Mary Dejevsky: What is the role of our armed forces if it's not to defend us?

G4S appears to have convinced doubters that all was fine, until suddenly it was not

Share

When a judge ruled that residents of Fred Wigg Tower in east London would have to put up and shut up over the siting of a missile battery on their roof, justifications included the resonant, almost archaic, "defence of the realm". You can argue until kingdom come whether the Olympics should present a security threat of that order – ministers keep reiterating that they are about sport not security – but after the Black September attack in Munich 40 years ago, and the temptation for the aggrieved to seek spectaculars to rival 9/11, it does not seem unreasonable for any government to treat the Games as a potential target. It would rather be remiss if it did not.

Which is why the Home Office announcement yesterday, two weeks before the Opening Ceremony, that 3,500 troops were to be drafted in to help with security came as – one hesitates to write the words – such a bombshell. Where the missiles in east London, plus HMS Ocean in the Thames, Typhoon fighter jets at Northolt and Puma helicopters in Ilford, have been ridiculed in some quarters as overkill, the belated discovery that a private-security firm has failed to train sufficient staff looks an awful lot like underkill.

No wonder the Home Secretary, Theresa May, was on less than sparkling form in the Commons when she tried to defend the decision to bring in troops. It was not the decision that needed explaining so much as the inordinate trust invested by ministers and the Olympics organisers in the private-security company, G4S. May's evasiveness on the matter of penalties was perhaps the most unsatisfactory of all her unsatisfactory answers. What on earth were the terms of that contract – a contract whose fulfilment was bound to have a bearing on our national reputation – if it could be broken at such a late stage and to such a degree? Heads, as is said in equivalent circumstances, should roll, not least at G4S, which appears to have convinced doubters that everything was all fine, until suddenly it was not.

In the end, though, this sorry episode might do this Government and its successors a favour. For the healthier response to the announcement that the army is to be brought in to staff checkpoints is not "how disgraceful", but "what took them so long?" Why was London's Olympic security seen as a suitable case for delegation to a private company rather than a fundamental aspect, during this summer at least, of our national security?

To put it another way, as an Olympic sportsperson or a spectator, would you rather have your ID and your bag checked by someone selected, trained and disciplined to the exacting standards of the British military, or someone rushed through a mainly box-ticking exercise to make up the numbers and save a commercial contract? Would you prefer the safety of the Olympic Park to rely on temporary agency workers, however carefully selected and vetted, or people who are accustomed to taking orders and owe their allegiance to the Crown? The absurdity of the question is its own answer.

So why was a private-security company, albeit a huge one with a track record of government contracts, preferred to the military when the plans for London 2012 were drawn up? One reason might be that the military had more pressing, more important, perhaps more "professional" things to do, such as keeping the peace in Sierra Leone, preparing the exit from Iraq and fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. As successive home secretaries liked to say with reference to terrorism: "We're fighting over there so we don't have to fight over here."

That is one way of looking at it. But if our troops are so busy in foreign parts that they do not have the numbers to "defend the realm" back here, or do not see it as a priority, then something is very wrong. Few doubt that soldiers, by and large, like to do what they are trained for and recent wars, while widely unpopular, have in fact benefited recruitment. But if economics mean we cannot do it all, surely the home front should come first?

There may also be a more complicated reason. An endearing, and entirely positive, characteristic of the British is an aversion to militarisation. Of course, we like pageantry and parades, but not the serious stuff, such as sharpshooters on the roof (or missiles). Years ago, there was public criticism when the guards at Buckingham Palace and elsewhere had their old rifles replaced with scary modern automatics. And the show of hardware, including tanks, at Heathrow in the run-up to the Iraq war, prompted indignation in Parliament and an inquest into who had given the order. The Government was, therefore, concerned that the Olympics – so far as possible – did not look like a military exercise.

But there was surely another reason, too, for hiring G4S: the fetish of the last government and this one with trying to slim the State by "outsourcing" anything that others are thought able to do. That anything now includes all sorts of security functions. It includes building and staffing new prisons; transporting prisoners to and from court; apprehending and removing illegal migrants. The creation of the UK Border Agency to staff and enforce frontier controls – the title placing it at arm's length from government – was part of the same trend.

Yet there are some functions that are absolutely crucial to the State, and ensuring security – of citizens or the frontier, or the once-in-a lifetime London Olympics – is surely one of them. And if this is not a role for the armed forces, you have to ask what is: fighting latter-day colonial wars?

As announced two weeks ago, the armed forces face severe cuts, in staffing as well as spending. Given the inability of G4S to fulfil its Olympic contract, and the proven inadequacy of the UK Border Agency to control the frontiers, might not a solution be to reorientate the military towards the home front. National security is a prime function of the State, and in this day and age it takes many forms. A smart, mode rn, uniformed force, trained to handle state-of-the-art weapons when required, but also to scan passports, track down illegal migrants and – in this instance – check bags at Olympic Park, would be the acceptable, and trusted, face of British national security. With the fad for privatisation and our misguided foreign adventures, this is something we have not had for a very long time. Unintentionally, but beyond doubt, G4S has shown where private security stops and the responsibility of the State has to start.

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Scrum Master (Agile, Java, team recruitment)

£45000 - £60000 Per Annum + benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Scrum M...

Junior Asset Manager

£25000 - £35000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Junior As...

Investment Analyst

£33000 - £40000 Per Annum Discretionary profit share: The Green Recruitment Co...

Supply teachers required in Cambridge

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Supply teachers requi...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Jennifer Aniston has said it's 'not fair' to place the pressure of motherhood on women  

Like Jennifer Aniston, I am no less of a woman because I am childless

Rachael Lloyd
 

i Editor's Letter: The persistence of a privately educated elite

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

What is the appeal of Twitch?

Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

How bosses are making us work harder

As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

A tale of two writers

Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

Should pupils get a lie in?

Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

Prepare for Jewish jokes...

... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

A dream come true for SJ Watson

Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
10 best cycling bags for commuters

10 best cycling bags for commuters

Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

Paul Scholes column

Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?