26 Jun 2017
June 26, 2017
Here’s the leader of the largest party of opposition in Scotland in the uniform of a British Army Full Colonel. She’s celebrating an honour made public by the Army on Armed Services Day for maximum publicity. At a time when national security is at the apex of all our priorities, and is therefore the main battle ground for claim and counter claim by political parties, the message of the image in Scotland is unmistakably party political. It’s an example, a small one but a profoundly sad one for the Army, of an institutional corruption. This is how The Scottish Tories do business. They’ve been away, but now they’re back.
Here’s how it worked.
There’s nothing especially unusual about politicians being appointed as ‘honorary Colonels’. MPs with an involvement with local cadet forces, for example, have been appointed honorary colonels of their local cadet force. Sir George Younger, a former Secretary of State for Defence, was an honorary Colonel in Scotland. These appointments are traditionally benign and usually entirely uncontroversial.
In England there is still a civic, more or less un-politicised, space in which members of parliament carry out local functions in support of local and national institutions. This is not the case in Scotland any longer, where the political ecology is very different. Local authorities, for example, are only too aware of how appearing to favour a local MP over constituency and list MSPs can lead to problems. And of course the very notion of a benign ‘British’ institution is itself contested in Scotland.
So British institutions need to tread carefully in Scotland much as in the past they have done in the very different political ecology of Northern Ireland. But of course British institutions are very reliant on their Scottish components to keep them on the straight and narrow. In this case, rather than provide sensible advice, The Scottish Tories have used their influence to hoodwink The British Army for cheap party political gain.
The British Army has much experience managing the relationship between politicians and service personnel. Not least because at any one time there are usually a few MPs serving in the TA; here’s James Cleverly MP, presently a serving TA Lieutenant Colonel. And of course the Houses of Commons and Lords, and the other parliaments and assemblies, always have former officers amongst their members. Many MPs attend a long-established armed services familiarisation programme. The aforesaid honorary Colonel business is a thing.
The Brigadier who commands 1/51st Highland Division is a high-grade officer with a multifarious empire. It’s worth saying that Brigadiers in the Army today aren’t what they were. They’re much better. I attended Sandhurst with the present commander’s predecessor, a man of considerable talents too (uh, even the Brigadiers are getting younger to me these days). When today’s Brigadiers joined the Army, people of their calibre were routinely becoming generals. The Army has got a lot smaller in 25 years, so promotion ceilings have come down by at least one rank and often more. To be a Brigadier in today’s Army is a mark of a person of the highest capabilities and honesty.
But the chain of command, as with all professions, is hard pressed and is mainly getting on with priorities which don’t involve honorary appointments. So while the Brigadier could perhaps have kicked up a fuss if he’d wanted to and quite possibly stopped it, the contentiousness of Davidson’s appointment would have needed to be flagged to this regular Army officer in his command appointment in Scotland. In this case, it clearly wasn’t.
Recommendations for honorary Colonelships tend to come through old boys (not girls) networks, dominated by the ‘retired’ ranks running Major up to Brigadier. These folk are products of the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s and are virtually always Tories. Some of these people are actually, quietly, national treasures. Lieutenant General Sir Alistair Irwin, for example, may or may not be a Tory but he is certainly one of Scotland’s great post-war soldiers. I have no doubt that he’d never allow himself be used for party political gain. But as understandably a great supporter of the union, he is also a member of the advisory body of Scotland in Union. Scotland in Union was of course founded by a former junior officer of the Scottish Division. In the end, that’s all politics.
Ironically, the old boy network in Scotland constantly sought to undermine General Irwin when he restructured the British Army. So he is by no means their lackey; quite the opposite. But his appointment does provide great, and for some, unwarranted, prestige for what is often felt to be a Tory lobbying group operating under the cover of one or two suckered and flattered Labour folk. Such groups also tie the ideas of union and conservatives and, ultimately, The Tories themselves, into a single perceived axis. There is a clear line to trace from the old boy regimental network and the Scottish Tories.
Hence the wheeze of appointing Colonel Davidson, to enable her to reflect on her own military contribution at a time of national peril. That contribution, of course, consisted of two social years in the TA before dropping out of the 2 week officers course at Sandhurst. Compared to, say, Keith Brown MSP, a cabinet minister, Falklands veteran and former Royal Marines Commando, that contribution seems modest. The fact that Mr Brown has never been approached in any way – whether he would accept such an honour or not – speaks volumes for the way the Tory establishment in Scotland works. He was neither an officer nor a Tory, you see.
When I worked in 2006 as the sidekick of the Secretary of State for Defence, John Hutton, the politicians, civil servants and chains of command all agreed that an ‘Armed Forces Day’ would be a good idea. For it to be successful, though, it would have to avoid any hint of party politics. Everyone played the game and the events across the country went without a hitch. The day became an annual celebration of the contributions and sacrifices of our service personnel.
This year, however, in Scotland, The British Army has seen fit to use the occasion to make a striking statement of party political preference. Quite likely unintentionally in terms of the chain of command, but certainly not on the part of Scotland’s Tory old boy network, Armed Forces Day in Scotland was through a nod and a wink turned into a panto for a woman whose damehood must surely be just around the corner.