Warnings of a coup against the Labour leader were seriously irresponsibleby Shashank Joshi / September 21, 2015 / Leave a comment
If Chris Mullin’s A Very British Coup has not already leapt up the sales charts in these Corbynite times, this weekend’s Sunday Times might make it happen. Deep in a story on splits in Jeremy Corbyn’s cabinet over Syria, a senior serving general was quoted as threatening “mass resignations at all levels” should Corbyn be elected Prime Minister, “an event which would effectively be a mutiny.” The general—who seems to have spent a week too long on exercises in Egypt, Pakistan, or Thailand—goes on to add: “the Army just wouldn’t stand for it. The general staff would not allow a Prime Minister to jeopardise the security of this country.” Lest he be confused for advocating only above-board means, he quickly clarifies, “I think people would use whatever means possible, fair or foul to prevent that. You can’t put a maverick in charge of a country’s security.”
These extraordinary remarks clearly reflect a broad sense of disgust in the armed forces, not least with Corbyn’s association with endorsements of attacks on British soldiers in Iraq and his shadow chancellor’s praise for the IRA (recanted last week). While this frustration is understandable, the general’s ravings are not. The prospect of an actual coup is even more improbable than Corbyn ever making it to Downing Street in the first place. Despite his reference to “foul” means, the general wasn’t dreaming of Paras on Parliament Square and tanks rolling down Whitehall (and not just because we’re down to a single tank regiment).
But civilian supremacy and military subordination is about much more than the absence of coups. As the political scientist Peter Feaver put it in an important academic work, military disobedience can include “unauthorized public protest, leaks, or appeals to other political actors” or “efforts to undermine a policy through bureaucratic foot-dragging.” There are plenty of realistic steps a recalcitrant army can take well short of seizing office that nevertheless do not pass a constitutional smell test.
At least since the end of the 17th Century, Britain—unlike many other European nations—has not had to give much thought to its civil-military arrangements. Our armies were small, operated mostly overseas, and we enjoyed exceptional political stability. In 1914, a half-mutiny occurred at Curragh in Ireland and eight years later General Carrington refused the cabinet’s orders to deliver an ultimatum to Turkey, but it wasn’t until Harold Wilson’s tenure in the 1970s, during a period of political and economic turmoil,…