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.”