Sunday, July 05, 2009

Intensely political

With two more British soldiers killed today, there is every indication that the defence debate raging in today's newspapers is about to ramp up a notch, especially as one of the reported casualties is a soldier from The Light Dragoons, who was killed by an IED. The Light Dragoons are known to operate Jackals and a recent Dragoon casualty, L/Cpl Nigel Moffet, was also killed in a Jackal.

According to The Times, however, the Light Dragoons soldier was killed by an explosion while he was on foot and the other soldier, from the Mercian Regiment, died when he was hit during a rocket-propelled grenade attack against his Scorpion (sic) armoured reconnaissance vehicle. That does not sound right – the Mercians do not operate Scorpions (which were withdrawn in 1994), while the Dragoons actually operate Scimitars. There may be a mix-up here.

Anyhow, despite the intensity of that debate in the media, as we have observed several times in the last few days, it really is quite remarkable how the political classes have opted out. For once, the MSM has its finger on the pulse but go to the British political blogosphere and you would hardly be aware of the controversy. Other matters are of more concern.

Peter Hitchens has a thing or two to say about this, and the Conservatives in particular, which rather puts contemporary party politics into perspective – hence the picture. While the Tories and their blogging claque indulge in their own obsessions, the world goes on without them.

Hitchens himself expresses his frustration about the response to Lt-Col Thorneloe's death and the use of "unsafe" Vikings, asking why it is that the Opposition has not demanded a proper debate about it. But then, as we have noted, the Tories – along with Labour and the rest of the MPs - don't "do" defence any more, along with "Europe", immigration and many other issues.

The trouble is that, in leaving the debate to the media, you get the sort of editorial we see in The Sunday Telegraph, telling us that "Frontline troops must now be a spending priority". This frames the debate in a way that neither government nor opposition politicians would prefer.

With pressure on public spending, like never before, the last thing the Tories will want when they take over the administration next year is to be confronted with the prospect of increased defence spending – and exactly the same complaints of "underfunding" that they have been flinging at Labour.

Had the Tories got their wits about them, there is plenty of evidence in the MoD of waste and miss-directed spending, sufficient for them to argue that defence effects could be achieved with little or no extra spending, and even with a modest reduction.

However, having opted out of the debate, the way is left clear for The Sunday Telegraph to argue that the purchase of the weapons and vehicles that "those serving on the front line need and demand – must not merely be maintained. It must be increased." Anything less, the paper says, "would be a criminal failure to honour the responsibility politicians have to the men and women they order into battle."

In the Observer, we see a similar line taken, with Henry Porter asserting that, "The soldiers give all, while the politicians starve them of cash". And, with The Times yesterday also equating equipment shortfalls with lack of cash, offering the strap, "Money is scarce but there is no excuse for conducting a battle with inadequate equipment," the terms of the debate are being set outside the control of the politicians.

That is the bizarre aspect of this whole issue – politics without politicians, the latter having vacated the field. They, as well as our troops and ourselves, will be the losers.