Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website
If ever an anti-spin award is introduced for public servants, perhaps the first recipient should be General Sir Richard Dannatt, head of the British Army, who is currently the target of a New Labour campaign of vilification.  Once Labour’s leading apologist, Lord Foulkes, entered the fray and started parroting the anonymous smears of the Blair-Brown spin machine, General Dannatt must have known he had finally made his mark. In his three years as chief of the general staff, he made what he believed was a principled stand: he was determined to speak openly in a “considered and calculated” way about the Army’s needs and was quite prepared to stand up to Labour’s spin doctors. Despite being briefed against, he has returned regularly to the subject of soldiers’ pay, medical care and living conditions and more importantly warned publicly of the dangers of overstretch due to the demands of the military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Soon after his appointment in 2006, he broke with tradition and instead of conducting a private dialogue with the government he urged the then Prime Minister Tony Blair to accept that British troops would have to be withdrawn “soon” from Iraq or the demands that were being made would seriously damage the effectiveness of the army. Dannatt used to an exclusive interview with the Daily Mail (“We must quit Iraq, says new head of the Army”, 13.10.2006) and a BBC interview on Today to warn that the Iraq campaign could “break” the army unless troop levels were drawn down in order to meet the increased commitment in Afghanistan.  Dannatt’s candour encouraged other service chiefs to speak publicly about their concerns and in recent months there has been a healthy debate – and much more openness – about military thinking, equipment shortages and the like. But when Dannatt returned a week ago from his final visit to Iraq with what he said was a shopping list of requests on behalf of the armed forces in Afghanistan – “more boots on the ground” were required --  the government’s spin machine retaliated. Dannatt had made the point that he had been forced to borrow an American helicopter to visit front-line troops, a highly symbolic statement given the fact that the mounting loss of British soldiers – 18 casualties within a month – was being blamed on the lack of helicopters.  “Keep out of helicopter politics, Army told” was the front-page headline in The Times (16.7.2009) over a report that unnamed Labour sources had accused General Dannatt of playing politics.   But such was the public’s concern over troop losses and the damage being inflicted on the government that the Secretary of State for Defence, Bob Ainsworth, had to order his junior ministers to stop briefing against Dannatt  Nonetheless Lord Foulkes kept up the offensive and told the House of Lords that the head of the army should be reminded of the “importance of loyalty” and rebuked for making comments which “give succour to the enemy”. General Dannatt, who steps down in August, should perhaps be considered for an anti-spin award because of his determination to put his head above the parapet and lead a public debate on the level of support that the army needs.  He said the first thing he did early in 2006 on becoming chief of the general staff was to send a letter to the then Secretary of State for Defence, Des Browne, explaining his concerns. That led to a meeting of an hour and a quarter at which he discussed these issues, “including whether or not I had the freedom to speak publicly”  “I then spoke publicly. So if anyone thinks I was discourteous to speak behind the minister’s back, in fact I wrote to him and discussed those things with him.  “Soldiers knew I would be fighting their case inside the tent and they needed to know their boss was out there putting their case for them and their operations…and every word was considered and calculated”. General Dannatt said he was convinced that military business had to be conducted within a political frame work. “Yes of course there is a line which generals speaking publicly should not cross.  If some people think I have crossed it, that is their judgement and I respect their judgement. I don’t believe I crossed it. I will look back over my shoulder with no regrets on my three years as chief of the general staff”. Not only should General Dannatt be rewarded for being prepared to speak publicly and openly about the Army’s demands but he should also be congratulated on his ability command the news agenda, an ability he demonstrated by offering journalists timely and sometimes exclusive access. 22.4.2007