Speech to the Burghfield branch of the British legion

On Tuesday night I spoke in Burghfield on the topic of “Do we fight too many wars?” When I chose the subject some months ago I thought it might be topical. It turned out to be a particularly hot topic.

I began by stressing our debt of gratitude to all the service personnel who have fought for our country in many conflicts. They have offered brave and loyal service, and have often performed great feats of arms. Sometimes they have been placed in mortal danger by poorly thought through strategy or political direction. Sometimes they have been placed in winning positions and have delivered.

Over the long sweep of English and British history there can be no finer sign of how good our armed forces are than the simple fact that our island country has not been successfully invaded by a hostile force since 1066. (in 1485, 1688 etc the invaders were invited or local). Our forces saw off the threat of Spain when she was the world’s superpower, culminating in the defeat of the Armada. Our services dealt with the continuous threats from France during her period of military dominance, ending with the great victories of Trafalgar and Waterloo that freed the smaller countries of Europe from French threat. In the twentieth century the UK with her allies twice fought murderous wars to prevent German domination.

I am no pacifist, and believe we need to have good defence forces to keep our island safe and to undertake international expeditions where the cause is just or where we need to contribute to the international community and the UN.

I also think we have fought too many wars in recent years. Our interventions in the Middle East have often not resulted in a political and diplomatic strategy to settle democratic countries after our armed forces have helped achieve regime change.

I raised the question of why we have in the past committed ourselves to wars before we had the proper forces to win them. Our small skilled expeditionary force in 1914 soon had heavy casualties and had been beaten back to near Paris. It would take the recruitment of a mass citizen army and substantial rearmament to give us the forces needed to hold and eventually defeat the Germans. In 1939-41 we did the same thing. We sent too small an army to Belgium, put it in harms way and almost lost it, leading to the remarkable evacuation at Dunkirk.

Plan before you fight. Be realistic about what your armed forces can achieve. Do not run down your defences too far if you might need them.

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14 Comments

  1. Tad Davison
    Posted September 27, 2014 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    If you truly think these things should be debated in public in order to get the policy right, why not take account of ALL points of view and include some of the more hard-hitting ones I raise?

    A number of my most poignant posts have been left out, and you’re in danger of becoming just another Westminster MP that tows the party line, and follows the pro US, NATO, EU precept rather than a true democrat that believes in bringing everything out in the open in order to find a solution. If we exclude certain points of view, the debate becomes worthless and immaterial, so please don’t let this blog become just another Conservative Home where they only allow what they want to hear and which the party hierarchy wishes to promote.

    That’s how we got into the present mess. That’s how the people who supposedly lead us, got into positions of power and influence with such disastrous consequences. The people deserve to know the truth about the complexion of our political leaders and the inordinate amount of influence of the mainstream media and certain moneyed lobbyists does them no favours. Your blog has been a breath of fresh air, please don’t let that go.

    Tad Davison

    Cambridge

    Reply I am finding it difficult to keep up with the number and length of contributions from a limited number of people. As a result I sometimes delay longer articles sent in until I have more time, and I now delete the whole article if it contains possibly libellous or offensive remarks. Running this blog i not my main job and there is a huge amount going on behind the scenes at the moment.

    • Lifelogic
      Posted September 28, 2014 at 7:39 am | Permalink

      There certainly needs to be a huge amount going on behind the scenes before May. The election could still, just about, be pulled from the fire with a good compass in charge, plus the continuing assistance of Ed Miliband.

      Just restrict Cameron mainly to presentation – not choosing the direction of travel.

    • Lifelogic
      Posted September 28, 2014 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

      Thank you for all your efforts JR, I am amazed that you find the time that you do. Keep up the good work, in trying to steer the party leadership back to a sound winning path.

      I will try to reduce and mollify my output.

  2. CHRISTOPHER HOUSTON
    Posted September 27, 2014 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    “Plan before you fight” preceded four sentences from the end of your blog …”remarkable evacuation at Dunkirk”. Even now we do not call it a rout. We do not tell of our soldiers wandering home on foot when reaching England, their weapons abandoned sometimes, laying then in their homes sick and with no pay from the army for over 3 months to sustain they and their families.

    Every nation, every army, tells its so very young men how great they are, the greatest fighters, the bravest toughest warriors in the world.
    ” Be realistic about what your armed forces can achieve ” Each, with at least one stripe on her, or his, sleeve and more than a couple of years on their back should fearlessly look to an enemies strengths rather than perceived weaknesses.

    • oldtimer
      Posted September 28, 2014 at 9:17 am | Permalink

      Hugh Sebag-Montefiori`s Dunkirk is a gripping account of the evacuation and the events leading up to it. Given the disarray caused by the Blitzkrieg in France and the makeshift but remarkable organisation of the evacuatiom itself to these shores I am not surprised that not everything ran smoothly once they returned.

  3. Lifelogic
    Posted September 28, 2014 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    All perfectly put especially:

    “Plan before you fight. Be realistic about what your armed forces can achieve. Do not run down your defences too far if you might need them.”

    Also be quite sure you can win the peace as well as the war.

  4. formula57
    Posted September 28, 2014 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    I initially took some reassurance from seeing your name absent from the list of those who voted against the aerial bombing campaign against IS but then I saw a reply you gave to comments on your earlier post that said “I did not vote Yes”. So you abstained?

    If so, would that have been because on the criteria you set out in your earlier post the government was unable satisfactorily to: –

    “explain what can be achieved by bombardment from the air”

    “explain how the war will be won on the ground, how innocent civilians caught up in the conflict will be protected as best they can, and what the political strategy will be”

    to show that “UK military intervention can make much difference to all this”

    and that accordingly if “<I." War is only worth fighting – if your own country is not under direct invasion- if you can see how you can win and how you can then win the peace to create a better future" that is not the case on this occasion?

    Whilst the defeat of IS is doubtless our fight too, joining the aerial bombardment is not a necessary nor desirable part of that, it seems to me. Given the participants, we might ask has the MOD given any estimate of how many aircraft lost to friendly fire are expected and will be acceptable?

    Reply I explained here and in email to constituents why I could not vote for this military action. I told the government why I did not support it, and urged them prior to the motion and vote to drop the idea.

  5. John Wrake
    Posted September 28, 2014 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    I’m afraid that your Party’s policy on military action only once again demonstrates a profound ignorance of the countries of the Middle East. Repeating the current claptrap about democracy and regime change just illustrates lack of knowledge.

    U.S. foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East, has never shown much wisdom and it is the height of folly for our government to endorse it, but then, you can’t expect wisdom from the college boys running things.

    John Wrake.

  6. brian
    Posted September 28, 2014 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    The problem with Middle East countries is that they have no tradition of pluralistic democracy as we know it. For them it’s a matter of whether they can achieve dominance for their tribe or sect.

  7. Margaret Brandreth-J
    Posted September 28, 2014 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    We need to show respect for those people who defend our Country. So many have lost their lives.
    I was a pacifist until the last decade , when I realised that turning the other cheek simply invites more terror.Good nature is always taken advantage of except in a few cases .As Great Britain we had values; sound values for civilisation taught to us,we developed a feel for what was right and wrong, we developed social norms almost subconsciously.I am constantly surprised , how many of these niceties which said ‘ I am a considerate , thoughtful person and would treat others as I would wish to be treated’ have been eroded and even ridiculed. In Brownies it was think of others before yourselves, today more appropriately the Girl Guides motto ‘ Be Prepared’ makes more sense.
    I agree though as my times in the Guides taught

  8. Denis Cooper
    Posted September 28, 2014 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    The 1914 BEF took more than “heavy casualties”, it was almost wiped out. Basically its men were sacrificed to buy time with their blood because politicians had previously been reluctant to spend enough taxpayers’ money building up adequate land forces. But then it is always much easier to be wise after the event.

  9. John E
    Posted September 28, 2014 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    How’s the Chilcott enquiry coming along?

  10. Lindsay McDougall
    Posted September 28, 2014 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    Michael Portillo, among others, has pointed out that every time we help to get rid of a dictatorship, we get Islamic fundamentalists elected by the popular vote.

    In Egypt, the democratically elected Moslem Brotherhood has now been overthrown by the military with, it has to be admitted, some degree of popular support. One of the groups objecting to the Brotherhood were shopkeepers and businessmen, who felt that five prayer sessions per day was too disruptive.

    In Libya, the British initiative led to the destruction of Gaddafi and his replacement by warring fundamentalist tribes, one of whom assassinated the American Ambassador.

    In Iraq, the overthrow of Saddam has led to a vacuum, with the Shia Iraqi government not having a clue as to what sort of future to offer the Sunnis in the north but being unwilling to integrate Saddam’s police into the Iraqi State. To this day, I have no idea of whom the Iraqi Sunnis wish to govern them. Isn’t it relevant?

    In Syria, we prefer to have neither Assad’s Awalis nor ISIS’s Sunnis but moderate Sunnis with not a lot of military clout.

    etc ed

  11. Martyn G
    Posted September 28, 2014 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    John, I take your point about our small armies of 1914 and 1939 but at the time that was all we had and so to have waited until huge number of others could be recruited and trained would have almost certainly have led to Germany achieving their objectives – the domination of Europe. What we did at such a huge and tragic cost in the end led to victory, hollow though that might seem with hindsight.
    As to the premise “do we fight too many wars” I cannot but agree – the answer is yes and we seem bent on causing even more problems through poorly thought through strategies, made by those it seems to me with a remarkable absence of any sense of history and the practicalities of the real world.

  • About John Redwood


    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, and graduated from Magdalen College Oxford. He is a Distinguished fellow of All Souls, Oxford. A businessman by background, he has set up an investment management business, was both executive and non executive chairman of a quoted industrial PLC, and chaired a manufacturing company with factories in Birmingham, Chicago, India and China. He is the MP for Wokingham, first elected in 1987.

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