Portillo rant triggers a storm in the forces

Blackpool backlash: Nationalist speech is at odds with British plans for European defence. Below we detail the gaffes
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Defence Correspondent

Michael Portillo's anti-European tirade at the Conservative Party Conference on Tuesday outraged members of the armed forces as well as opposition and European politicians.

Ministry of Defence sources said that they were highly embarrassed by the speech, which was not released to them in advance. "If we could have stopped him, we would have," one MoD source said.

But there is irony in the affair. In spite of Mr Portillo's speech, in which he railed against the control of British forces by "Brussels", Britain has been in the lead in developing a common European defence policy.

The armed forces were livid at what one senior officer described as the "prostitution" of their reputation in search of short-term political gain, a gamble which service sources said was likely to backfire.

Mr Portillo referred to the British Special Air Service, the SAS, as striking "a chill down the spine of the enemy", a reference which caused particular offence, as Mr Portillo was seen as hijacking a reputation earned by others. He even ended his speech with the SAS motto, "Who dares, wins".

"He might as well have been wearing a pair of Union Jack boxer shorts," another senior officer said.

Mr Portillo said that Britain would not allow Brussels - by which he apparently meant the European Union rather than Nato - to control its defence policy, and added that "British soldiers, sailors and airmen are willing to give their lives for Britain, not for Brussels".

Yet there has never been a suggestion that the supranational institutions of the EU would be involved in military decision-making. Mr Portillo's speech was irrelevant to Britain's position on European defence.

Britain has been part of Nato since 1949, and has committed thousands of soldiers to action on behalf of the United Nations, in the Gulf in 1991, and since 1992 in Bosnia. But although Britain is playing a leading role in establishing a European defence mechanism, there is no chance that the result will be a European army.

Britain's policy on European defence issues was set out on 1 March. The Government launched proposals for treatment at next year's European Union Inter-Governmental Conference, and for a parallel review within the Western European Union, 10 countries of which are members both of Nato (16 countries) and of the EU (15 countries).

The British proposals involved strengthening the WEU, but not making defence policy subservient to the EU. They covered only crisis management, peace-keeping , sanctions and humanitarian aid. They did not cover full- scale war, including "peace enforcement", which would remain a preserve of Nato, with US involvement.

The Government's policy recognises that although Nato would probably be involved in any large-scale military operations, such as the deployment of a peace-implementation force to Bosnia, "we should not overstrain that commitment by expecting them to intervene in all European security operations ... there may be circumstances where European nations will need to be ready to take the lead, or to act on their own."

The Government's policy, set out in its March memorandum and in the last defence White Paper, is that it would be "wasteful to develop separate, wholly European military structures. Europe should capitalise on the foundation that has been built in Nato".

The White Paper stresses that European defence structures should "encourage and allow flexibility rather than trying to impose undue conformity", showing awareness of the need to avoid situations of the kind imagined by Mr Portillo, when he said that cap badges might be controlled by Brussels.

The rhetoric and the reality

Planet Portillo:

"We will not allow Brussels to control our defence policy ... Britain will not be told when to fight and when not to fight ... Britain is blessed with very brave soldiers, sailors and airmen willing to give their lives. For Britain. Not for Brussels."

Planet Earth

This is what the President of the European Commission, Jacques Santer, called "tilting at windmills" - a problem that is not there, and a grotesque misrepresentation of the true picture. By Brussels, Mr Portillo means the European Union and the idea that the supranational EU institutions would have any direct control over the British armed forces is quite wrong. It is not just that it runs counter to British policy as set out earlier this year; no other country is suggesting it and it is not on the agenda of any EU body.

Britain has led the way with new ideas on how to bolster European security, a fact that Mr Portillo chose to ignore in his speech. It has proposed that Europe should shoulder more of the responsibility for its own security - and the rest of Europe seems to agree.

Although Nato - with North American involvement - would be involved in any large-scale operation, there may be circumstances when European countries will need to be ready to take the lead, or to act on their own. But Britain will retain command of its own forces, though their actions would be co-ordinated with others through the Western European Union. British troops remain under command of British officers and the British government at all times.

Planet Portillo

"Imagine: the European Commission might want to harmonise uniforms and cap badges. Or even to metricate them. The European Court would probably want to stop our men fighting for more than 40 hours a week. They would send half of them home on paternity leave."

Planet Earth

If Mr Portillo had ever served in the armed forces, he would know that they, along with their Nato allies, have been using the metric system for decades. The armed forces are exempt from the other legislation he describes, as they are from every provision of the EU's founding treaties.

Planet Portillo

"We taught the Bosnian Serb generals that the slaughter of civilians will not go unpunished".

Planet Earth

Up to a point. For most of Britain's three years in Bosnia, it has avoided direct action to save Bosnian civilians, and strenuously avoided intervening on one side or the other . Although troops have been robust in their interpretation of the rules of engagement, they have been under orders to defend themselves, not local civilians. Until the recent Nato airstrikes, massacres in Srebrenica and Gorazde went unpunished.

Planet Portillo

"Around the world three letters send a chill down the spine of the enemy: SAS. And those letters spell out a clear message: don't mess with Britain."

Planet Earth

This statement caused fury in the armed forces yesterday. Many asked whether it was statesmanlike to call on the blood, sweat and bravery of others as propaganda at a party conference.

Planet Portillo

"Next week, I shall announce a new strike force drawn from the three services, capable of rapid and long-range deployment".

Planet Earth

Malcolm Rifkind, the former Secretary of State for Defence, announced the formation of a "Joint Rapid Deployment force" on 14 July 1994. This comprises 3 Commando Brigade, 5 Airborne Brigade and 24 Airmobile Brigade. There is nothing new about this force: as Mr Rifkind said: "We shall be looking at how we can develop the capabilities of these forces to enable them to intervene even more effectively and speedily together."

Planet Portillo

"Two recent orders underline that resolve [to give the armed forces the best equipment]: Apache attack helicopters ... and Tomahawk cruise missiles, a weapon so accurate that it can be launched from a submarine 1,000 miles away and guided down a single chimney..."

Planet Earth

On 19 September the White House confirmed that Britain was buying 65 cruise missiles. The Ministry of Defence never confirmed the order - perhaps Mr Portillo wanted to keep the news for the party conference. But can the Tomahawks be guided down a single chimney? Their accuracy is six metres - they'll probably hit the right house, sure, but down the chimney? Unlikely. However, that is more accurate than Mr Portillo can claim to be.