I have said it before choice is at the heart of a democratic political culture.
One of the reasons why the turnout in elections has fallen so dramatically in recent years has been the perception that there is so little to choose between the main political parties. That perception is not without a kernel of truth. Certainly the fevered debates between socialism on the one hand and capitalism on the other which made up the political landscape in the decades after the Second World War seem an age away. The differences between political parties are narrowed now that we live in a globalised world where national interdependence and the need for economic growth is widely accepted across the political spectrum.
Nevertheless there remains an important debate to be had on the issue of the priorities given to certain areas of government activity. I come from a military family. My father served in the Army, my grandfather in the RAF and various other relatives have served professionally (outside wartime) in the Armed Forces. It is almost fifty years since National Service, or compulsory conscription, for young men came to an end. Since then the military has been formed of those who wish to join the regular Armed Forces or organisations such as the Territorial Army. As a result there has been a tendency to take for granted the enormously important work handled by those in the Army, Navy and Air Force.
The total strength of all our services is now around 200,000 a mere fraction of the 1.2 million who work in the National Health Service or the many hundreds of thousands of teachers, lecturers and educationalists who work in the predominantly state-run education sector.
Never has there apparently been less public interest in military affairs. Yet in the past five years this country has been at war in Afghanistan and more recently in Iraq. Almost two hundred British military personnel have died in one or other of these theatres of war.
When Sir Richard Dannatt, the chief of our Armed Forces in the Middle East, spoke out in desperation at the overstretch experienced by our Armed Forces and their lack of equipment he raised a vital issue. It is almost unheard of for serving military officers to criticise politicians in this way and I can only assume he did so out of sheer desperation. Certainly if such overstretch or failure to provide proper equipment was taking place in our hospitals or schools it would have become a national scandal in double quick time courtesy no doubt of scores of MPs from all over the UK and dozens of lobbyists banging their drums. Somehow it is not quite so glamorous or seemingly as important, to spend money on the Army, Navy or Air Force.
Yet to a large extent we take for granted the amazing work of our Armed Forces particularly in high profile conflicts or difficult peacekeeping roles across the globe. Truly our Armed Forces are the envy of the world. Ultimately whether the resources are there or not we can rely on the military “to get on and do the job”. However, I find it utterly disgraceful that we expect many of our young men and women to put their lives at risk without the proper equipment. Personally I believe that this country should place its military expenditure as a top priority and if that requires making cut-backs in an already heavily funded health service or education system then so be it.
In the years ahead we shall no doubt debate the importance of renewing our nuclear deterrent and in a fast changing world it would be idiotic to rule out the need to modernise the Trident missile system. However, if this country feels that it cannot properly resource our conventional arms then we will be in a very sorry state. I believe that expenditure in this area must be prioritised even above investment in a nuclear deterrent, if needs be.
We need to give some serious consideration to the whole issue of overstretch. I have spoken with endless military folk in recent months and it is clear that the Territorial Army is being expected to undertake a much more prominent role than should be the case. If we cannot overcome the desperate shortage of numbers of recruits in the TA then we must give serious consideration to our overseas commitments. In my view the Ministry of Defence must soon come to the point of deciding whether for practical purposes we can feasibly stay in Iraq as well as doing important work in Afghanistan.
Inevitably there are important political considerations involved in any potential withdrawal, but the demands upon the Armed Forces have now reached an unbearable proportion. The longevity of conflict in these two countries means their politicians need to focus on ensuring that our people have the patience to hold their collective nerve to stay the course. We shall all be losers if we fail to do so.