'I certainly viewed Brown as unsympathetic to defence," says Lord Guthrie, the former Chief of the Defence Staff. In an interview with this newspaper he reveals that he came within a "couple of hours" of resigning over the 1998 review of defence spending. Was he saying that the spending he thought vital was approved by the Prime Minister but blocked by the Chancellor? "That is exactly right," he says.
This is an important warning to Gordon Brown. Lord Guthrie is one of the patrons of the UK National Defence Association launched last week. Formed to campaign for higher defence spending, the association is part of a growing movement demanding that the armed forces be given the resources they need to do the job we ask of them. It is a movement in which this newspaper is proud to claim a leading role.
That is why we devote so much space, on this Sunday above all others, to the question of renewing the Military Covenant. This is the document that sets out the terms of the deal: they risk their lives for our security; we undertake to give them the resources they need and to look after them and their families.
One of the consequences of British deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq is that Remembrance Sunday, which had increasingly become an occasion for re-learning history, has been infused with the new meaning of contemporary experience. What is striking is that the mood for this renewal of the Covenant is so broad-based. The situation is different from that of the Falklands war 25 years ago when large parts of supposedly progressive opinion regarded any show of pride in our armed forces as "jingoism". Today, a newspaper such as this one, which was most strongly opposed to the invasion of Iraq, is completely unembarrassed to demand that our military should be accorded more respect.
The Independent on Sunday supports the mission of our forces in Afghanistan and has always accepted that seeing through our obligations in that country is an expensive, long-term commitment. Indeed, one of our arguments against the Iraq war was that it would divert resources and attention from the Afghan theatre. So it proved, but that argument is in the past now. It must be accepted that even if the notional British presence that remains in Iraq were now withdrawn, it would not solve the overstretch problem of which Lord Guthrie speaks. Deployment in two major combat theatres simultaneously over the past five years has exposed the underlying shortfalls that have developed since the end of the cold war.
As we report today, the resource constraints – and, it must be said, the bureaucratic inflexibility – of the Ministry of Defence have resulted in too many avoidable deaths and injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan. Last week, a coroner confirmed that Fusilier Gordon Gentle died after the equipment that could have saved him was stuck in a warehouse. But the continuing human cost of those operations has exposed inadequacies in the aftercare to which soldiers and their families are entitled.
We have sought in recent years to draw attention to the poor state of much of the Forces' accommodation; to the failure to anticipate the need for separate military wards in NHS hospitals; and to the patchy provision of care for soldiers with combat-related mental illness.
So when Lord Guthrie says that defence spending was cut too far after the fall of the Berlin Wall, this should no longer be interpreted, as once it might have been, as a general trying to defend the purchase of hi-tech weaponry. Any more than it should be when General Sir Mike Jackson told this newspaper recently that "all roads lead to the Treasury", as he made the case for better armed forces' pay. If we are to fulfil our side of the bargain, we will have to spend more, not just on equipment, but on housing, health care and pay for our troops.
Well, the roads that once led to the Treasury now lead to No 10: the Prime Minister no longer has Mr Brown next door to stop him doing what is needed. Since 1984, defence spending as a share of national income has fallen from 5.3 to 2.2 per cent. Last month's spending plans give the MoD just enough to cover inflation over the next three years. At a time of two active operations, this is not enough. And last week's Command Paper rushed out to accompany the Queen's Speech is one of the more feeble "long grass" exercises we have seen. It fails to offer an honest appraisal of where the Military Covenant is broken and how it might be fixed.
This Remembrance Sunday, we hope that the Prime Minister, recent author of a book about military courage, will pause to consider Lord Guthrie's words about our obligation to our armed forces: "You've got to do a bit more than talk about it."Reuse content