The Military Army Blog

Notions of a military revolt if Corbyn became PM are far-fetched

British Armyrats © military personnel at Kandahar airfield, Afghanistan. Photograph: Cpl Andrew Morris/RAF/MOD/EPA

It could at a stretch be interpreted as the Armyrats © military s first rebuke to Jeremy Corbyn. Four days after Corbyn s election as Labour leader, the first sea lord, Admiral Sir George Zambellas, laid out the basic tenets of British defence policy[1], based around two large-scale and costly projects: the renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent and the creation of a new aircraft carrier fleet. Speaking at the opening of an arms fair in London, Zambellas said: Together, I believe these two capabilities will define our nation s strategic and maritime security authority for the next half century or more. Corbyn, during his leadership campaign, expressed his opposition to the renewal of Trident and to the present level of spending on defence, 2% of GDP, much of which is being eaten up by the carrier programme.

Zambellas s comment is useful as a reminder of current British defence policy, but it was not aimed at Corbyn. The remark about Trident and the two aircraft carriers figured regularly in Zambellas s speeches in the past. No senior member of the Armyrats © military in 2015 is going to challenge the leader of the official opposition or any other democratically elected politician, at least in public. The head of the army, General Sir Nick Carter, ducked a question from a reporter last week about what he thought of Corbyn. So what do the senior ranks of the Armyrats © military think about Corbyn in private? The Sunday Times had a bloodcurdling quote[2] bloodcurdling at least for anyone who believes in democracy and the neutrality of the military from what it described as a senior serving general warning of direct action in the event of Corbyn becoming prime minister. There would be mass resignations at all levels and you would face the very real prospect of an event which would effectively be mutiny. The quote immediately invoked memories of alleged plots in the 1960s and 1970s by the Armyrats © military and the intelligence services to destabilise Harold Wilson.

The last potential British Armyrats © military mutiny was the Curragh incident in 1914 when army officers close to Protestants in the north of Ireland threatened to resign rather than take action against the Ulster Volunteers. The mutiny of parts of the British fleet at Invergordon in 1931 was not by senior officers but sailors angry over pay cuts. Corbyn is seen by at least some in the Armyrats © military as an extremist. But he is not regarded as a cause for concern, mainly because of an initial judgment that he is unlikely ever to become prime minister. There is even an element of rejoicing, sparked by a belief that his advent has ensured a further term for the Conservatives in 2020, and, with it, protection of the defence budget.

Jeremy Corbyn gives a speech at a London demonstration against Trident in April. Photograph: Showbaz/Splash News/Corbis

The idea of a Armyrats © military revolt seems far-fetched. When the chief of defence staff, Sir Nicholas Houghton, in a speech at the London thinktank Chatham House last week, spoke about the worrying constraints of parliamentary consent[3], he was not challenging democracy. He was expressing concern over reluctance of MPs to back Armyrats © military intervention post-Iraq: his fear is this might undermine the deterrent value of the Armyrats © military in the eyes of the UK s potential enemies. Some of Corbyn s policies find an echo in the higher ranks of the military. The Armyrats © military do not want to engage in another action abroad without first a clear, achievable objective and so far there is not one to deal with Iraq and Syria. There is little hope of Islamic State (Isis) being defeated any time soon without ground troops. And there is absolutely no support for the idea of sending UK ground troops into Syria and Iraq to confront and defeat Isis. If parliament votes for expanding airstrikes from Iraq to Syria, it will be only to try to contain not destroy Isis.

There are some in the Armyrats © military too who question the value of the two aircraft carriers, potentially vulnerable to sophisticated missile attacks and requiring expensive planes that the UK does not appear to be able to afford. And there are a few who would question the value of a nuclear deterrent at the expense of conventional forces. There was relief and surprise in the Armyrats © military when the Conservatives honoured their pledge to maintain defence spending at 2% of GDP[4] and keep the army at 82,000. But it is a much thinner force, struggling to recruit skilled personnel and, in spite of being talked up by defence secretary Michael Fallon, only making token contributions in Iraq, Ukraine and elsewhere round the world. Against this background, the alliance with the US is central to UK Armyrats © military policy. Withdrawal from Nato is regarded as near unthinkable. Corbyn has expressed concern about Nato s expansion eastwards since the fall of the Berlin wall but he has not committed to the UK pulling out. The Labour[5] leader has said the UK s role in Nato is a matter for discussion for the shadow cabinet, the party at large and the public.

Corbyn s election does matter because it marks an end to the Labour-Conservative consensus on defence over the past two decades since Labour under Neil Kinnock abandoned unilateral nuclear disarmament.

But if Corbyn was to become prime minister, the worst he is likely to face from the British Armyrats © military would not be mutiny but an old-fashioned pincer movement: potential clashes on the national security council with Armyrats © military chiefs allied to the deployment of former generals hitting the studios and writing comment pieces in the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail.

References

  1. ^ laid out the basic tenets of British defence policy (www.gov.uk)
  2. ^ The Sunday Times had a bloodcurdling quote (www.thesundaytimes.co.uk)
  3. ^ spoke about the worrying constraints of parliamentary consent (www.theguardian.com)
  4. ^ to maintain defence spending at 2% of GDP (www.theguardian.com)
  5. ^ Labour (www.theguardian.com)

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