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The Generals and the EU Referendum

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The issue of whether senior military officers, serving or retired, should involve themselves in political issues has emerged again. By a certain irony, given past opposition to the service chiefs criticising government policy over the Armed Forces, David Cameron has sought backing from retired senior officers for his campaign to remain in the EU.

A letter drafted by a Special Adviser was circulated among retired chiefs of staff and others, and appeared in the Daily Telegraph on 23 February over the names of 13 Generals, Admirals and Air Marshals, headed by Field Marshal Lord Bramall. Within hours, General Sir Michael Rose, former UN Commander in Bosnia and earlier Director Special Forces, announced publicly that he had not in fact signed the letter. Interviewed by Sky News, Sir Michael said that he had been sent the letter in draft, but had not replied, and was actually preparing “a contrary argument”. He added, tellingly, “I have doubts about the wisdom of using military officers for a political campaign.” The Office of the Prime Minister then apologised to him, blaming “an administrative error”.

On 24 February, the Telegraph reported Lord Bramall as saying:

"It is not the kind of letter I would have originated myself, but the Prime Minister's office presented me with a "fait accompli", saying that many other senior officers had agreed to sign it. What I find really unfortunate is that a really big decision that will affect the country for generations to come has descended into a messy political squabble."

An unnamed retired officer was more succinct: 

"This subject is far too important for us to be dictated to by an over-ambitious junior spin doctor.”

The extent to which the Telegraph  - a newspaper read by many serving and retired officers – took the initiative in publishing the letter is unclear, but clearly it is now seeking to distance itself from Downing Street. It added that, apart from Sir Michael Rose, two former Chiefs of the Defence Staff, and the most recent Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Peter Wall, had also declined to sign the letter. The press might also have argued that it would be more proper to leave Lord Bramall in peace following other recent events, and that he might be forgiven for signing something without giving it proper consideration.

I argued in an earlier contribution to History & Policy that politicians of differing political persuasions, while arguing that serving military officers should not criticise their policies in public, have no compunction in expecting them to endorse those policies in the media, and to claim that there is a constitutional convention preventing criticism is merely a convenience for the politicians. On this occasion the politicians, specifically the Prime Minister and supporters of a ‘Remain’ vote at cabinet level have gone further, and cynically recruited distinguished military men to promote their cause. One wonders what sort of ‘pressure’ - to use the language of the Telegraph on 24 February - may have been applied by Downing Street. Six of the 12 signatories to the Telegraph letter were made life peers on leaving office, as were two of the four known not to have signed. It is tempting to suggest that David Cameron, keen to increase Conservative strength in the House of Lords, may have dangled the possibility of further peerages before those who received the draft letter, although it should be noted that some of the six sit in the Lords as crossbenchers.

Or was there more subtle pressure? When the position of Chief of the Defence Staff was created in 1959, it became customary for each appointee to be promoted to five-star rank in his own service, as a Field Marshal, Admiral of the Fleet or Marshal of the Royal Air Force, on taking office. Each head of the individual services (Chief of the General Staff, First Sea Lord or Chief of the Air Staff), was also promoted to five-star rank on leaving office. This had a twofold significance. One was prestige, not least because five-star officers never retire, but remain serving on half pay, until death. As a cost-cutting measure (half pay being more expensive to provide than pensions), John Major’s Government announced in 1995 that there would be no more promotions to five-star rank. In consequence, of the eight signatories to the letter who were either CDS or heads of individual services, only Lord Bramall actually reached five-star rank. However, since 2012 a number of retired service chiefs have been promoted to honorary five-staff rank, so gaining the prestige, without the half pay.

Henri IV of France famously declared that Paris was worth a mass. Could it be that David Cameron hoped a Field Marshal’s baton was worth a signature?

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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