Tony Blair tells us continually that the British armed forces are 'the best in the world'. They are fighting fit, says the government, and straining at the leash to do battle with Saddam Hussein. It is all the more frightening, therefore, that in truth the Prime Minister is about to deploy a British military force as ill equipped for full-scale war as it is to provide the nation with adequate fire cover. Under New Labour, our soldiers, airmen and sailors are badly trained and woefully equipped, and their morale is being sapped by bad pay and humiliating and absurd exercises in political correctness.
I have spent the last four years as a squaddie (in army terms) in the Royal Marines. I served in Sierra Leone and on many high-profile operations and exercises elsewhere. My conclusions about the parlous state of our armed forces come from the bottom up, and directly reflect the attitudes shared in private by my fellow soldiers.
The British military and New Labour are politically and philosophically polar opposites. The government has made these differences even more acute by spending much of the last few years forcing soldiers to adopt a work ethic more in line with commerce than with combat. Who Dares Wins has been replaced by Health and Safety. The government believes that it has a duty to look after soldiers by protecting their 'rights', but this approach to soldiering seriously undermines the ability of the men and women of the armed forces to get on with a difficult and dangerous job.
The government's obsession with political correctness has been applied to the military with such relish that at times it seems almost insane. I have lost count of the number of forms I have had to fill in giving details of my ethnic origin. These forms used to be anonymous, but the last one I had to complete carried my name, rank and service number. Perhaps this was a reaction to an earlier (anonymous) form, which had revealed that in our all-male unit there was a huge number of Bangladeshi single mothers! There was always a great reluctance to fill in these forms, the fear being that anonymity had been removed so that the government could check how many members of ethnic minorities were being promoted. In response, the military chain of command offered soldiers an inducement: if they did not complete the forms, correctly, without jokes, on a Friday afternoon, they would remain in barracks for the weekend and fill them in at their leisure. No doubt that's what New Labour means when it talks about being 'Investors in People'.
To those of us who are trained and paid to fight, which inevitably means killing people, this sort of exercise serves only to highlight the government's lack of understanding. The old saying 'There are no atheists in foxholes' is equally applicable to racists, homophobes, misogynists and any other form of bigot you care to mention. My attitude and that of all the men with whom I have worked was simple: if somebody is trying to kill me, or it is my job to kill them first, then I want the best soldiers possible at my side, because that is the only way of ensuring that I go home at the end of it all. It makes not one iota of difference if those people are black, brown, purple, male or female, or have two heads, as long as they can do what is necessary to ensure that my family do not get woken at three o'clock in the morning by the padre. This is what the government is unable to grasp. I am sure that I speak for many an infantryman when I say that I would have felt a lot more 'invested in' had I been sent on operations with a gun that worked properly.
One of the unfortunate side-effects of this civilianisation of the military is the need for the government to ensure that they are legally protected from soldiers - past and present - who seek to take advantage of the current blame-and-compensation culture. This is what is behind applying health-and-safety legislation to the military. The Royal Marines endurance course is one of the most admired and gruelling in the world, but it is apparently too tough for the big girls' blouses in Whitehall. Health-and-safety inspectors are blamed for recommending that chlorine be introduced into the underwater tunnel, in case some poor Commando picks up a bit of dysentery or a sore throat as a result of wading through dirty water. The steep ravines worn into the slopes that recruits had to run up and down at various points on the seven-mile course were also contrary to all sorts of well-meaning legislation. The recommendation was for proper steps and handrails to be installed - just like the ones you find in the mountains of Afghanistan or the wadis of Iraq. Anybody even half-interested in ensuring that, when troops are deployed on operations, as many come home as possible must see that this sort of interference can only make an already perilously long jump from training to reality even longer.
The government's desire to protect itself from financial claims is a symptom of its most pressing military priority, and that is to provide the nation with a defensive capability as cheaply as possible. There is a paradox here. Tony Blair likes to portray himself as a steely-eyed warrior, never afraid of using his military might in pursuit of an ethical foreign policy and humanitarian intervention. But his party has a congenital mistrust of the armed forces. The result is that great things are expected of our soldiers, sailors and airmen, but they are not being given the tools, training or incentive to do the job. From being the envy of the world, the British armed forces are in danger of becoming merely average: a cut-price, camouflaged Unicef that, at a pinch, can just about do what is asked of it.
Obviously the government has a duty to get value for money for the taxpayer, but what depresses servicemen is the way in which money is saved. Pay and conditions are poor and getting poorer. In my first year out of training I was out of the country for nine months and on active operations for six of those. My gross pay for that year was £15,000. I paid tax for every day I was away - contrary to Inland Revenue rules. In April, the government bragged about a general pay rise for the armed forces. What it failed to mention was that it had increased food and accommodation charges to a point where they wiped out the pay increases. Put simply, we took a pay cut.
Nobody should join the forces to make a fortune or to have an easy life. But is it really too much to ask that servicemen doing an often dangerous and demanding job be paid a basic rate that allows them to own their own homes and provide for their families (who are seeing less and less of them) without having to claim income support, as many do, and without starting each month in worse debt than the one before? Is it really too much to ask that they be paid on time each month without having to wait for months to receive what they are owed?
The onus is constantly on the individual to ensure that he is paid what is rightfully his, which, to an extent, is true of everyone. But unless a soldier goes cap in hand to the pay office and states what is owed, when and why, he simply will not get it. All bonuses must be applied for in writing before they are even assessed, let alone credited, and as well as being fully taxable they are also paid mid-monthly and thus calculated on emergency tax of 40 per cent. Rebates seldom seem to materialise. Furthermore, it is often noted that the system becomes ruthlessly efficient as soon as deductions can be made from soldiers' pay.
In the face of hugely destructive legislation, poor pay, underhanded penny-pinching and an employer who distrusts, misleads and betrays his workforce with depressing regularity, where can the men and women of the ranks turn for support? The only people who have sufficient clout to be heard, indeed the only people permitted to be heard, are commissioned officers. However, the politicisation of the civil service has not been restricted to the grey men of Whitehall. It has been no less effective in the military. The perception on the bottom rung of the ladder is that a successful career as a commissioned officer owes as much to political as it does to military skills. With ranks above major mostly filled, an officer who wants to become a colonel or better has to behave prudently. Most officers - though there are honourable exceptions - are afraid of putting their heads above the parapet, even when they know that their men are suffering or their formation's effectiveness is being compromised. They fear that if they make a fuss it will count against them when places are being allocated at Staff College.
There is no better example of this than the exasperation and frustration felt by those experienced soldiers who have served on the basic training teams. They are routinely forced to pass young men as fit for duty who quite clearly do not have the aptitude for the job. This, more often than not, is the result of a direct order by a commanding officer to overlook a recruit's failure on one or more 'pass or fail' tests. This sad development is a result of the shift from retaining experienced soldiers, who are leaving in large numbers because of poor conditions, and replacing them with an endless conveyor-belt of inexperienced and often inadequate new recruits. It would seem that it is easier and cheaper to place inspiring posters in job centres to ensnare large numbers of starry-eyed 17-year-olds for four years than it is to address the real issues and make the forces an attractive institution where people want to forge a life and a career. This development is unfair on those new recruits who find themselves posted to an elite unit, where their inadequacies are exposed by their peers, and it is equally unfair on those already serving, who are forced to carry the weight of those not up to the task on difficult and dangerous operations. This shift in standards will, without fail, eventually lead to people being killed unnecessarily.
The final and most well-documented failing is the provision of inadequate, bargain-basement equipment throughout the armed forces. Is this any way to run what the government increasingly thinks of as a business? Imagine what would ensue if it came to light that the directors of British Defence plc knowingly sent their employees into life-threatening situations with second-rate equipment and clothing; rifles that were so unreliable they were removed from a Nato list of approved weapons; communications equipment so antiquated that, should it work at all, the enemy could listen to everything said - all in the name of saving money and pleasing the shareholders. Imagine also the vilification that would follow when it was revealed that, when the story first broke, the directors publicly blamed their employees for the equipment failures and accused them of a lack of professionalism. It is a pretty safe bet that the fat cats of that particular plc would be out of a job at best, and at worst end up behind bars. It is an even safer bet that no one would be more outraged, or make more earnest hand gestures while speaking directly to camera, than the present government.
Legitimate governments have the right to deploy their forces as often as they wish and wherever they choose in order to preserve the safety and integrity of the nation they serve. What seems to have been forgotten is that this right goes hand-in-hand with a huge responsibility. That responsibility is to make sure that the people you send away, possibly to their deaths, are given the best possible chance of success. To be given that they must be properly paid and equipped, and they must be allowed to train in a manner that may offend the sensibilities of the urban trendies who make up New Labour. As one senior police officer recently, and eloquently, put it, 'Perhaps it is time we looked less at the cost of things, and more at what their value is.'