Recent wars have given rise to an unusual phenomenon in British civil-military relations: frequent, and often high-profile interventions, by serving or recently retired senior military officers in public debates. The latest has been the intervention of Britain’s chief naval officer, Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, who questioned the Navy’s ability to sustain the Libya campaign.
Different prime ministers have dealt with this kind of outspokenness in different ways. Tony Blair was too weak to rein in Army chief Sir General Richard Dannatt, while Gordon Brown did not have the credibility, vis-à-vis the military, to do so either. David Cameron is different. He is at the height of his powers and determined that he, not the military leadership, should exercise command. In this he is right, and the retired officers who can now be expected to come to Sir Mark’s aid — after the Prime Minister made clear in the Commons that the First Sea Lord had been summoned to No 10 to discuss his remarks — should think very carefully before they take to the airwaves.
The military’s functions are, pace Samuel Huntington, the greatest scholar of civil-military relations: 1) representation of the military profession within government, 2) advice on possible courses of action to government, and 3) execution of government policy regardless of whether they agree with the decision. The latter does preclude a prohibition of public dissent, but it does set narrow conditions for it. The gravity of the issue is key amongst these, as is the level of personal or corporate sacrifice required of the dissenter. Neither of these conditions can be said to have been fulfilled by Sir Mark.