31 January 2011

Kleinburgerlich Schadenfreude

Middle-rankers soon learn the pluses and minuses of coming into contact with “Top Kneddies”. FLIGHT International magazine (now lovingly preserved at Flightglobal/Archive) used to feature a humorous column, Straight and Level, whose author, 'Roger Bacon', poked fun at the top people in the air industry and related government departments, for example, in 19 February 1983:
Top Kneddy: Come and see me when you've got less time.
Bottom Neddy: It's this idiot Bill Walker MP with another Parliamentary Question asking how much it costs to answer Parliamentary Questions. Money isn't everything, is it?
Top Kneddy: Tell me something it isn't.
Of course, many people at the top are exceptionally able, grasping complex problems quickly and resolving them while inspiring their Bottom Neddies who they treat decently. They deserve their knighthoods (which presumably raised them in Roger Bacon’s eyes from Neddies to Kneddies). Others, I’m afraid, are less impressive: ambitious egotists, skilled at self-advancement, usually only mildly contemptuous of their underlings but that mainly to conserve their energies for doing down their rivals. So it goes. But it's difficult to resist some kleinburgerlich schadenfreude as provided by a recent public spat between two big cheeses, Lord Dannatt (until very recently Sir Richard) and the improbable sounding Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles.  (Western Independent has never had anything to do with either of them.)

Sir Richard was head of the British army (Chief of the General Staff) from 2006 to 2009 and Sir Sherard was British Ambassador to Afghanistan from 2007 to 2009. Their row seems to stem from Sir Sherard’s evidence to the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee in December 2010, in particular:
... the then Chief of the General Staff, Sir Richard Dannatt, told me in the summer of 2007 that, if he didn’t use in Afghanistan the battle groups then starting to come free from Iraq, he would lose them in a future defence review. "It’s use them, or lose them", he said.
When this was published in January, Sir Richard revealed his annoyance. His reaction in The Times was widely reported:
"I have great respect for Sherard Cowper-Coles as a diplomat but believe that many of his comments with regard to the military are somewhere between mis-judged and mischievous - they are largely based on snapshots and passing conversations,"
"He has strayed out of his lane in a most unfortunate manner - particularly on issues such as unit tour lengths and Army organisation. I would not dream of telling him how to organise an Embassy."
Cowper-Coles struck back: "He is lying, I am afraid. I can recall him saying it, sitting in his office in the Ministry of Defence."

This was already well up the Richter scale for Top-Kneddy-brawling-in-public when the next blow was dealt by Dannatt on BBC Radio 4's Today programme (as reported in The Guardian). Cowper-Coles views were "somewhere between outrageous and downright horrible". However,
"Sherard Cowper-Coles has withdrawn that remark and has apologised to me personally and is trying to find a suitable place and time to do that publicly.
"Sherard Cowper-Coles and I have had conversations about that this week. He has withdrawn that allegation from me and he has done that privately and is deciding how to make that public."
On 21 January the following letter appeared in The Times:
Sir, Following your report "We went to war to keep the Army busy, senior diplomat says" (Jan l4), and the remarks by General Sir Richard Dannatt on the BBC Today programme yesterday, there is some confusion about my position.
I have apologised to General Dannatt for suggesting that he had Iied. I used that word in an immediate and off-the-cuff reaction to being told that General Dannatt had completely denied having made certain comments about the deployment of troops to Afghanistan, at a meeting with me in his office in the Ministry of Defence in the summer of 2007. I now accept that General Dannat has a very different recollection of our meeting.
I have not, however, apologised for, or withdrawn, my evidence on this subject to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee on November 9 last year.
Cowper-Coles evidence to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee seems to have been in two parts, oral on 9 November 2010 and written. The oral evidence has no record of Questions 1 to 88, probably explained by:
Q110 Chair: Sir Sherard, may I share a problem with you? I have just been told that due to a technical glitch we failed to record the first 10 minutes of this session.
Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles: Thank heavens.
Q111 Chair: Maybe you feel relieved. Do you feel that you have covered the points that you wanted to make about the role of the military after those 10 minutes?
Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles: Yes. ...
Nothing in the oral evidence as published seems to relate to Dannatt’s remarks in 2007. But these do come up in Cowper-Coles’ written evidence which is dated 23 December 2010, then “Prepared 13th January 2011”. So it’s not quite clear what at the Select Committee his Times letter is about.

Dannatt has been a controversial figure for some time, as Blair’s chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, describes in extracts from The New Machiavelli: How to Wield Power in the Modern World:
... When Mike Jackson retired as chief of the general staff in August 2006, the MoD sent over to No 10 the CV of his proposed successor, asking for the prime minister's agreement.
Tony's foreign policy and defence adviser Nigel Sheinwald came to see me and we agreed that it wasn't worth consulting Tony about such a trivial subject.
A few months later we faced a serious problem with the new chief, Richard Dannatt, when he chose to attack the government through the pages of the Daily Mail while we were in St Andrews engaged in crucial Northern Ireland peace talks. Tony complained about him to me, and I, forgetting what had happened earlier, said that it was his fault as he had appointed him. He denied that he had and said he had never been consulted. I went back to the files and discovered that he was right and had to confess to Tony.
Blair was so enraged by Dannatt's attack that he met the service chiefs for lunch at the Ministry of Defence. Powell writes that Dannatt, an evangelical Christian, dominated the meeting.
Dannatt insisted on talking, and after a few minutes it was quite clear to me that he was unsuited to his job. Tony explained to those present that politicians would not support maintaining a first-division army if they were caused too much political pain by serving generals speaking out against their mission. It was always easier for politicians not to risk soldiers' lives. But I fear he was too subtle for Dannatt, who was divinely convinced of his own rightness.
After retirement, Dannatt seems to have been much better-regarded by the Conservatives than New Labour. At the Tory party conference in October 2009, David Cameron said:
I'm proud to announce today that someone who has fought for our country and served for 40 years in our armed forces will not only advise our defence team but will join our benches in the House of Lords and if we win the election could serve in a future Conservative government: General Sir Richard Dannatt.
However, the extent of Dannatt’s advisory role seems to have been fairly limited, and when his peerage was announced in November 2010 it was made clear that he will sit as a crossbencher in the Lords.

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