Friday, October 13, 2006

General declares war on Blair

When the Chief of the General Staff calls for an end to the British army’s presence in Iraq, choosing the right-wing Daily Mail as his platform for a vehement attack on the policies of the New Labour government, you know you are living in dangerous times politically. While anti-war campaigners fall over themselves in the rush to congratulate Sir Richard Dannatt, it’s worth considering some of the wider implications of his intervention.

The New Labour government is drifting hopelessly and helplessly under the weakened leadership of prime minister Blair, who gave an embarrassing performance when challenged by Tory leader David Cameron in the Commons earlier this week. With Blair clearly determined to prevent Gordon Brown from succeeding him, the scene is set for civil war inside New Labour. Meanwhile, British troops are locked in hopeless military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan where, by all accounts, their equipment is inadequate and their mission ill-defined and unattainable. The military top brass don’t like it all and Dannatt is no doubt reflecting their views as well as the discomfort of the soldiers on the front line.

Dannatt reportedly said: "The military campaign we fought in 2003 effectively kicked the door in. Whatever consent we may have had in the first place, may have turned to tolerance and has largely turned to intolerance. That is a fact. I don’t say that the difficulties we are experiencing round the world are caused by our presence in Iraq but undoubtedly our presence in Iraq exacerbates them." He added: "I think history will show that the planning for what happened after the initial successful war fighting phase was poor, probably based more on optimism than sound planning."

No doubt the generals have been telling ministers this kind of thing in private for some time. But what Dannatt has done is to attack the government publicly – and in doing so effectively launch an unconstitutional challenge to the authority of an elected government. Dannatt told the Daily Mail that he had already given the defence minister Des Browne a "dressing down" about the "unacceptable" treatment of injured soldiers, warning him that the government was in danger of breaking the "covenant" between "a nation and its Army" and should not "let the Army down." If that’s not a threat, what is it? What would Dannatt do if he considered the army was being "let down"?

Nor does Dannatt confine himself to Iraq. Under the headline, ‘Army chief declares war on Blair’, Dannatt launches into a tirade about the decline of "Christian values" in Britain, adding: "When I see the Islamist threat in this country I hope it doesn’t make undue progress because there is a moral and spiritual vacuum in this country. Our society has always been embedded in Christian values; once you have pulled the anchor up there is a danger that our society moves with the prevailing wind."

Is the implication here that some tough action is needed to prevent further moral decline in Britain and to defeat the "Islamist threat"? If New Labour can’t get a grip on this agenda, who will? Men in uniform escorted by tanks? This is not paranoia. We have seen this kind of stuff before in Britain, most recently in 1968 and 1974, and the subject of a previous blog. Will Blair dare to sack Dannatt for overstepping the mark politically? If he doesn’t, the prime minister’s authority will evaporate even faster and New Labour’s crisis over Iraq and other issues deepen ever more quickly. If he does fire Dannatt…

Paul Feldman, communications editor

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