Watching the largely pointless thing which is the Chilcott Inquiry, it’s hard to avoid, I recollect my own time defending the government line on Iraq when nervous ministers were unable to make it up the stairs of the studios. It’s a funny thing, well actually not that funny, that when ministers defend an unpopular policy, people give them some personal wiggle-room – they’re only doing their job after all. During the Iraq War, some leading politicians on all sides were unhappy but stayed loyal to their party line in the name of the wider collective effort. Supporters would say that if you wanted decent folk in high places then from time to time they’d have to swallow stuff they didn’t like. Politicians in such circumstances are usually as quiet as they realistically can be, ambiguous in their utterances if they’re forced into making one.
On the other hand, if you’re a backbencher supporting something unpopular because you’re asked by your leaders to, then no slack is cut for you. There’s no ‘decent person in high place’ defence. There’s a profound danger you’ll look hateful. As a new MP, I certainly did that. I behaved more like the soldier I had just been than the new MP I was. And the hate I attracted, personally, casts its gloom still. Luckily, though, I cleverly limited my exposure to preposterously frequent appearances on Newsnight, Channel 4 News, any news programme, any anything…… you get the idea.
Loyalty is important in politics. But mindlessness is ultimately punished, and frankly so it should be.
I’ve spoken a fair amount, albeit less than some Tories, about Defence over the years. Recently, though, I’ve had reservations about some aspects of government policy (in areas where the government and opposition are pretty much on the same page). I think we should be out of Afghanistan sooner than later; I think we give to much too the Americans for too little in return; and I tend towards thinking we shouldn’t renew Trident. In many ways, that’s all pretty uncontroversial and I predict that regardless of who’s in government in 2012, Trident will be extended rather than renewed.
Uncontroversial to most, maybe, but not to one Defence minister who has ordered The Defence Academy at Shrivenham in Wiltshire to ban me from their premises.
As MPs often do, I was due to speak to officers there tomorrow alongside an opposing Conservative MP, at an event organised by the Academy and the excellent Industry and Parliament Trust. When the organisers sought clearance from ministers for guests to enter, always previously a technicality, the minister singled me out to be ‘denied admission’ on the grounds that I may not reflect his views, and suggested an alternative MP. This seems to me a pity, especially since the government today issued a green paper on Defence which is designed to facilitate public discussion.
I don’t believe for a moment that the prime minister and defence secretary have have anything other than good intent as regards discussion about future defence policy. But it does seem a shame, and rather odd, that a junior minister should wish to so blatantly gag an MP.
Still, we live and learn. We sure do that.