinkable to most in charge.

      The second point is I think more problematic. In part because the flabby bureaucrats do things like dole out welfare payments and keep the NHS going which are vital services (unless you exist at the extreme fringe of the Conservative party). Furthermore, in modern militaries, a considerable number of people are bureaucrats who will never be directly responsible for killing people.

    • A says:

      I’m not talking about a coup d’etat. I am talking about break away of certain independent parts or even individuals. The kind of breakaway that will not be traditional at all and will cause untold chaos. (The Met police were castrated by a combination of disabling legislation and a mob of youths. Think what a professional, taking advantage of this could do) I think we need to seriously consider the role of the armed forces in a post-Hiroshima world. When that weapon was detonated, the era of inter-state warfare was essentially over (bar flea-ridden backwaters). The impression the government cloaks its foreign policy with is still the grand territorial inter-state kind which is perhaps intended to mislead the public or perhaps nobody in the Government actually realises what is going on. The vast majority of our defence budget is spent on weaponry for inter-state warfare; Aircraft carriers, 5th generation fighter jets, naval vessels specialised for shooting down said jets. All useless, if there was ever a war in which these weapons could be used as intended, even victory would bring us crushing and obliterating defeat. Because the only opponents capable of meeting these weapons on equal terms are fielded by other nuclear states or backed by other nuclear states, and all have safeguards which mean that their territory could be a scorched wasteland, their people ashes, but as long as there is a single finger left to push the button, their weapons will soon be detonating over the enemy population centres, perhaps as the victory parades make their way through the street. The state as an institution has created a weapon which is only truly effective against a state. It has driven itself out of the war game. There is no scenario in which a major state can now go to war against another without committing suicide. Because defeat and victory have stopped having meaning.

      It is still undeniable that the number one need of a subject people is: “protect us and our material possessions”

      The Armed Forces also provides a buffer and barrier between state and people in the trinity. Protecting one against the tyranny of the other. If it disappeared or was reduced to a meaningless extent then the state would undeniably collapse. That is why there is simply no comparison between the armed forces and certain bureaucratic institutions. There are states without a national health service, there are states without a ministry of education, there are states without a ministry of entertainment. There are no states without an army, no states without a people and no states without a Government. Your comparisons are not part of the trinity, they are merely the flotsam of a colossal bureaucracy driven by gargantuan population, they remain, and will always remain a component of the Government pillar of the trinity.

  3. Tony says:

    I will never get back the 5 mins I have wasted reading such utter nonsense. Time to stop reading this website.
    Kings of ….time to get a proper education.

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