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The General and the Leader of the Opposition: Corbyn and constitutional convention


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On Remembrance Sunday General Sir Nicholas Houghton, Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) told The Andrew Marr Show  that Jeremy Corbyn’s statement that he would not use nuclear weapons if he became Prime Minister risked undermining Britain’s defence: “The reason I say this — and it’s not based on a personal thing at all — is purely based on the credibility of deterrence. The whole thing about deterrence rests on the credibility of its use.” Politicians and media immediately claimed that General Houghton breached a constitutional convention that serving military personnel may not criticise politicians in public.

This issue last arose in July 2009. The then Chief of the General Staff (CGS), General Sir Richard Dannatt, was strongly critical on Radio 4’s Today programme of the Labour Government’s failure to provide the army with vehicles armoured against roadside bombs.

On 12 March 2010 Vernon Bogdanor, Professor of Government at Oxford, wrote in The Times:

The heads of the Armed Forces are required to serve governments of different political colours. They are, therefore, constitutionally, in a similar position to civil servants. They are not entitled to express views on policy matters that differ from those of the government of the day….

The chiefs of staff, of course, have the right, indeed the duty, to express their views as robustly as possible to ministers, ….[but]….if the heads of the Armed Services, past or present, become partisan, governments will appoint only yes men, who can be relied upon never to challenge ministers. To break the constitutional convention by which the Armed Forces remain politically neutral would, therefore, do lasting damage to the relationship between government and the Armed Services.

Does such a convention exist at all? Does it embrace criticism of the policies of the Leader of the Opposition?  Since General Dannatt was speaking when losses in Afghanistan were at their worst, does any convention override a serving officer’s duty towards those under his command? We may note that no such criticisms are made towards serving Chief Constables speaking out against Government plans to cut spending on their police forces.

British history is strongly opposed to military involvement in politics. Fear that a standing army would act as a force of governmental repression was a major element in the Revolution of 1688. Article 6 of the Bill of Rights therefore provided that no standing army could be maintained in peacetime without the consent of Parliament. Although personnel bore allegiance to the monarch, ultimate control over the army remained with Parliament.

Another former CGS, General Sir Mike Jackson, considers each Chief of Staff to have a dual role. As an officer, he has a duty towards those under his command. He is then required to give effect to the policies of the democratically-elected government of the day. There is, he admits, a fine balance between the two, but he is adamant that no serving officer should involve himself in party politics. The duty towards the troops under his command might permit a chief of staff, or other senior officer, to criticise the Government in public, but he considers this never became necessary during his tenure as CGS.

Any convention surely relates only to the Government of the day, not to the Leader of the Opposition, who is not (and may never be) at the head of a government. What is more significant is a senior officer’s duty towards those under his command, and, in the case of the chiefs of staff, ensuring the effective defence of this country.

The responsibilities of an officer are set out in the commissioning document:

You are therefore carefully and diligently to discharge your Duty as such in the Rank of Second Lieutenant or in such other Rank as We may from time to time hereafter be pleased to promote or appoint you to... and you are in such manner and on such occasions as may be prescribed by Us to exercise and well discipline in their duties such officers, men and women as may be placed under your orders from time to time and to use your best endeavours to keep them in good order and discipline.

And we do hereby Command them to Obey you as their superior Officer, and you to observe and follow such Orders and Directions as from time to time you shall receive from Us, or any your superior Officer, according to the Rules and Discipline of War, in pursuance of the Trust hereby reposed in you.

There is no direct reference to the Government, although the “Orders and Directions... you shall receive from Us” may come indirectly from Ministers as emanations of the Crown. The emphasis of the guidance produced by the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst is  very much on the officer’s duty to his subordinates, and the subordinate’s duty to obey him, though this is not to suggest that the commissioned officer does not also have a duty to obey his own superior commissioned officers.

General Houghton presumably appeared on The Andrew Marr Show with the approval of the Defence Secretary. His remarks involved no criticism of the Government, but instead the stance on nuclear weapons expressed by the current Leader of the Opposition. As in the case of General Dannatt, who was criticised by supporters of the Government, complaints that General Houghton overstepped the mark have come mainly from the Opposition, specifically by those protective of Jeremy Corbyn.

Perhaps, then, constitutional convention is no more than a convenient hook on which to hang criticism of someone else’s views.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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