Dress 'em all

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The Independent Online
Take a close look at the photograph above this column and you will see a striking resemblance between me and the Defence Secretary, Michael Portillo. Remove my glasses and braces and what have you got? A fine English fighting man, that's what. And the same is true of Michael. Obliterate the quiff and he possesses the rubbery good looks of an Action Man that a careless child has left too close to the fire. You can imagine boys having hours of good clean fun dressing him in various uniforms and undressing him again.

Nor is this resemblance accidental. As Michael made clear in his splendid speech this week, he feels passionately about this nation and its soldiers. We both do - it is bred in the bone. Down the centuries, Aaronovitches and Portillos have fought side by side in this country's historic wars. Our forefathers pulled the yew together at Crecy, so that Aquitaine might be free. They stood shoulder to shoulder at Rorke's Drift. The lament of an Aaronovitch's mouth-organ and a Portillo's squeeze-box drifted over the trenches of Flanders on Christmas Day 1917.

And don't think that we would not also have served, had we been so honoured. Only Michael's lumbago (and his commitments as a consultant to the oil industry) kept him out of the Falklands affair. A small piece of floating cartilage, sustained in Balliol College's third XI's 9-0 drubbing at the hands of mighty St Peter's, destroyed my military ambitions. Otherwise, an Aaronovitch and a Portillo would have stood side-by-side at the bar of the Upland Goose in 1982, drinking a toast to victory.

Little wonder that Michael should have attacked the possible future plans of some European (I never quite caught the name) to take over our army. Unmartial races, lacking our discipline and enlightened generalship (such as the French and Germans) cannot be given a veto over our boys. Otherwise, as Mikey says, we will end up not fighting any wars; "British soldiers want to fight for Britain, not for Brussels," he rightly declared.

How disappointing then, that at the end of a triumphant week, one big, black cloud should appear on the clear blue Portillo skyline. It has come to light that, despite our unparalleled prowess in things military, nobody in Britain actually wants to fight for anybody. Well, nobody suitable anyway. The infantry are 1,200 chaps short, with 250 vacancies in the Paras alone. The defence correspondent of the BBC (who sounds like a chain- smoker and a seriously waisty one to boot), told listeners that the problem was "today's unfit youth". In the days of rickets and polio, there was no shortage of strapping young things aching to join up, but the NHS and McDonald's have weakened the stock.

The MoD answer is to recruit Gurkhas to fill the gaps. These plucky little fellows with their 12-inch weapons certainly appeal to everyone who loves soldiers. But are they the solution? I should have thought that they were too light to be Paras - it would take them that much longer to float to earth. By the time they arrived, the battle would be over, leaving them wandering about looking for something to sink their kukris into.

But the main problem is this. If Britons will not fight for Brussels, why are we so optimistic that Nepalese tribesmen fresh from milking yaks on the Roof of the World will sacrifice all in defence of Sutton Coldfield?

I hesitate to give advice to the exalted Mr P, but does not the answer lie closer to home? If only the Defence Ministry and the Home Office could work together, they could easily come up with a plan for converting boot camps for young offenders into proper training centres for the army.

It was, after all, criminals in uniform that made this country great - on land and on the high seas. They fought under Admirals Nelson and Portillo at Trafalgar, for Wellington and Sir D'Arcy Aaronovitch at Talavera and Badajoz. Imagine what they could do for Michael Howard and Michael Portillo today!