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.

Gage Skidmore via Creative Commons
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Donald Trump brings home his dark vision of America at the Republican convention

The Presidential nominee pledged: "Safety must be restored."

Donald Trump brought home the Republican convention Thursday night with a dark vision of contemporary America – a darkness he claimed only his leadership could lift. It was a lengthy, tightly-scripted speech framed around polarities – insiders and outsiders, criminals and victims, the United States and the rest of the world – and infused with righteous anger. And yet against the darkness, he offered not lightness but “greatness” – a bombastic, personalistic vision of how through sheer force of will he could right the American ship before it plunged irretrievably into the depths. “I alone can solve,” he famously tweeted earlier in the campaign. This was the 80-minute version.

Any presidential challenger, of course, has to lay out a set of problems they believe need fixing and a case for why their leadership might make a difference. It was the breathtaking scale and intensity of Trump’s diagnosis, and the lack of optimistic alternative to counterbalance it, that was notable compared to other acceptance speeches. He portrayed the United States as a country riddled with crime and corruption, a “rigged system” in which politicians like Hillary Clinton can evade justice, while police officers trying to protect its citizens become targets; a fearful country, its economy sluggish, its infrastructure crumbling, its security an illusion, and its international stature in freefall

For a candidate who has mocked the soaring rhetoric of President Obama (the “hopey-changey stuff,” as Sarah Palin once called it), it was perhaps not surprising that Trump’s speech would be short on uplift. It was at least more disciplined than his other campaign speeches, if in keeping with their tone and content – the much-maligned teleprompter rolling a script to which he largely stuck. (“He sounds presidential,” a lady behind me remarked, though his press conference Friday morning marked a reversion to free-wheeling form).

It was short on substance too, though acceptance speeches aren’t designed to be policy laundry lists like a State of the Union. Still, there were few specifics, beyond a pledge to revise tax laws which inhibit religious groups from political advocacy, and a newfound concern with student loans. It was daughter Ivanka’s speech that had the greater substantive heft, promising her father would push for new labour laws to help working mothers, and for affordable childcare in the US. Neither are traditional Republican positions, but the crowd seemed on board for anything Trump might offer.

He even had them cheering for LGBTQ rights, after recalling the tragedy in Florida last month, and the need to protect gay Americans from a “hateful foreign ideology” in radical Islam. “It is so nice as a Republican to hear you cheering for what I just said,” he commended the delegates in an unscripted moment. But whether they had really embraced this unexpected message – or if it was the anti-terror chaser that really got them on their feet – remains to be seen. In either case, it was a rare grace note in an otherwise bruising speech.

Presenting himself repeatedly as the candidate of “law and order,” Trump evoked Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign. At a time when American cities were erupting in race riots and protests over the Vietnam War, Nixon had pitched himself as the face of stability and security. Likewise Trump has reacted to the simmering racial tensions and terrorist attacks this summer with a hard-line stance on “lawlessness.” “Safety must be restored,” Trump said, in one of the eerier lines he delivered. Yet in his convention speech, Nixon had balanced his tough talk with a positive message – speaking of love, courage, and lighting a “lamp of hope” in partnership with the American people. 

Trump channeled another president in his speech, too, when he promised to give voice to “the forgotten men and women of our country” – drawing on the language of Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt had promised to aid “the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid” during the 1932 campaign. But Roosevelt’s solution to the forgotten man’s distress was economic internationalism – tearing down tariff walls and trading freely with the world – which the Republican Party then opposed. Trump’s solution is the protectionist policies Roosevelt had railed against.

Trump’s economic and security philosophy is encapsulated in another, more notorious phrase associated with that era: “America First.” A rallying cry for isolationists seeking to avoid US entanglement in World War II, it acquired an anti-Semitic taint. But Trump has employed it nonetheless, capturing as it does his core argument that America must do more to protect its own citizens against threats from within and without – from illegal immigrants, from radicalized Islamic terrorists, from the downsides of free international trade. Little wonder that former George W.

Bush staffer Nicolle Wallace announced that the Republican party she knew “died in this room tonight.” In embracing elements of isolationism, protectionism, and nativism, however, it is perhaps truer to say that Trump’s Republican party reverted to an earlier form.

Often disconcerting, at times mesmerizing, the question remains how effective this speech will be. The delegates responded enthusiastically to Trump’s fierce rhetoric, but many prominent Republicans had stayed away from the convention altogether. Combined with Senator Ted Cruz’s non-endorsement, Trump goes into the general election campaign without a fully united party behind him. For both partisans and the public, Trump’s speech offered a cast of villains to rally against, but no positive, unifying vision to rally behind – beyond the much-touted yet elusive “greatness,” of course. In a typical election year, that would seem a critical flaw in a campaign – but Trump loves to confound the naysayers. As his convention speech showed, he thinks the formula that got him this far - showcasing his fame and fanning Americans’ fears – can land him in the White House.