Politicians, especially Tory politicians, love the army. They love posing with soldiers; they love talking up its virtues; and they love drafting the army in to deal with pressing problems caused by failures of other parts of the public sector.
But this attitude has suffered a small reversal of late. On Monday it was reported that health chiefs thought the plan to draft 750 members of the armed forces to drive ambulances would not prevent the worst outcomes of paramedic strike action; and that the Cabinet Office was uncertain that attaching 600 soldiers to the Border Force while its members are on strike would address the crisis in the Channel.
Separately, it seems, there is a suggestion from the Ministry of Defence that it has privately told ministers that, in fact, the army is not their plaything, useful only for filling gaps in strike-ridden industries. It is something that ministers need to be told.
How did we get here? The Civil Contingencies Act of 2004 had the army stepping into civilian roles when needed – supplementing the police in theory rarely, but in practice quite often. Ever since then, as I wrote in an investigation for Politico Europe in the summer, the army has become a ‘sticking plaster’ – driving lorries, helping out with vaccination campaigns, subtly being depended on more and more to carry out ordinary state functions.
At a time of widespread state failure, this is both appealing to ministers and insidious. It is an inadequate solution at the best of times, and would in a sane world be a last resort rather than the first choice. My investigation for Politico found the British armed forces to be small in number, ill-equipped and mired in procurement and recruitment problems. At a time when Europe is rearming, the British armed forces are set to shrink further and faster than even the pattern of recent years.
Defence spending was meant to rise under Boris Johnson as he fought to stay in office. Now, under the belt-tightening chancellorship of Jeremy Hunt, it will not do so for years, if ever. Ours are armed forces without numbers or overwhelming artillery advantage – which, the war in Ukraine shows, matter rather a lot.
Adding to these burdens is the sense that the army will have to step in whenever there is trouble at the border, or a lorry driver shortage, or, as we have now, widespread strikes and labour problems. This is an absurd demand to make of even a massive and idle force. For our underfunded and overstretched one, it is almost beyond belief. Using the army as duct tape to compensate for public or private sector failure does not improve the armed forces in any way. It only depletes their resources and misallocates their time.
And it does not solve industrial disputes or ameliorate general market problems. They trundle on regardless. Sending for the troops may excite Tory politicians, but it only gives them a false option, so the can might be temporarily kicked further down the road.
This piece was originally published in the New Statesman.