Tomorrow week, Britain's most senior army officer takes up a new challenge. On 31 August, a month before retiring as Chief of the General Staff, Sir Richard Dannatt will become the 159th Constable of the Tower of London.
The post has lost many responsibilties and rewards during the millennium since William the Conqueror inaugurated it. No longer can the Constable claim any livestock that falls off boats sailing the Thames, or take a shellfish tithe from passing vessels. All he will snaffle is an annual barrel of rum, which seems fair pay for honorific duties. The Tower hasn't hosted many prisoners, after all, since the Kray Twins did a brief spell of bird back in 1952 for dodging national service.
Even so, Sir Richard wouldn't be human if, on his accession, he didn't indulge a fantasy about the glory days when predecessors could amuse themselves by torturing traitors. Godfearing Christian though he is, he might playfully wonder whether, in a more civilised country, he'd be about to get his branding iron on the Prime Minister.
Treason is a tricky crime to prosecute, and no one's been executed for it in Britain since Lord Haw Haw in 1946, but among the statutory definitions is giving aid or comfort to the sovereign's enemies "in the realm or elsewhere". If failing adequately to equip and protect the troops in Afghanistan counts as aiding the Taliban, then Sir Richard must regard Gordon Brown as a traitor.
The General's despair about the betrayal of the Army has been plain since he marked his promotion in October 2006 with the most incendiary interview any military chief has given in living memory. Then he told a newspaper of his outrage at his soldiers' wretched pay and conditions, and warned his masters of the importance of honouring the military covenant.
Army-Government hostilities, suppressed under his obedient predecessor Sir Mike Jackson, have simmered away ever since, coming to the boil only lately over troop levels and helicopters. The Chief of Defence Staff, Sir Jock Stirrup, stirred up further anguish by joining Sir Richard in requesting more choppers, while the General subtly highlighted the shortage by cadging a lift on an American Black Hawk during his recent visit to Aghanistan.
In this skirmishing, there is nothing new. If Homer had got around to the 25th book of the Iliad, it would have dealt retrospectively with Odysseus's complaints about the Ithacan parliament's failure to requisition sufficient shields and helmets. In 1794, years after moaning that "no one knew anything about the management of the army", the Duke of Wellington chanced across one Private Thomas Atkins, lying mortally wounded at the Battle of Boxtel. "It's all right sir," the original Tommy supposedly told him moments before expiring, "All in a day's work."
Well, we all see that nothing has changed there. What is different today is that the British Government now extends the brutal scorn it has always shown the troops to their commanding officers. Under New Labour the disdain is for the few, not just for the many, albeit the maltreatment of top brass is more rarefied than failing to provide effective vehicles, armour and weaponry, or housing them in condemnable accommodation and treating them on civilian mixed wards when they return. For telling the truth on behalf of his troops, the General is systematically smeared.
Taking a stern moral line on this, or possibly noting from opinion polls that the public trusts officers a little more than ministers, alleged Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth (and bless his heart, he seems as bemused as everyone else about that promotion) broke virgin ground last week by commanding his juniors to cease attacking Dannatt in off-the-record briefings. These beauties, all NCOs from the Second McBride Fusiliers, had been putting it about that his only motivation in criticising the current Government is the desire to ingratiate himself with the next one. Sir Richard, it was whispered into the ears of pliant hacks, is a closet Tory.
You might have thought that Blairite ministers deploying that particular charge, via unattributable briefings, would have left nothing on the ironic bone. And then along comes George Foulkes with his expenses-funded carving knife to slice off another juicy chunk.
Lord Foulkes, the English public schoolboy who so stoutly defended Mr Speaker Martin on working-class Scottish tribal loyalty grounds, may be the most hilariously sycophantic creature even New Labour has produced. This is not an uncrowded field, but suffice it for now that Foulkes' Nose is scheduled for inclusion, between chocolate and russet, in the next Dulux colour chart.
Whether controlled by No 10 or acting independently on what he assumes to be the PM's wishes ("working to the Fuhrer"), this revered exes champion accused the future Constable of the Tower of being quite the traitor himself by giving succour to the enemy. He even asked a front bench colleague to remind the General "of the importance of loyalty, particularly when we are engaged in a very difficult war where victory is essential for the future security of this country."
This, by happy coincidence, is Downing Street's current line to take to the very letter. Where once we were assured that removing Saddam was vital to national security, now we are spun the identical mendacity about Afghanistan. Who knows, perhaps Foulkes honestly believes this. Outgoing Foreign Office minister, Mark Malloch-Brown, does not, citing Pakistan and Somalia as the sources of the real terrorist threat, and agreeing that the Army in Helmand desperately needs more helicopters.
The smearing of Malloch-Brown, already begun, will intensify once he's left government, as will that of Sir Richard when he's no longer running the Army. The only military dictum this administration ever learned is that attack – rather than armour and helicopters, and avoiding horrendous, unwinnable wars in the first place – is the best form of defence. This legacy of Alastair Campbell's is one good reason why millions of new Tories are ready to leave the closet for the ballot box.
Sir Richard, a man of unimpeachable courage, honour and integrity, must be leaving with some sense of relief to balance the regret. No longer will he be the target of beauties like George Foulkes, who has undertaken countless tours of duty to the West Indies so bravely (falling coconuts can be lethal) as Parliament's most loyal friend to the entire Caribbean.
As the General wanders around his new gaff, checking on the ravens' health and taking the Beefeaters' salutes, he might even care to adapt the Iron Duke, himself a one-time Constable of the Tower of London, and reflect that while he doesn't know what effect the British Government's defence policy has on the enemy, by God it terrifies the life out of us.Reuse content