Tuesday, April 17, 2007


Three weeks and days, and this blog has been banging on since it happened. Now we have the inquiries, which will be six weeks in reporting, we can take a break from the Iran hostages issue. But, before moving on, we felt we had earned the small indulgence of reflecting on recent events.

There can be no doubt about it – the abduction of British sailors and marines was a major humiliation. It was not, though, a military catastrophe in the manner of the fall of Singapore, when a whole Army surrendered virtually intact to the Japanese, to be led off into slavery, many soldiers never to return. But there are parallels.

As did defeat by the numerically inferior Japanese show up the rot at the heart of the Army – its complacency, poor leadership, bad tactics, inadequate materiel – so too have a clutch of Iranian Revolutionary Guards exposed the rot in the once proud and still powerful – for all the cuts – Royal Navy. We can count our blessings this time that we did not have to suffer the slaughter of thousands of innocents to find out how deep it had gone.

What had the makings of a disaster, however, were the early indications that the Navy was going to set its face against examining its own failures, as a precursor to putting them right. Instead of setting up a formal Board of Inquiry – the minimum necessary to put this in train – it opted for the softer, amorphous "lessons learned" inquiry, which was never going to come up with anything but the most anodyne conclusions.

It says something of the political system in this country that this ploy was seen for precisely what it was, and multiple voices were raised in protest.

What gave rise to the utmost gloom, however, was the "cash for stories" debacle. Right from the very start, it had the potential to drown out the growing clamour for a thorough inquiry on the substantive issue, of why the boarding party from HMS Cornwall had been so easily captured.

It was entirely predictable that the media would be distracted by the soap opera – its venality comes as no surprise. But, while we feared that the opposition parties might also climb aboard this bandwagon in the hope of extracting party political advantage, this was not a foregone conclusion.

A Conservative Party of old – the Party of Margaret Thatcher - would have looked first to the national interest, and put country before party. It was that very guiding instinct which made it so great and so powerful, the natural party of government.

But this is the New Conservative Party, led by David Cameron, a party which he says eschews Punch and Judy politics – and then indulges in them at the first and every opportunity. This is the party that could not see (or did not care) that the Royal Navy was in crisis – and that its fate affected the prestige and the security of our very nation.

It saw in the media-induced clamour attending the "cash for stories" an opportunity for political point-scoring, stoking it up by demanding the resignation of the defence secretary.

Building up what they imagined to be a "perfect storm" in the media over the weekend – but one actually lacking depth, breadth or intensity – these New Conservatives plotted their strategy, in the expectation of walking away from Parliament yesterday with a political scalp hanging from their belts.

It was never going to be – the idea of such an easy victory existed only in their foetid minds, trapped in the Westminster "bubble", long divorced from anything even approaching reality.

Their play collapsed before it had even started, on sight of an advance copy of the secretary's statement. The inquiries proposed were better than we expected and more than we dared hope. The choice of Lt. General Rob Fulton for chairman of the operations inquiry was inspired – rumoured to be the personal choice of the Chief of the General Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, a man who has grown in stature throughout this affair.

Unlike the Iranians, Fulton – a former Commandant General of the Royal Marines and once Deputy Chief of Staff – does not take prisoners. Nor would you utter the word "whitewash" to his face – not if you want to live. He is one of the few men with the seniority, experience and credibility to conduct such an inquiry, yet totally beyond the reach of the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Jonathon Band.

The commitment by Browne to deliver the report, unexpurgated, to the House of Commons Defence Committee was precisely the right thing to do, a clear signal that he accepted that it is Parliament to which he is ultimately accountable.

Such subtleties have been lost on the media and, it seems, are totally beyond the comprehension of the former family doctor turned politician, Dr Liam Fox, the man who would be defence secretary. Even now, as he and his tribe drag what comfort they can from partial and partisan press reports, they do not realise quite how completely they have been outflanked by a man they would so sneeringly dismiss as the provincial Scottish solicitor he once was.

In a world dominated by spin, we should at least be grateful that, for once, the system worked. From the tatters of the reputation of a ship of the line, HMS Cornwall, we may yet see something good come. The world is still far from being right. There is much pain and tragedy, even today dominating the news. And there is much to do, with no certainty at all of success.

But yesterday, at least, in one tiny corner of the world, it was a good day.


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