There’s more than one reason why defence chiefs shouldn’t criticise politicians

General Sir Nicholas Houghton’s appearance on the Andrew Marr Show last Sunday has caused controversy, particularly for these remarks:

ANDREW MARR:
…Of course we now have the leader of the opposition who says quite openly he would never press the nuclear button. Does that worry you?
GENERAL SIR NICHOLAS HOUGHTON:
Well it … it would worry me if that, er, thought was translated into power as it were because …
ANDREW MARR:
So if he wins, he’s a problem?
GENERAL SIR NICHOLAS HOUGHTON:
Well there’s a couple of hurdles to cross before we get to that.
ANDREW MARR:
Of course.
GENERAL SIR NICHOLAS HOUGHTON:
But the reason I say this – and it’s not based on a personal thing at all, it’s purely based on the credibility of deterrence. The whole thing about deterrence rests on the credibility of its use. When people say you’re never going to use the deterrent, what I say is you use the deterrent you know every second of every minute of every day and the purpose of the deterrent is that you don’t have to use it because you successfully deter.

I find it very worry that the serving Chief of the Defence Staff of the British Armed Forces is saying publicly that (paraphrasing slightly) he “would worry” if the leader of the opposition gets into power as Prime Minister. In fact I find that absolutely staggering. It is redolent of military coups. This officer has no place whatsoever casting general doubts on the capability of the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition to hold prime ministerial office.

But there is another reason why defence chiefs should not open their mouths on TV in such a way.

They sound like total idiots, and do not have the ability or the position to follow up their statements with sustained argument. Because they are not politicians.

In other words, Sir Nicolas will be safely back at his desk counting warheads when the rest of us are asking “Who the heck are you trying to deter? – Brezhnev died 33 years ago and the Soviet Union died 24 years ago.”

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist. He is one of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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44 Comments

  • Eddie Sammon 12th Nov '15 - 6:00pm

    I wrote a complaint to the Guardian reader’s editor over coverage over this. The truth is that the other week the Guardian and Lib Dems were saying how the Lords needed to intervene to “protect the poor”, but when a military chief intervenes to protect the country there is talk about “the fundamental important of liberal democracy”.

    It is nonsense. The truth is that if a defence chief praised Corbyn the left wouldn’t bat an eyelid. I thought Nicholas Houghton went too far, but I couldn’t stomach lectures about liberal democracy from Lords supporting leftists.

  • “This officer has no place whatsoever casting general doubts on the capability of the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition to hold prime ministerial office.”

    Lets try that a few of different ways:

    ‘This Teacher has no place whatsoever casting general doubts on the capability of the [leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition]/[ Prime minister/minister] to hold prime ministerial office.’

    ‘This Doctor has no place whatsoever casting general doubts on the capability of the [leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition]/[Prime minister/minister] to hold prime ministerial office.’

    ‘This Police Officer has no place whatsoever casting general doubts on the capability of the [leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition]/[Prime minister/minister] to hold prime ministerial office.’

    I prefer that we have a convention that people are free to criticise, but they are expected to be able to defend their position. Or we could ban public servants from criticising the government using their roles as credentials to do so. I would rather hear the criticism but the second at least is logically consistent.

  • Eddie it is the job of politicians to interfere in politics. It is the job of the military to act on behalf of whoever is elected by the people of Britain and not showing partisan political views also comes with the job. And of course if he had praised Corbyn some on the Left would have thought fair enough, but others would be saying what I’ve just said and the Right would have been screaming and crying like they do whenever a religious leader or, celeb says anything and followed up with more wailing about the perceived bias of the BBC. I’m sorry, but military leaders don’t get to mouth of on TV about politicians. It’s a disgrace and quite frankly he should be fired because you cannot have blatantly partisan military leaders in a democracy. He could have just told Andrew Marr that the question was inappropriate or not appeared on his show in the first place.

  • Dave Orbison 12th Nov '15 - 6:24pm

    Eddie as a ‘leftie’ (well by some people’s benchmark anyway) you make far too many assumptions and you do not speak for me. Even allowing for what you say, “two wrongs do not make a right”.

    The military do not have any constitutional mandate to get involved in politics – the Lords do. Are there any positive example in any democracy, anywhere, where such interventions have been positive? In news reports any sabre rattling by overseas military personnel is invariably seen, quite rightly, as negative and alarming.

    Even if you were not convinced by this where was the balance to Houghton? There are many former UK military leaders who have opposing views to that of Houghton – but these were not aired of course.

    As for the House of Lords I have always been dead against it. I haven’t changed my mind because for once they did something useful. I agree there should be an elected revising chamber too. But regarding their Lordships actions on the Tax Credits – a) there seemed arguments for and against whether they should have been able to do what they did and so, in my mind, there was no ‘knockout blow’ from that perspective, but more importantly and decisively to my mind b) the Government simply had no electoral mandate on these specific measure, in fact quite the reverse. Not only were these measures NOT in their manifesto, both Cameron and Gove, during the election campaign, gave assurances such cuts would not be made. In the court of public opinion at least, they did not enter the debate with a clean pair of hands and so were in no position to lecture others as to the ‘rights and wrongs’ of their actions.

  • “All that General Houghton does is explain in simple terms how deterrence works”
    “it would worry me if that, er, thought was translated into power as it were”

    no he is giving an opinion about a political decision.

    it is not up to the cds whether we have or don’t have a nuclear deterrent that is a political decision. If he is told to use it he has to use it. If he is told to scrap it then he has to scrap it. It is the politicians elected by the public who decide.

    The strategy of use is made by the senior defence staff but not the actual use.

    actually the idea of a nuclear deterrent is somewhat discredited by the fact that it relies on a submarine launched system. now that the major powers have submarine tracking potential it means that it can be removed by a pre-emptive strike and without knowing the aggressor. In threat terms it has not been effective for around 25 years when submarine tracking moved on.

  • jedibeeftrix 12th Nov '15 - 7:11pm

    “it’s purely based on the credibility of deterrence. The whole thing about deterrence rests on the credibility of its use. When people say you’re never going to use the deterrent, what I say is you use the deterrent you know every second of every minute of every day and the purpose of the deterrent is that you don’t have to use it because you successfully deter.”

    Statement of fact.

  • Dave Orbison 12th Nov '15 - 7:34pm

    Simon Shaw there is nothing ludicrous about Corbyn’s position. He gave a truthfull answer God forbid we should encourage politicians to give honest answers. Had he said ‘yes’ you and others would have lambasted him as being a hypocrite. The Labour Party’s position historically supports Trident, Corbyn does not. He is not a dictator and so has not changed the party’s position to his on being elected. He will encourage open debate and a democratic vote on the issue. I think that is honest, sensible and democratic. What’s the alternative and would you prefer that?

  • “They sound like total idiots, and do not have the ability or the position to follow up their statements with sustained argument. Because they are not politicians.”

    I would like to see some politicians answer questions so directly, he also only repeated what several members of Corbyns own Shadow Cabinet had already said. As to whether he could follow his Statement (which was not a statement but a direct answer) with sustained argument, I would imagine that anyone who has been through Staff College could argue the point for hours…

    He also did not venture an opinion on whether there should be a deterrent merely how to use it effectively as a deterrent rather than a weapon system. I don’t think anyone, whatever their position on the benefit or otherwise of Trident can argue that as a deterrent it is useless if those it seeks to deter know it will never be used.

    Personally I’d scrap it if the spend could stay in Defence but I doubt Corbyn has that in mind!!!!

  • @Simon Shaw – Agree the General was simply saying how it was, namely how the deterrent game of poker works.

  • A Social Liberal 12th Nov '15 - 7:51pm

    When a civilian joins the armed forces he or she temporarily gives ups various rights. Amongst them the right to publicly criticise or complain about public figures and those soldiers superiors (except – to the latter – through rigorous and formal channels). Nor are they allowed to make public, political statements.

    This removal of rights goes right to to the top of the chain of command, up to and including CDS. Thus Gen Houghton was wrong to make a public, political statement no matter how off the cuff that statement was.

  • @A Social Liberal
    They do not give up the right to honestly answer a question. Anyone who has held a position of leadership in the forces is taught not to ask questions you do not want to here an answer to as service personnel are often brutally honest. If any senior member of the armed forces were to be asked – for example in a parliamentary committee – whether Trident would act as a deterrent if it was known it would never under any circumstances be used, they would give a similar answer.

    The real problem here is Corbyn should never have made his statement, it was naive and makes a mockery of Paul saying that Soldiers don’t have the skills of politicians. His answer pretty much ensured that senior members of the armed forces would be put on the spot as CDS was. Corbyn could have stated that he didn’t believe that Trident should be renewed, but that, if he were PM, he would take National Security decisions based upon the advice and resources available at the time. That would have satisfied no one, but it wouldn’t have left every Senior Officer interviewed with the dilemma of evasion or truth.

  • 1. @ Social Liberal : Well put and correct.

    2. The military have threatened action in the past. In 1914, Asquith’s Liberal Government faced ‘mutiny’ at the Curragh over Irish Home Rule. In 1924 the former Head of Naval Intelligence, Admiral Hall was implicated in the ‘Zinoviev Letter’ used before polling day to bring down the MacDonald Labour Government. In 1967 Cecil King failed to get a coup off the ground with Mountbatten and the wonderfully named Sir Basil Smallpiece.

    3. On Trident, I prefer the judgement of three retired British Military Commanders to the views of Mr Simon Shaw. They wrote to The Times in 1909 :

    ” UK does not need a nuclear deterrent. It is difficult to see how the United Kingdom can exert any leadership and influence if we insist on a costly successor to Trident.

    This force cannot be seen as independent of the United States in any meaningful sense. It relies on the United States for the provision and regular servicing of the D5 missiles.

    Should this country ever become subject to some sort of nuclear blackmail from a terrorist group it must be asked against whom, our nuclear weapons could be used, or even threatened, to deter or punish. Nuclear weapons have shown themselves to be completely useless as a deterrent to the threats and scale of violence we currently, or are likely to, face particularly international terrorism. Our independent deterrent has become virtually irrelevant except in the context of domestic politics. Rather than perpetuating Trident, the case is much stronger for funding our Armed Forces with what they need to meet the commitments actually laid upon them. In the present economic climate it may well prove impossible to afford both.
    Field Marshal Lord Bramall former Chief of the Defence Staff
    General Lord Ramsbotham former Commander of Field Army
    General Sir Hugh Beach former Deputy Commander in Chief UK Land Forces”

  • nvelope2003 12th Nov '15 - 9:34pm

    So soldiers (and presumably other professional people by implication) are total idiots and politicians are not ? I think I have heard it all now. I just wonder what the ordianry voter would make of this but mercifully most of them do not read LDV.

  • Dave Orbison 12th Nov '15 - 9:40pm

    Simon – Your desire to put Corbyn down is preventing you from accepting basic facts. What is ludicrous is wasting money on something that will never be used when other needs such as health, welfare and housing are underfunded. We will never use these weapons on our own. Our contribution to the nuclear armoury is negligible. These weapons have not stopped wars, aggression by Russia, even attacks by Argentina or terrorists. Corbyn advocates spending this money on better defence options and on meeting other needs. He is only 2 months into his leadership and is seeking to persuade others to oppose Trident whilst respecting others who disagree with him. Democracy is not served by leaders simply imposing their will as if infallible. If you find this ludicrous or cannot understand that it takes time to change policy that’s up to you. I do however share your hope that Corbyn remains leader but don’t have the same crystal ball as you as to the future.

  • @ Simon Shaw. You are inventing straw men and then knocking them down.

    Mr Corbyn has never said he would retain Trident…. what he has said is that he would never press the button. Two quite different things.

  • David Raw – The Labour party policy is to retain a nuclear deterrent, but the Labour leader says he would not press the button. How does that make any sense?

  • A Social Liberal 12th Nov '15 - 10:36pm

    Steve Wray

    you were either a very senior officer or looking at your time in with rose tinted glasses. If a visiting general asked me the usual inane questions – getting your mail? Boots fit? Any complaints? And I replied that yes, I have a complaint – that my wife hasn’t seen me for three days because I have been on the hanger floor getting aircraft ready for standards. All because the ASM is a plonker and incapable of decent allocation of manpower – well I would be in the guardhouse before I knew it, getting a stripey suntan.

    Similarly if the Colonel went up to a platoon commander in the mess and asked how he was finding the unit and got a reply that basically the company was a mess because the OC wasn’t up to the job, well the platoon commander would be doing day on, day off Duty Officer duties for the rest of his life. Basically hard answers are for equals or when answering lower ranks – questions from senior officers to those of much lesser rank should be treated as being rhetorical.

    With regards to Gen Houghton theoretically being called up by the defence committee – personally I want him to say something along the lines of the question was political and shouldn’t have been asked, if pressed he should appeal to the chair and if forced to give an answer then say something along the lines of he did not have a view one way or another.

  • Little Jackie Paper 12th Nov '15 - 11:26pm

    Corbyn’s approach to this has taken me somewhat by surprise. In public the Conservatives are plainly behind trident, but I do wonder if their more cut-happy types would be open to persuasion on at the very least asking the question about trident and the deficit. This needn’t be politically partisan. Head-in-the-clouds maybe?

    Trident today is, of course, less about deterrence and more about geopolitics. But that’s a whole other story.

    Shaw – ‘If he doesn’t succeed in changing policy then that’s when we really are into ludicrous policy time i.e. keeping Trident but with a candidate for PM who has publicly announced that he would never contemplate using it.’

    OK…But I would suggest that Labour (or anyone else) would be well within their rights to take that to the voters. Keeping trident for geopolitical purposes but not foreseeing use is not I think totally outlandish?

    I’ll let you tell me I’m stupid now.

  • Eddie Sammon 12th Nov '15 - 11:59pm

    Hi Dave Orbison. I did think soon after I published that comment “maybe I made too many generalisations there”. I will try to make fewer generalisations in future.

  • Peter Watson 12th Nov '15 - 11:59pm

    @Simon Shaw “his position as a non-dictatorial Labour Party Leader is one of supporting the retention of Trident.”
    In much the same way as Nick Clegg’s position as a non-dictatorial Lib Dem party leader was to oppose tuition fees and top-down reorganisation of the NHS. Some party leaders hold different views to their party, and in the case of Corbyn pressing a button, it would be a matter for his personal conscience at the time rather than something for his party to vote on during the three minute warning. As far as a deterrent is concerned, the point has been made many times before that if Corbyn is as untrustworthy as his political opponents depict, why should Britain’s enemies believe that he really would not press the button?

    Since this is a Lib Dem site rather than the Jeremy Corbyn Depreciation Society, what exactly is Lib Dem policy on Trident (it seems to be very fuzzy and involve long grass)? And looking to the current Lib Dem leader, has Tim Farron declared that his Christian beliefs are consistent with pressing a button to kill millions of innocent people?

  • Peter Watson 13th Nov '15 - 12:38am

    @Simon Shaw “Why does it matter? Does anyone seriously expect Tim to be PM in 2020? ”
    If Lib Dem policy and the views of its leader do not matter, what exactly is the point of the Lib Dems?

  • Peter Watson 13th Nov '15 - 7:49am

    P.S. For the avoidance of doubt, I think that Lib Dem policy and the views of its leader do matter.
    By all means criticise other parties and their leaders, but if the Lib Dem position is not clear (and if it might not be all that different from what Lib Dems are attacking) then those criticisms make the party appear confused, hypocritical and opportunistic.
    If Lib Dems want to exploit Corbyn and Labour’s beliefs and policies (or Cameron and the Conservatives) then they should explain and demonstrate how they offer a good alternative, and on the subject of Trident and button-pressing Lib Dems and their leader do not appear to have a strong foundation from which to attack others..

  • Dave Orbison 13th Nov '15 - 8:00am

    Simon “[re Tim Farron’s position on pushing the button] why does it marred? Does anyone seriously expect Tim to be PM in 2020?”

    Well, judging by your contributions you are absolutely convinced Corbyn has no chance of being elected. You leave no room for doubt and you add that you are would be delighted for Corbyn to remain leader as this will ensure Labour will not return as a Government. In which case, and based on your own logic re Tim, why are you so bothered about Corbyn’s position?

  • Dave Orbison 13th Nov '15 - 8:01am

    Typo why does it matter.

  • As a People we have to be able to defend our people. Never let anyone else do your thinking for you.. There is no harm in putting a shot into the bush and see what flies out. The armoured fist in the velvet glove is perhaps the best deterrent.
    A good Military Appreciation of the situation is a good starting point ! Then speak.!!

  • Jenny barnes 13th Nov '15 - 5:00pm

    There is no button.

  • @Simon Shaw
    “There are two positions which are ‘non-ludicrous’:
    1. Proposing getting rid of Trident and (obviously) saying you wouldn’t ‘press the button’
    2. Keeping Trident and giving the standard response (I’m sure there is one) if asked if you would ‘press the button'”

    Since the Lib Dems don’t take either of your two non-ludicrous positions, I presume you agree with me that the Lib Dem position on Trident is ludicrous.

    All you’ve actually demonstrated here is that you don’t seem to be able to differentiate between decisions that are taken at a party level (e.g. whether to retain Trident) with decisions that are the sole responsibility of the leader (e.g. whether to press the fabled “button”). That’s just the way it is – as others have pointed out, it’s no more ludicrous than the Lib Dems retaining a leader who voted contrary to party policy on tuition fees.

  • … or on Secret courts.

  • It’s no surprise, Corbyn rendered himself unelectable as a potential Prime Minister immediately he said he would never be prepared to use Trident. The Chief of Staff simply stated the obvious.

  • @Simon Boyd
    “It’s no surprise, Corbyn rendered himself unelectable as a potential Prime Minister immediately he said he would never be prepared to use Trident.”

    So does that mean you (and the other Simon) thought he was electable prior to that? If so you are about the only two people in Britain who did!

    @Simon Shaw
    “What do you consider to be the Lib Dem position on Trident”
    You tell me, you’re the elected representative of the Lib Dems. It certainly isn’t either of the two non-ludicrous positions you posit – or do you think it is?

    “why do you consider it ludicrous?”
    Personally I consider it ludicrous because they don’t actually have a position as such, other than to keep kicking it in to the long grass until a later date and hope that the day never comes when they actually have to commit themselves.

    But if you recall, I was asking if YOU think it’s ludicrous, given that it isn’t one of the two non-ludicrous positions you said it’s possible to take.

    “In addition, when was the Lib Dem Party Leader asked what he would do if PM as regards ‘pressing the nuclear button’?”

    I asked the same question myself a couple of months ago when this was last discussed. For some reason, nobody seems to want to ask him.

  • Dave Orbison 14th Nov '15 - 5:47pm

    Simon Shaw – “the LibDems need to be fully prepared to use it against Labour at the right time”.

    Corbyn’s honest answer by the way wasn’t a gaffe – it was a straight honest answer. You clearly disagree with his stance but it was not a gaffe unless you think he really would press the button. As for “using the ‘Press the button’ issue” for LibDem campaigning purposes now there’s an idea.
    How about a LibDems poster with Tim gleefully pictured with his finger on the button dreaming about how many millions of people will be killed if he presses it. Fantastic! No longer could the LibDems be accused of being soft, wishy washy and all that. What’s more I am sure if your scour the script of Dr Strangelove you will find many more inspiring images to use in support of the illusion that the UK has an independent nuclear ‘deterrent’. You can fantasise about playing war games and wasting billions in the delusion that our 2-3 subs with nuclear warheads (assuming they are in service) would prevent a nuclear holocaust and somehow save lives, well maybe in the next 10, 20 or hundred years, maybe. I would rather that money spent now tackling real and current life-threatening dangers now whether that be from terrorism, life-threatening illness, or poverty.

    If nuclear weapons are so good at preventing war why not give one to every country? Adopt the US NRA insane attitude to gun controls – the more we have the safer we are (just so long as you do not look at the statistics).

  • SIMON BANKS 17th Nov '15 - 5:42pm

    It seems to me Sir Nicholas should have thought twice before appearing on the Andrew Marr Show. The transcript shows he was uncomfortable about the question but trying not to avoid it entirely. It’s the same sort of thing that trapped Nick Clegg sometimes and Sir Nicholas is not a politician. I sympathise with him but I think he made a mistake.

    I do think he should simply have said it wasn’t appropriate for him to answer any question about Jeremy Corbyn’s statements. He might just about have said, “But I can explain how deterrence works”. In fact I agree with him: having a weapon and telling everyone you’ll never use it is not very sensible. I’d favour abandoning Trident, but while we have it, not proclaiming we wouldn’t use it. But for a serving military officer to comment on a political leader’s political position is dangerous. Military leaders criticised Michael Portillo when he was Secretary of State for Defence, but that was for trying to appropriate “Who dares, wins” as a Conservative Party slogan, which was felt to be an attempt to equate support for the military with voting Conservative.

  • Richard Underhill 17th Nov '15 - 10:47pm

    Michael Portillo is against Trident, preferring to spend the MoD money on other things.

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