Not barmy about the army

. . . on British attitudes to battles, bald leaders and booze

I have been reading a new book called Operation Snakebite, an account of the Afghan War written by Stephen Grey, the award-winning reporter who first exposed, in the New Statesman, the American practice of extraordinary rendition. It has a telling quotation from General Sir Richard Dannatt, head of the British army. “The army is at war,” he tells Grey. “The nation is not at war.”

Has there ever been a war quite like this, which engaged the home population so little?

I doubt one British citizen in ten could give a coherent account of why we (a word John Pilger would put inside inverted commas) are in Afghanistan, and a fair number probably don’t know we’ve got troops there at all. Even in Helmand, Grey struggled to find anybody who could explain what it was all about. He doesn’t quite say so, but the conclusion to be drawn from his book is that we’re there because we’re there. We carry on, inventing reasons for the war, because we shall otherwise have to admit that troops – overwhelmingly from working-class and sometimes underclass backgrounds, lest we forget – have sacrificed their lives pointlessly.

Newspapers like to publish examples of the populace lining the streets to acclaim returning troops. Grey has an anecdote which, I suspect, is more typical. The parents of one fallen soldier, visiting a military museum, told the curator they had lost their son in Afghanistan. “How interesting,” he replied – and went back to his work.

I suppose even we republicans should welcome proposals to modernise the royal succession, so that the crown passes to the eldest child, regardless of gender, and nobody is barred for marrying a Catholic.

But their implementation would be another blow to our hopes of ever abolishing the monarchy. The removal of an indefensible practice only makes its survival more likely. The chances of a republic have already grown more remote. The British are terribly prone to sentimentality and, now the Queen is nearly 83, they won’t want to force her off the throne because they don’t like upsetting old people. When she dies, they will think it a shame to deny Prince Charles because he will have waited so long – the sort of sentiment which, I am convinced, helped secure the leadership of the Labour Party for Gordon Brown.

The best hope for republicans is the accession of a paunchy middle-aged man with a bald head (the British don’t like bald men in charge, and have never elected one as PM, except on the three occasions when they had to choose between two bald men – Churchill and Attlee), but new succession rules would make that even less likely.


Why the fuss about the latest ideas to curb excessive drinking? The objection is always that restrictions or price rises will unfairly penalise “responsible drinkers”. I prefer the term “professional drinkers”, by which I mean those of us who take our drink seriously, confining ourselves to cask-conditioned beer (served without extraneous carbon dioxide), good-quality European wine (including brandy and port, but not sherry), whisky (with water, not ice) and gin (neat).

We allow only those four as “proper drinks” – all others are for amateurs – and consume them steadily through the year, rather than just at Christmas or birthdays.

One proposal is to set a minimum price per unit of alcohol, thus deterring supermarket six-for-the-price-of-four offers. This would not affect professional drinkers in the least, since we would never dream of buying cheap supermarket lager or a bottle of wine for under £5.

Another idea is to require publicans to sell wine in smaller glasses – or at least smaller measures – instead of thrusting something the size of a goldfish bowl at their customers. Again, I see no problem for professionals, who know pub wine isn’t worth drinking and never buy wine by the glass anyway.

If the restrictions persuade amateurs to try higher-quality alcohol, so much the better.

They would drink less, but enjoy it more. What is wrong with that?


Try this sentence. “Mrs Thatcher’s poll tax must be fought by all ways and means.”

I cannot be certain that any Labour shadow minister or MP made this statement in the late 1980s, but it is likely some of them said or wrote something similar. But when Daud Abdullah, deputy secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain, signs a declaration stating that the entry of “foreign warships” into Gazan waters should be “fought by all means and ways”, all hell breaks lose. Never mind that the declaration didn’t mention the Royal Navy and that such an operation is purely hypothetical.

If you’re a Muslim, you have to mind your language. Unlike, say, Gordon Brown, who can talk about “British jobs for British workers” whenever he likes.


The online success of Daniel Hannan’s speech about Gordon Brown to the European Parliament – it reached the top of YouTube’s “Most Viewed” list and has “gone viral” – proves what we knew: the internet lacks quality control. Hannan is a Conservative MEP and his three-minute speech repeats the banal and simplistic arguments, about national debt and nationalisation being bad things, that Tories have used in the Commons for months.

As Samuel Brittan points out in his Financial Times column, the UK national debt in 1956, after five years of Tory government, was roughly twice what is now predicted. Harold Macmillan, then chancellor, quoted the Victorian historian Lord Macaulay: “At every stage in the growth of that debt the nation has set up the same cry of anguish and despair . . .

Yet still the debt kept on growing; and still bankruptcy and ruin were as remote as ever.”

Hannan is a fool. For proof, read a Spectator article he wrote in 2004 (unearthed by the Fabian Society’s Sunder Katwala) praising the “economic miracle” in Iceland. “Icelanders,” he wrote, “. . . have no more desire to submit to international than to national regulation. That attitude has made them the happiest, freest and wealthiest people on earth.”

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, God special issue