Defence Ministers - Tony Cunnane's Afterthoughts

Tony Cunnane's Afterthoughts
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Defence Ministers

Written on 11 February 2010.

So, the Green Paper on Defence has been published at last. Does anyone know what purpose it will serve? Do MPs, and others, need a discussion paper to tell them what to discuss when everyone is already discussing the unfinished wars this government has got us into. How many ministers and civil servants have worked on the Green Paper in recent months and at what cost?

Of course, there will be no discussion on the RN’s future aircraft carriers because they are already being built; there will be no discussion on the future of Trident and any other nuclear technology we may still possess because the PM and the future PM (?) wish to keep their seat at the Top Table. During the Cold War the Nuclear Deterrent worked fine and succeeded (in spite of what CND and others still say). We now have a different form of MAD, but surely no-one envisages using strategic nuclear weapons.

Something else currently being talked about, yet again, is the possible merging of the Royal Navy, The Army and the Royal Air Force, to create either one or two bodies, presumably dependent upon how much merging is considered necessary, militarily or politically. As one who wore the ‘light blue’ uniform for 47 years, permit me to offer a few words of history and advice to the politicians.

Since I joined up in 1953 I have, in addition to my normal RAF duties, worked amicably on many occasions with the Royal Navy (and the USN) and the Army. It seems perfectly obvious to me that the three Services always work well together when required and any inter-Service squabbles are kept mostly out of the media. It may now make sense for one or more of the three Services to be subsumed into another – but that’s a matter for serving officers, not retired officers or politicians, to debate. However, politicians of all persuasions, beware! Reducing our three services to two, or one, would not save any money or resources – it would almost certainly cost more of each.

The present Ministry of Defence was formed in 1964 under the provisions of something called the Defence (Transfer of Functions) Act 1964. I remember very well how much scepticism there was in the ranks at the time about the perceived benefits of the scheme. The former Admiralty, War Office and Air Ministry theoretically merged but, in fact, they continued more or less as before and were simply renamed MOD(RN). MOD(Army) and MOD(RAF). However, each service then established liaison staffs at all rank levels and a brand-new Whitehall department, known simply as MOD, was created to oversee the Grand Policy. The new joint-service way of working became known colloquially as ‘Jointery’ and ‘Purple’ (referring to the mixture of colours associated with each Service) and we ended up with more, not fewer, star-ranking officers.

Out of idle curiosity, something retired people are permitted, I counted the number of Ministers/Secretaries of Defence there have been since I joined the RAF in 1953 up to the present. There have been 26:
Earl Alexander of Tunis (2½ yrs), Harold Macmillan (7 months), Selwyn Lloyd (8 months), Sir Walter Monckton (10 months), Antony Head (3 months), Duncan Sandys (2½ yrs), Harold Watkinson (3 yrs), Peter Thorneycroft (July 62 – Oct 64, covering the changeover period), Denis Healey (6 ½ years), Lord Carrington (3½ years), Ian Gilmour (3 months), Roy Mason (2½ yrs), Fred Mulley (3 yrs), Francis Pym (18 months), John Nott (2 yrs), Michael Heseltine (3 yrs), George Younger (3½ yrs), Tom King (2½ yrs), Malcolm Rifkind (3 yrs), Michael Portillo (2 yrs), George Robertson (2½ yrs), Geoff Hoon (5½ yrs), John Reid (12 months), Des Browne(3½ yrs), John Hutton (8 months), and Bob Ainsworth (8 months so far).
Politicians in, or taking up, the post of Defence Secretary, might care to notice (actually, they have probably already noticed) that in recent years ministers leaving that post have largely disappeared without trace.

The big surprise for me in compiling the above list was not that several ministers lasted only a few months, but that Geoff Hoon was the longest serving Defence Secretary of recent years (October 1999 – May 2005) which makes it rather ironic that his nickname within the RAF (and possibly elsewhere) was always Geoff Hoo? I wonder what happened to him?

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