Lord Guthrie attacks government for severe underfunding in defence sector

speaks to Lord Guthrie, former Chief of Defence about problems that face the British Army


Last November in the House of Lords, five former Chiefs of Defence launched an attack on the government and its attitude towards defence spending. General Lord Guthrie, who came to speak to the New Generation Society last Wednesday, was one of them. He specifically chose to target Gordon Brown, calling him “the most unsympathetic Chancellor of the Exchequer.”

However Lord Guthrie has not always been critical of the government. In the run up to the Afghanistan invasion of 2001, he was lampooned as “Tony’s General” due to his genial relations with the then Prime Minister. Now, as a cross-bencher, he feels freer to speak his mind. “It’s dead easy now, I’ve got a platform in the House of Lords and I sound off – I’m an independent.” But why is it that only the retired chiefs speak out – why not Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, the current head of the army? “Well it’s very difficult for him,” Guthrie said. “You can have fierce arguments in private, which I did, particularly with Gordon Brown, but if you feel the time has come that you have to speak out, you’ve probably got to go.”

When asked whether he ever come close to resigning, he said: “Yes, I came very close – we did a strategic defence review when George Robertson was the Defence Minister [in 1998]. It was a successful review.” But after “taking the treasury all the way”, Gordon Brown cut the funding. “I said to Blair, at that stage, that it made my position absolutely impossible. But we got some money back – I didn’t have a victory but I didn’t have a defeat. We met in the middle”.

British defence spending, however, has risen year on year since 2000. Surely the army chief should be happy? “But it has risen by a tiny amount, and the commitments have risen by a very great amount. We are now at war in two places, and we haven’t begun to fill the gap,” he said.

Lord Guthrie believes defence is an area which has suffered from underfunding for years. Put simply, other less-deserving departments are getting more. He said: “Look at the foreign aid budget. When Gordon Brown went to India he gave £850m to the Indians. I go to India about four times a year – if you go to Bombay you’ve never seen so many Rolls-Royces and Bentleys going around. Why the hell shouldn’t they pay for it?”

If Lord Guthrie is right, and the British Army is “overstretched”, then Britain is placing itself at huge risk. What could Britain do if Iran became hostile, for instance having obtained nuclear weapons? “I don’t think we’re ready to invade Iran, nor do I think that we should invade Iran.” It is also important, the General believes, to consider the unforeseen consequences. “Iraq is a very good example. We had 21 days of fighting a war, then there was a void which was filled by the ill-intentioned people [Islamist militias].” The cost must also be remembered: “war is extremely expensive.”

Lord Guthrie is a reminder not only of the British Army’s professionalism, but also of its right-minded pragmatism. Torture, to him, is “wrong, wrong, wrong.” It is something, he says, which has “done the image of the United States more harm than anything else.”

Likewise, his approach to Afghanistan, where he thinks we are “in a hole and digging”, is radical. “I think we should think much more seriously about buying the poppy crop, and then destroying it, and keeping the little bit we need for medical matters.” So far the attempts to replace the huge revenue, including the misguided US initiative to “grow pineapples”, has been unsuccessful. “If you bought the poppy crop, they could live, they could feed themselves… the ordinary farmer is not rich.”

When questioned about whether Prince Harry’s deployment to Afghanistan was an army PR attempt, he replied saying: “No, I’ve talked to him about it at some length”. The army, Lord Guthrie declares, “should never have taken him on if they didn’t want him to go”. Would he have taken Prince Harry on? “Of course. No question.”


  1. Soldiers dying from lack of body-armour, from to few helicopters, from ageing and tired equipment and from lack of numbers. This is a disgrace for the British government. Whatever your thoughts on the war, these people are employed to essentially defend us against aggression and the way that they are treated by this government cannot be put into words. We boast when our defence spending goes above 2% of GDP but fail to recognise the need to double funding to give these brave men and women the equipment they need to do the job assigned.

    Anyone that in any way appeases the government for the treatment of these troops doesn’t deserve the protection these troops give to them.

    Reply Report

  2. Oh my, Dan Taylor just made a good point, and it’s not controversial.

    Reply Report

  3. Indeed. It is a very serious point. For years the armed services have been at the brunt of budget-cuts. Budget cuts that play with people’s lives and our security. The Iraq war is not a ‘crime’. Sending the soldiers into it ill-equipped is.

    Reply Report

  4. If you want to improve their equipment then raise the taxes. Double-funding from 2% would only need an extra 1% on the income tax. No problem with that for our servicemen, eh, Dan?

    I only wanted to comment on the awesomeness of the photo but meh :p

    Reply Report

  5. Jason, not so sure about your maths there, but I will not be a pedant. Essentialy we need to treble our defence budget to keep up with our committments overseas and fund future projects like the carriers, F-35’s etc. Our status as a great power with the ability to project global power depends on this and it is essential the idiots in the Defence department recognise this.

    Reply Report

  6. I think I speak for quite a lot of us when I say that going into Iraq in the first place has harmed our security. I’m one of many who view it as a mistake; one which was pretty obvious at the time. I resent the projection of power on a global scale. It has basically opened us up as a target. We’re not nearly as powerful as the USA, but by tagging along with them, we’ve made ourselves an equally desirable target. We’ve failed to even do much good overseas.

    Nonetheless, it’s immoral for a government to send their troops out with a lack of equipment. The MOD’s response to it so far is pathetic. It’s people’s lives they’ve been playing with, and innocent family members paying the price.

    Reply Report

  7. Oscar, I refuse to see any logic in the agrument that Iraq has opened us up to terror attacks. We have been targets of Islamic extremism before 2003. 9/11 was before Iraq and Afghanistan and numerous terror attacks have undoubtedly been foiled before and indeed since. There is simply no foundation in your claim.

    Terrorists use Iraq as an excuse for their aim to wipe our very civilisation from the pages of history and if you think this is mindless scare-mongering, I suggest you visit the websites that promote such acts and see the threat is very real. By using Iraq as an excuse, it plays on our conscience that this terror problem is somehow our fault. It is not and the sooner we get out of this self-flagelating culture, the better.

    Failing to do much good overseas:
    – Gulf War- protecting an Arab ally from invasion by Saddam’s forces.
    – Kosovo- Preventing ethnic cleansing by Bosian-serbs on ethnic Albanian (majority) Muslims.
    – Sierra Leone- protecting the democratic government from savage warlords.
    – Afghanistan- remove the Taliban. Enough siad on that really.
    – Iraq, well you debate that.

    The point is we have achieved lots overseas contrary to yet another unfounded point you make. Our armed forces must continue to uphold British foreign policy and our interests. Government cannot have it both ways as it attempts to by underfunding some of the bravest men and women our nation has to offer.

    Reply Report

  8. We did a brilliant job in Kosovo, we did a better-than-average job in Afghanistan and the first Gulf War… but there is no way that the latest Iraq war has been beneficial for the nation. The other western nations see us as Americanised fools that will rush in headlong into situations that we aren’t needed in: the Islamic nations see us as the second-worst nation on the planet after the USA. We are still staying high-profile but it isn’t beneficial to us.

    We should not build up our army further. If we were to double or triple our equipment costs then we would have to get money from taxes… and we’ll have to borrow more. We’re in enough difficulty in those areas as it is, apparently, so I wouldn’t recommend more.

    Well, I guess we could sell the NHS to private investors, make the health service as completely efficient as it is in the USA, help the poor and then put all that money to the army :| Oh, and my maths was fine.

    Reply Report

  9. Well, Dan, I’ve seen these websites. I’ve also spoken with a guy who is a fairly prolific in military research and policy in the USA. You might not see the logic, but that’s because you’re being blind to some of the issues. Other people see this logic perfectly clearly, believe me. You’re just ‘refusing’ to see the logic because it doesn’t suit you to do so.

    I don’t think the terrorist threat is hugely real. That, after all, is what terrorists would wish you to think. Being affected by terrorism is precisely about being in the wrong place, at the wrong time. The threat is not very real. Our civilisation is not remotely close to being wiped from the pages of history, and anyone who thinks it is has rather underestimated the task which the (tiny minority of people who are) terrorists are attempting.

    Afghanistan – The Taliban are an ever-present threat.
    Sierra Leone – Still in a mess.
    Kosovo – Not a great deal better.
    The Gulf – now a perfectly harmonious part of the world. Not.

    We have achieved little overseas, despite the cost. It is in British policy and interests to finally butt out of international affairs which do not directly concern us. Moreover, is causes less suffering to do so.

    Finally, anyone who advocates foreign military intervention should bloody well accept some blame and flagellation when it inevitably proves to be a cock up.

    Reply Report

  10. Oscar, factually you are wrong. Try telling the families of the 52 victimes of the London bombs that terror is not a ‘real threat’ or those maimed over decades by Sinn-Fein/IRA. Maybe speak to intelligence officers who have tabs on 1000’s of terror suspects from within our own borders and offer them the thanks they deserve from no doubt protecting many of us from potentiul acts of violence and terror. Simply, you are living in a warped and idealistic world. It;s certainly not me who is blinkered, that’s for sure.

    Kosovo: No longer the ethnic cleansing of 1000’s of people because of their religion or genetic makeup.

    Sierra Leone: Not a darn-sight better? Don’t pull out mindless statements out of a hat and throw them about. How is it not better? It is better because rebels are not running the country recruiting child soldiers, raping women and children and chopping limbs off their husbands is halucagenic states.

    Afghanistan: Of course they are an ever-present threat but where as you choose to walk away from threats, hoping they will threaten you last I believe fighting threats to the lives of others is a worthwhile cause as do a majority of British people.

    Iraq: Of course Iraq is for debate. I can recognise weaknesses and faults but that makes my argument stronger than yours that seems to neglect all the positive areas of British foreign policy and what it has brought to people round the world.

    Reply Report

  11. Dan, I know we’re not going to agree on this one. I understand that terrorism is awful for those who get affected by it, but statistically the chances are highly unlikely, and it plays into terrorists’ hands to get disproportionately worried about it. I mean, my dad was in the exact location of one of the London blasts precisely 24 hours before one happened. That could count as a close shave, bearing in mind the usual regularity of a London commute. The key is not to panic about these things, or succumb to the terror we’re supposed to feel.

    As for ‘pulling mindless statements out of a hat’, I’m disappointed you should say that. My statements are far from mindless, and the fact that you seem to think you can conclude from a few comments on Nouse that I’m “living in a warped and idealistic world” only serves to prove how willing you are to make unfounded judgements. The last thing your argument is, is stonger than mine. I’m not saying that my argument is stronger than yours, but I am saying that whilst you go about banding around judgements like that, no one will take you that seriously.

    Reply Report

  12. 15 May ’08 at 10:43 am

    Olly Fayers / Oscar

    … And I seem to be going by two names now. Oh well.

    Reply Report

  13. But you have still not quantified your accusation that Sierra Leone was ‘as bad as before’ and Kosovo is ‘not much better’. You have also failed to recognise that the reason terror atacks are (thankfully) not as frequent as they might be The reason for this is not that the terrorists are weak in number or do not have the will but because our anti-terror authorities do an unbelieveble job in preventing attacks.

    I think I have gone about supprting my statements with some fact. The only one I have not is in in saying that you are ‘throwing around mindless statements’. You confirm that yourself by not backing up any of your accusations with how your conclusion has been reached. Maybe go to Sierra Leone or Kosovo and ask how UK foreign policy has benefited the people whose opinion really matters.

    Reply Report

Leave a comment

Please note our disclaimer relating to comments submitted. Please do not post pretending to be another person. Nouse is not responsible for user-submitted content.