Thursday, July 09, 2009

Who's this "we", white man?

Politicians are rather good as invoking the w-word, usually to imply a consensus the does not always exist, or in a cynical attempt to enlist their audiences in their cause.

The Great Leader is an exponent of the art, which invoked some unusually strong invective from "us" – i.e., me – a little while back. Readers might possibly agree that "we've" mellowed a little since then – or become a little more cautious.

Another exponent of the art is the egregious Nick Clegg, full-time Europhile and part-time leader of a party which others call the Lib-Dims. He is in full flow in that supposedly Conservative newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, telling "us" that "We're asking our troops to do the impossible" in Afghanistan.

Thus does the Clegg artfully argue that it is time for a new strategy and fresh commitment to Afghanistan – without ever once spelling out what that strategy might be or, for that matter, offering any evidence that he might be capable of producing one, workable or not.

He starts his piece in typical populist style, telling us of his visit to Afghanistan last year where he too, like the rest of the self-important visitors, doubtless imbibed freely from the "lines-to-take book", coming away "hugely impressed" by the "professionalism and courage" of British troops – as if he was in a position to judge the former or witness the latter.

That is not to say that some did not display either or both characteristics, and that is not for us to dispute, but it is this formulaic phrasing that politicians so easily trot out that tends to jar – more so when other, more knowledgeable commentators are questioning the very professionalism that the Clegg so easily applauds.

On the basis of having then met Lt-Col Rupert Thorneloe, who helped organise his visit, the Clegg tells of his increased "admiration" after he and Trooper Joshua Hammond had been killed in a vehicle unable to withstand a roadside bomb. "We owe it to them to ensure their sacrifice is not in vain," the Clegg declares.

This and presumably other – unspecified - recent events, the Clegg tells us, have led him to question, "for the first time," whether we're going about things in the right way. One could ask, in that context, where he has been for the last three years – one answer being, not in any defence debate in the House.

But now, after three years of intensive operations, the Clegg is concerned that "we are simply not giving our troops the means to do their difficult job." So it is, he states: "We must not will the ends without being prepared to will the means." There's that "we" again, which quickly gets another airing when he tells us that "we" need to ask whether the Government has the will, strategy or tactics to do the job properly.

The Clegg's pre-eminent concern here is that, "If you send people to war, you must supply the resources they need ... ". He is "appalled" that so many of our soldiers have been killed because of inadequate equipment, and "disturbed" to hear from experts that we don't have enough forces to hold and rebuild territory once it has been won.

Now, it is here that the "we" really creates the problem because, if you assert that "we" are asking troops to do the impossible, it is helpful if we know who the "we" is. In the Clegg's book, this is actually the government, when it comes to the "inadequate equipment", specifically in this case, the Viking.

What this does not recognise, though is that the "we" is actually the Army. The Army does not regard the Viking as "inadequate". Far from it, it believes it to be a "success" and, as we have seen, staunchly defends it use, and the other high-mobility abominations such as the Jackal.

Ministers do not buy or permit the deployment of these death traps for the fun of it. They do so because Army "experts" advise them to procure them, and then they brief the ministers of the "line-to-take" when the body-bags start mounting up. And, as we have noted before, it is a very rare minister who will contradict the advice of his "experts".

Further, while the media has been pressing for better-protected vehicles, our best information – gleaned with considerably less resource than the Clegg – is that such vehicles could not have been used because of bridge weight limitations. The issue, therefore, is far more profound than one simply of inadequate vehicles, not least the dire performance of DFID in frittering away taxpayers' money on Ferris wheels and theme parks.

This one example, therefore, betrays the populist strategy of the Clegg. With inadequate vehicles currently in the media, the man is suddenly interested in inadequate vehicles. In fact, he is more interested in aligning himself with an apparently popular cause, the dividend being, not improved safety for British troops, but votes for his Lib-Dims.

Forever the opportunist, the deaths of Lt-Col Rupert Thorneloe and Trooper Joshua Hammond then give the Clegg the platform to argue for a "co ordinated political strategy". That, in the Clegg's opinion, has been affected by "Britain's lukewarm support for European co-operation in defence and security planning." For want of that co-operation, which has "contributed to the fragmented nature of operations", asserts the Clegg, "Our soldiers' lives are being thrown away ... ".

It is possible to get lower, but it would be hard to imagine a cheaper shot, especially when the drive for greater "European co-operation in defence and security planning" has been directly responsible for much of the inadequate equipment and shortages that the Army has experienced.

Worst of all though, the opportunist Clegg demonstrates that he has little idea of the full nature and extent of the problems affecting the Afghani campaign, some of those being an inadequate and failing Army leadership. That is no reflection of the soldiers and their junior officers, but a growing volume of informed opinion is pointing the figure at the higher levels of command.

We – and that is a real "we", not a political artefact, need politicians to grasp the nettle and say this in public, as ever more experts are saying, rather than indulge in cheap populism – and scoring political points - which will simply get more soldiers killed. Clearly, the Clegg is not the man for the task.