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Corbyn to complain to MoD about army chief’s ‘political interference’

By DPF Admin9th November 2015August 6th, 2019Area Updates, Latest News, Northern Updates, Southern Updates

Jeremy Corbyn has accused the head of the UK armed forces of unacceptable political interference after General Sir Nicholas Houghton suggested the Labour leader’s unilateralism made him unfit to be prime minister.

Corbyn said Houghton had clearly breached his constitutional duty to remain out of party politics and that he would be writing to the Ministry of Defence “to ensure that the neutrality of the armed forces is upheld”.

Corbyn issued a statement hours after Houghton said he would be worried by any prospect of the Labour leader’s views being “translated into power” because Corbyn has said he would never be willing to approve the use of nuclear weapons. Corbyn’s stance defeated the point of having a nuclear deterrent, Houghton said in an interview on BBC1’s Andrew Marr show.

Houghton received the backing of Maria Eagle, the shadow defence secretary, who told the programme that the chief of the defence staff was within his rights to express his doubts about her party leader becoming prime minister. But Corbyn later issued his statement making it clear he strongly disagreed.

Houghton’s interview was broadcast shortly before Corbyn joined the Queen, David Cameron, other party leaders and veterans of the armed forces for the annual Remembrance Sunday commemoration at the Cenotaph.

Corbyn was wearing a red poppy – having hinted a few weeks ago that he might not – and he participated in singing the national anthem, suggesting he has learned a lesson from the controversy generated by his decision to stay silent at a service he attended in his first week as Labour leader.

Responding to the Marr interview, Corbyn said: “It is a matter of serious concern that the chief of the defence staff has today intervened directly in issues of political dispute. It is essential in a democracy that the military remains politically neutral at all times. By publicly taking sides in current political arguments, Sir Nicholas Houghton has clearly breached that constitutional principle.

“Accordingly, I am writing to the defence secretary to ask him to take action to ensure that the neutrality of the armed forces is upheld.”

A Labour source said that, as well as objecting to what Houghton said about unilateralism, Corbyn was also objecting to the way the chief of defence staff used a separate interview to say Britain was “letting down” its allies by not engaging in air strikes against Islamic State in Syria.

A spokeswoman for the MoD said it would wait until it had received the letter from Corbyn before issuing a response. But one defence source said the Labour leader’s claim was undermined by the fact that Maria Eagle said she did not object to Houghton’s comments.

Shortly after Corbyn was elected Labour leader, an unnamed serving general was quoted claiming that the armed forces could stage a mutiny, or even a coup, if Corbyn became prime minister because there was so much opposition to his policies.

Corbyn won the leadership with the support of 60% of those voting, after a campaign in which he proclaimed his opposition to Britain’s Trident nuclear weapons system. However, most Labours MPs support it, as did the manifesto on which they were elected in May.

The party is reviewing its policy on nuclear weapons but at the Labour conference in September Corbyn appeared to pre-empt the outcome when he revealed that, even if the party were committed to nuclear weapons, as prime minister he would never sanction their use.

Asked if he found that worrying, Houghton said: “Well, it would worry me if that thought was translated into power.”

Corbyn’s stance undermined “the credibility of deterrence”, he added. “The whole thing about deterrence rests on the credibility of its use. When people say ‘you are never going to use the deterrent’, what I say is you use the deterrent every second, of every minute, of every day,” he said.

“The purpose of the deterrent is that you don’t have to use it because you successfully deter.”

Although Houghton’s comments could be seen as a challenge to the authority of an elected prime minister, Eagle, who like most members of the shadow cabinet supports the nuclear deterrent, said the chief of the defence staff was entitled to say what he did.

“He has to answer questions from journalists such as yourself when he’s asked and I’m completely comfortable with that,” she told Marr. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with him expressing himself in those terms.”

She said that she agreed with what Houghton said about nuclear deterrence only being credible if there was a possibility of a state using it and that she had said this herself when Corbyn made his comments at the Labour conference.

She also confirmed that she had not yet been able to arrange a meeting with Corbyn to discuss Labour’s review of Trident. She said there was a date for the meeting “in the diary” and that she was “pretty relaxed” about the delay, although it has been reported that in private she is not so happy about her lack of access to the party leader.

Eagle told Marr that the Labour review would take at least a year and that she wanted it to be a serious piece of work, looking at whether deterrence works, with input from party members and workers in the defence industry. The review needed to be designed properly before it started, she said.

When it was put to her that there would be no point in Labour backing Trident if Corbyn were on record as saying he would not press the nuclear button, she replied: “I think we have to go through that process and see what comes out of it.” Eagle would be trying to persuade him to change his mind, she said.

She also suggested she would resign if the party did back unilateral nuclear disarmament. Asked if she would serve in a unilateralist government, she replied: “I am not a unilateral disarmer. I don’t believe that that works. I think I would find it difficult but we’re not there yet.”

Later, John Woodcock, the pro-Trident Labour MP, said Corbyn had no right to complain about Houghton because Corbyn himself had signed a Commons motion in 2009 praising Lord Bramall, a former chief of the defence staff, for speaking out against Trident.

Woodcock said: “Supporters of CND can’t have it both ways. Unilateral disarmers have been eager to applaud the occasional member of the armed forces who has expressed doubt about Trident renewal. They should welcome these authoritative observations on deterrence by the chief of the defence staff.”

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