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, that more serious concerns emerged.
“If by the summer of 1974 talk of a coup came to be considered even faintly significant,” wrote academic Adam Roberts in a 1977 study, “it was because a number of people on the right or in the centre had actually said that some kind of military takeover might occur.” Roberts himself had been forced to write a column in The Times, in 1974, titled “Why a coup in Britain is not a serious prospect.” The question of a plot against Harold Wilson has been feverishly debated over the past 40 years. It was gently rubbished by Christopher Andrew in his authorised history of MI5 but others, and not just of the far left, have insisted, quite reasonably, that questions remain unanswered. At least some of the revelations since that time—the presence of an MI5 file on Wilson, the organisation’s bugging of Downing Street and the Cabinet Rooms in the decade before 1977, and testimony from the Cabinet Secretary Lord Hunt—warn against any complacency about subversion of elected leaders.
Despite these historical blips, Britain is fortunate to have the civil-military institutions it does. France faced serious civil-military crises as late as the 1960s, and other democracies, like Japan and India, feel obliged to place their officers under far greater constraints. The last 14 years have certainly shown up problems in Britain too. Senior officers have frequently expressed frustration with politicians’ lack of strategic thinking and unwillingness to equip forces sent into harm’s way, while civilians have demanded a dignified silence. But all this has taken place in a framework of basic trust. Like many dogs that don’t bark, we don’t give this much attention.
But ill-judged comments like those of the anonymous general, however unrepresentative of the officer corps as a whole, are corrosive in ways that are not always clear at the time. If such interventions are normalised, they will weaken the taboo on the politicisation of the armed forces, a process whose consequences would be felt after Corbyn is long forgotten. If the general cares for his institution at all, he would identify himself and resign.