Why the military covenant should not be made law

In a democracy, there is no mutuality of obligation between the armed forces and the government.

The enshrining of the military covenant into statute is a dangerous mistake. Oh, it's good politics. In fact, it's mandatory politics. The minister, or shadow minister, who attempts to stand in the way of the press and public clamour to "back our boys" won't remain a minister for long.

But the reality is that this proposed law is wrong in logic, practice and principle. I'm still at a bit of a loss to find out where this concept of the military covenant actually came from. Some claim it dates back to Henry VIII, which is odd, given that in his time Britain, or England, as it was, didn't even have a standing professional army or navy.

Obviously, the values underpinning it are sound. Britain's armed forces are ritualistically praised by politicians for their courage and professionalism, then rewarded with lousy pay, dysfunctional equipment and disgusting living conditions. When they cease to serve, the gratitude of a grateful nation has all too often consisted of a sleeping bag beneath the arches of Charing Cross railway station. But, in our desire to right that manifest wrong, it is important we do not inadvertently, and recklessly, alter the delicate nature of the relationship between the armed forces and the democratic state.

A number of arguments have been made in support of codifying the covenant in law. The main one is that members of the armed forces, uniquely, must be prepared to pay the "ultimate price" for their service. That is factually inaccurate, as the family of the Northern Ireland Police Service officer Ronan Kerr would tragically attest. Policemen, firemen and lifeboatmen, to pick just three professions, all accept death as an occupational hazard. That is not in any way to diminish the heroism of our soldiers, sailors and airmen. But heroism is not the unique preserve of the military.

How, too, is this enshrining of the covenant going to function in practice? Think of the following clause: "British soldiers must always be able to expect fair treatment, to be valued and respected as individuals."

What, in law, will be the definition of "respected as individuals"? If you order someone to charge an enemy machine gun nest, could you really be said to be valuing and respecting them?

A step change too far

The grim reality of military service is that, on occasion, personnel will be sacrificed to secure broader national objectives. The welfare of the individual will at times, by necessity, become secondary.

But there is a much more fundamental problem with this proposed legislation, one that goes to the heart of the power balance existing between ministers and generals. As the covenant states: "the unique nature of military land operations means that the army differs from all other institutions, and must be sustained and provided for accordingly by the Nation". It represents, it adds, a "mutual obligation".

That is wrong. In a democracy there is no mutuality of obligation between the armed forces and the civil power. The former is subservient to the latter. That is the founding principle on which all democracies are based.

There are rare exceptions to this rule. If the military are given orders that are illegal, they have a right to disobey them. But the implications of such a schism are so great that they can only be allowed to occur in extremis. Control of the military should be removed from the hands of the politicians only in the most exceptional circumstances. And to abolish that principle explicitly, via statute, is an incredibly dangerous step to take.

Because these are not abstract notions. In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, the service chiefs sought independent advice on the legality of that operation. Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, chief of the general staff, specifically demanded unambiguous advice from Lord Goldsmith, then attorney general, that the US-led invasion was legal under international law and that existing UN resolutions provided a basis for the use of force.

Whatever your views on that conflict, imagine for a second if the response from the lawyers had not been adequate. If we had faced a situation where the prime minister had ordered our armed forces into battle, but the service chiefs had refused. Britain would have faced a constitutional crisis.

This is big politics that goes way beyond the peeling walls of the NAAFI and the level of the service pension. These matters certainly need to be addressed, but in a way that does not undermine the primacy of our elected politicians, or place them on an equal legal footing with the generals they purportedly command.

The true covenant between the military and its government is that it will serve it loyally, without fear or favour. If necessary, it will march and fight and die for policies or causes that it does not necessarily understand or support. Theirs is not to reason why. We replace that covenant at our peril.

Getty
Show Hide image

An alternative Trainspotting script for John Humphrys’ Radio 4 “Choose Life” tribute

Born chippy.

Your mole often has Radio 4’s Today programme babbling away comfortingly in the background while emerging blinking from the burrow. So imagine its horror this morning, when the BBC decided to sully this listening experience with John Humphrys doing the “Choose Life” monologue from Trainspotting.

“I chose not to choose life: I chose something else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got Radio 4?” he concluded, as a nation cringed.

Introduced as someone who has “taken issue with modernity”, Humphrys launched into the film character Renton’s iconic rant against the banality of modern life.

But Humphrys’ role as in-studio curmudgeon is neither endearing nor amusing to this mole. Often tasked with stories about modern technology and digital culture by supposedly mischievous editors, Humphrys sounds increasingly cranky and ill-informed. It doesn’t exactly make for enlightening interviews. So your mole has tampered with the script. Here’s what he should have said:

“Choose life. Choose a job and then never retire, ever. Choose a career defined by growling and scoffing. Choose crashing the pips three mornings out of five. Choose a fucking long contract. Choose interrupting your co-hosts, politicians, religious leaders and children. Choose sitting across the desk from Justin Webb at 7.20 wondering what you’re doing with your life. Choose confusion about why Thought for the Day is still a thing. Choose hogging political interviews. Choose anxiety about whether Jim Naughtie’s departure means there’s dwindling demand for grouchy old men on flagship political radio shows. Choose a staunch commitment to misunderstanding stories about video games and emoji. Choose doing those stories anyway. Choose turning on the radio and wondering why the fuck you aren’t on on a Sunday morning as well. Choose sitting on that black leather chair hosting mind-numbing spirit-crushing game shows (Mastermind). Choose going over time at the end of it all, pishing your last few seconds on needlessly combative questions, nothing more than an obstacle to that day’s editors being credited. Choose your future. Choose life . . .”

I'm a mole, innit.