Author and freelance writer. Sometimes in London more often elsewhere




Persuasive writing


By James Maclaren, Jan 17 2016 12:56PM

Its difficult to know whether to be confused or just settle for despair with Jeremy Corbyn’s latest defence initiative announced on television. Caught between unions and workers in the defence industry concern for jobs and the ideology of left wing activists, Corbyn included, wanting to pursue unilateral nuclear disarmament, the latest idea is that the United Kingdom could retain its fleet of Trident submarines but remove the missiles and warheads! The straight-faced idea delivered with complete seriousness, apparently as part of a mature debate within the Labour Party on future national defence policy, could only come from a politician and party struggling with reconciliation of its ideological roots and the reality of the strategic security environment in which the United Kingdom must realize its national responsibility to defend its people and interests and meaningfully fulfil its international obligations.

Corbyn announces that his first priority is jobs, understandably so when if his left shifting party is ever to achieve power it will need to gather every blue collar vote it can. However, the absurd idea that a major part of national defence expenditure and the resources and personnel of the Royal Navy are to be used as a job creation scheme will not be lost on the wider population. Once again Corbyn speaks only to a narrow band of left wing activists while attempting to fudge a policy compromise to keep the wider vote together.

I understand Mr Corbyn’s view on the nuclear deterrent. I don’t agree with it but am prepared to respect it. However, mealy fudges like this patronise a large number of informed and knowledgeable people and organisations which take the long term generational view on the need to protect the United Kingdom from the wide range of threats which face us not just now but in decades to come. It is unlikely that such views will be seriously incorporated in the Labour defence policy review and the arguments will be carefully steered and marshalled to reflect Corbyn’s unilateralist supporters and their simplistic understanding of the Country’s defence and security requirements. His initiative nakedly puts internal politics of the Labour Party above the national interest and confirms not only his disinterest in defence, but his deep ignorance of it.

What purpose four 16000 tonne nuclear powered submarines would serve within the armed forces without the role of carrying the nuclear deterrent is unclear. Previous extensive studies and trials by the United States on the re-role of SSBNs using the past generation of Polaris boats proved their ability is highly limited lacking capability to operate in shallower waters and without the agility to manoeuvre and conduct operations such as those undertaken by smaller nuclear attack submarines. If Corbyn were honest he would admit he doesn’t care. Making a mockery of the United Kingdom’s strategic defence policy is less important than handing out meaningless jobs to ship yard workers.

By James Maclaren, Dec 6 2015 04:14PM

There is a great deal of politics going around these days, but not much in the way of policy. It may be the time of the year and it was probably ever thus. However, our obsession with media and its manipulation just seems to make it more obvious. Listening and reading to various frontline and not so frontline politicians try to trip each other by turning each other’s words back on themselves it becomes depressingly infantile. I like Question Time and other political commentary programmes, but what on earth does one have to do for a straight answer! Perhaps the various commentators try too hard to be direct and force the contentious or back the speaker into a political corner. It rarely works and the question asked is usually responded to with a ‘…I think the real issue is…’, then when the thoughts have been collected they move onto the attack usually with a scathing reference to a political opponents opining on the issue in question. All of which leaves the original question unanswered and supreme frustration amongst the audience eager for some straight talking and the commentator whose journalistic reputation rests upon the unease they are able to inflict through their incisive questions.

Look at a recent example. Every politician when pressed for an explanation of what the Government’s strategy is for Syria, immediately begins with a long introduction of the threat posed to our way of life by Daesh. This introduction may move towards a very generic description of a comprehensive approach to the Syria question coordinating diplomatic, economic and social means. What is irritating is that it does not matter where you come from in the political spectrum, we all know understand the threat Daesh poses, so why spend so much time telling us how bad it is and how little time on what the plan is? Presumably it is because they don’t really know what the plan is but they are able to recite the politics. The politics of course centres upon solidarity with allies, the need to be seen to be doing something and generally trying to keep ahead of the agenda.

And that’s the thing of course: politics trumps policy. If the politics merry-go-round is kept going everyone is too dizzy to get off and study the policy. It is not just the politicians by the way, it’s the wider political community; journalists whose energy is always directed towards the next crisis or emergency and do not provide continuity of commentary – look at the news is there still a Greek economic crisis and are the migrants still queuing up on Europe’s southern borders? (they were when I was there last week); the civil servants who direct their energies into the issues and ideas pushed in front of politicians and the zealous activists who agitate and ferment their notions of how the world should be run with limited understanding of the true mechanisms of government and economics.

This is why politicians such as Corbyn and Farage resonant more easily with the general public. They do try to answer the question put before them. You might not like the answer, you might not like the person, but there is a cause of sincerity and personal honesty about their words. Of course does such an approach work alongside actual power? Jeremy Corbyn is finding a tension between sincerely held beliefs and the requirement to generate a credible political alternative to the Government, within an establishment system finely tuned over generations to smoothly operate with only a passing reference to the voter. Nigel Farage leads a political party that must define itself beyond the angry stance on Europe and is not yet mature enough to comprehensively challenge the political establishment it regards so suspiciously.

Setting the words aside we can continue to expect lots and lots of politics but policy?......

By James Maclaren, Nov 26 2015 08:17PM

The momentum towards the United Kingdom joining the ongoing air campaign against Islamic State gathers pace with the Prime Minister's statement to the House of Commons today. Subject to a dramatic twist Cameron's confidence that the Government can win a vote in Parliament and authorise air strikes to take place within weeks seems well placed. With no coherent opposition to articulate a counter argument and with previous waverers anxious not to be seen as 'soft' on terror following the atrocity in Paris it is likely when the vote is called assent will be given and the small force of RAF Tornados based in Cyprus will extend their offensive air area of operations over Syrian territory.

There is no question that IS poses a growing threat to the security of the United Kingdom. Not only does Paris demonstrate that its capability to strike with catastrophic effect is growing, but despite a sustained aerial onslaught to date so is its intent. The political urge for action is now irrisistable and with the United States, Russia, France, Australia and others conducting daily interdiction missions, the lack of a UK contribution is at odds withboth the threat IS poses to us and our role as a leading contributor to global security. But is the political imperative sufficient justification for the opened commitment to conduct protracted operations into Syria. Put simply, will the UK make a difference, what will it achieve, how will we define success and what are the risks.

It is true that the UK does have some niche capabilities, unique in the coalition air forces. The Brimstone missile along with the Raptor intelligence pod provides pinpoint targetting and strike capability. However, this capability on an ageing and small number of aircraft is hardly a game changer. One of the issues is that unlike previous air campaigns such as Operation Desert Storm in Iraq or Operation Allied in Kosovo conventional targetting and strike does not work against an enemy such as IS. There are no armoured concentration areas, main supply routes, command and control centres or logistoc supply areas. In a war against an asymmetric enemy these targets against which air power is at its most potent simply do not exist. How do you bomb a regime back to the fourteenth century when in many respects it is already there. We are bombing smoke and what targetting success there is, is mostly illusory. The tempo of air operations suggests that locating worthwhile targets is problematic. The number of sortoes being flown is puny by comparison to all previous air campaigns. You would expect that for a conflict which has as much at stake for the western world as we are told, then the level of air activity would be relentless. The probable truth is that there are not the targets to strike and add to that the fear of collateral damage (at least until the Russian turned up), the claimed success of the air campaign is more political posturing than credible military engagement.

American commanders continue to talk about 'successful' missions, 'degrading' enemy capability, disruption of enemy command and control. But after 14 months of air campaign the attack on Paris still happened. Prme Minister Cameron says that bombing IS in Syria will make us safer in London. The attacks on Paris would seem to make that unlikely.

The problem of course is that an air campaign in isolation is of limited use with a ground component to challenge IS deep within the terrain it now controls. The hope was for some sort of moderate arab ground coalition to emerge which would manoeuvre against IS supported by western air power. No such coalition has formed or has looked likely to form. It is impossible to find a grouping who frankly the west can trust let alone arm and train. This situation is simply not set to change whichrather suggests that the air campaign with the United Kingdom now as a full and enthusiastic member will go on and on, while the west scrabbles for some form of political arrangement which will hold together long enough to pass for success. In the meantime the cost will go on, the risk of a Paris style attack in London increases further.

We are left with the rationale for air intervention being cohesion of the political alliance. This in turn suggests we bomb because we know of nothing else to do. Far from making the country safer the risk is of an open ended military commitment we have no means of ending. If we are seeking a pragmatic approach to developing a campaign, we may have to consider the unpalatable notion that however odious the Assad regime is perhaps in the short term allowing him to destroy IS in detail provides the best answer to the IS problem. We can hold our noses while he does so, but he possesses the only land force which if allowed to regenerate could drive IS out of the areas it controls.

The irony is that if the vote in the House of Commons two years ago had gone the other way, there may well have been regime change in Syria and instead of conducting operations in a stateless vacuum with any political progress not even on the horizon.

Committing military force is not just about how you use you, but just as importantly when.

By James Maclaren, Nov 25 2015 08:05PM

Opposition debates in the House of Commons are rarely remarkable events which recieve great attention.I listened with interest to one such debate yesterday. True the debate was not on Government time, the Chamber was markedly empty except for the SNP whose enthusiasm for unilateralism is legendry and the real person everyone wanted to see, the Leader of the Opposition was predictably otherwise engaged. Nevertheless the motion was an important one; a warm up, probably for a more meaningful exchange of views and opinions which will come as the main gate review of the project to replace the United Kingdoms' s fleet of Trident submarines approaches, probably in December. The debate was not so much memorable for the lack of partcipation, as for the lack of quality of the views expresssed - surprising for a group of people who feel passionate about the subject but somehow one feels should really know more about the subject.

Rapidly the debate became fixed on the economics of the issue. Certainly the capital cost, but more depressingly about workforces, skills, jobs and regional impact. Of course such things have their place but in themselves make neither a case for or against replacing a fleet of strategic ballistic missile submarines. The issue whether or not to have a strategic nuclear deterrent is too important for regional interests. The local economics was interspersed with some amateurish ideas about grand strategy, Britain's place in the world and how Britain would never be allowed to act independently because the Americans would never allow it! Much of the wimsy regarding how Britain should both defend itself and play a part in the global security structure came from the SNP. No doubt their views have the quality of conviction, however, their ideas lack both coherence and understanding. The inability of any of the members to articulate the strategic framework around the requirement for the United Kingdom to have or not have the deterrent was striking.

So lets try and put the strategic context straight.

Trident represents a weapon of complete last resort. Its use would only be contemplated in the most extreme circumstances of national survival. To attempt to rationalise its use in the current range of serious security challenges that confornt this and other countries is to completely miss the point. It could only be used if the threat confronting this country was so dire and so immediate that in order to preserve the last vestiges of our nation no other salvation is possible. It is inconceivable that that threat exists now, but it has in the past and it could in the future. The many references of members to the just published national defence and Security Review and the lack of a role for a Trident or similar system simply emphasises the misunderstanding that abounded in the debate. Of course its role is more limited at present, but a capability such as Trident takes many years to develop and operate, the current capability not just the in-service systems reach back through airborned delivery delivery via the V bomber fleet and reflect many years of developing enabling and targetting technology as well as an extremely sophisticated command and control system. It is meant to be in the background while nations and opponents rise and fall, come and go.

On Trident opponent attempted to link use of the missile system with the British catastrophe at Suez. His theory ran that if the Americans could prevent British military action during that situation, then the operational independence of the current Trident system is fiction. But to compare Suez, an out of area intervention operation undertaken during the decline from Empire, with a war of national survival is frankly ludicrous. More recent history in the case of the Falklands has shown that national action is not always and under all circumstances subordinate to US decision making. Deep down the British know that such a reliance is flawed. After all the Americans have a very selfish approach to conflict preferring only to undertake military action when their own interpretation of national interest is at stake.

A further opponent of Trident from north of the border contributed the view that nuclear deterrence had not stopped the Russian annexation of Crimea. Clearly it escaped him that that is precisely the point. had Ukraine possessed a nuclear deterrent whose flag would be raised above Sevastopol now? Arguably not the Russians. The Cold War created a conventional arms build up in Europe which favourded the then Soviet Union at just about 10 to 1 in everything except aircraft. thee are various views, almost all now academic which question what would have happened if Russia had used their superiority in a conventional conflict on the central front or the NATO flanks. None of them suggest that NATO conventional forces could have resisted more than days or a few short weeks. While no one can conclusively prove that the presence of strategic nuclear forces deterred the leaders of the Warsaw Pact from such an attak aganst the western alliance, it seems reasonable to assume that trading Moscow for pieces of West Germany would not look like success. While memories quickly fade and our politicians begin to lose sight or never experienced what the world looked like during the Cold War, NATO has retained its perspective. All of the NATO countries agree to be part of and welcome the nuclear umbrella provided by the nuclear capable members. Fortunately for the SNP their theory that they could benefit from the protection of a nuclear capable alliance while claiming to have nothing to do with such weapons never had to be explained in detail to their electorate and the NATO member states.

Finally lets be clear, Trident is a political instrument not a military tool. It only works because at the strategic level it is credible in the face of nation state agression. It is credible because it can deliver the lethal power that will always make the price for aggression too high; it is credible only if there is an intent within our political leadership that if the country is ever pushed to the point where national survival is in doubt it would be used and it is credible because it is national and not contingent upon any other government or organisation whose view of national interest and survival may be very different from our own.

Trident is the burgler or fire alarm you have on the side of your house. You hope it never goes off and you hope anyone who eyes your property enviously can see it.