Leading article: Flags are not the answer

Monday 21 June 2010 00:00

Put out more flags. That's the essence of the Prime Minister's plea for people to do more to mark Army Day this week. David Cameron wants people's near-universal respect for the Armed Forces expressed "more loudly and more proudly". Silent gratitude isn't much help, he continues, so, "next Saturday I hope to see an explosion of red, white and blue all over the country".

The Prime Minister's determination to do more for our soldiers is heartfelt and marks a welcome break with the attitude of his predecessor whose disinterest in the Afghan conflict was all too manifest. Whether or not British soldiers should still be slogging away in Helmand province, almost 10 years after the invasion of Afghanistan, is another matter. But while they are there they must be able to count on the Government's absolute commitment to their welfare. Most people want never to hear again of soldiers who are serving in conditions of maximum stress and danger having to borrow or share vital equipment, still less dying as a result of some pettifogging economy.

So far, so good. It's just a pity that Mr Cameron appears to lay so much emphasis on flags and bunting, all redolent of the old Empire Day celebrations that people marked before the Second World War but which fizzled out in the 1950s. More useful to soldiers, and probably less divisive than patriotic parades, would be to upgrade the ministry for veterans, now held by a relatively low-ranking parliamentary undersecretary of state, to that of a fully fledged ministry of state.

Invested with extra powers and rank, such a minister would hopefully be more able to deal with one of the biggest scandals of all regarding our soldiers, which is what happens to so many of them after they leave the Army. The number who drift into lives of crime, alcoholism or depression, who commit suicide or who otherwise inflict harm on themselves or on their families on leaving the forces, is shameful. So is the lack of preventative support they often receive.

Charities such as Help for Heroes have done tremendous work in this field. But they cannot and should not shoulder the whole burden. Devolving responsibility for veterans to a junior minister may have been acceptable in peacetime, long ago, but for years now British soldiers have been in action on several fronts; in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere. The number of servicemen and women returning home having experienced real trauma is growing in consequence. They deserve a real minister.

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