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.