16 April 2012

Homage to a Government

At the last PMQs before the Easter Recess, immediately before the Financial Statement on 21 March, Ed Miliband asked for, and received, confirmation that combat operations in Afghanistan by British troops would cease by the end of 2014. Shortly afterwards, the Chancellor of the Exchequer stated that as a consequence the cost of operations is expected to be a total of £2.4 billion lower than planned over the remainder of the Parliament. British forces deployed under NATO to Afghanistan in 2001 and have suffered over 400 killed and over 5000 wounded there since then. So it isn’t surprising that their final removal is being seen as a significant milestone in British military history.

This departure is overshadowing an event which will take place a few years later later which may well be of greater historical significance for the UK, the final repatriation of British forces from Germany in 2020, 75 years after the end of World War 2. In fact the only years after 1919 in which the British Army was not present in Germany were 1930-1945. There were armies of occupation in the years after the World Wars, and, of course, the extended British presence after World War 2 was as part of NATO’s defence against the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War.

The British have a continuing preoccupation with World War 2, our finest hour, even though living memories of it in 2012 are confined to those over 75 (say 8 years old when it ended). For example, the weekend following the PMQs, BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show on 25 March ran an interview with Ben Macintyre pushing his new book, Double Cross: The True Story of The D-Day Spies while Five later gave 5½ hours over to two World War 2 films and a Battle of Britain documentary.

The Cold War by contrast gets little attention, probably because, although expensive (at least 3% more of UK GDP was spent on defence during the Cold War than at present), there were no hostilities, in fact no clear declarations of war or peace. Even the dates of its start and end are subjects of historical debate, although good cases can be made for 1947 and 1989 (Baruch’s speech in April 1947, in which he made use of the term to describe US/USSR relations, and the Gorbachev - George HW Bush Summit in Malta in December 1989). On that basis, some “living memories” of the Cold War should be carried by anyone over 40 (say 17 in 1989). But we don’t hear, read or see much about it by comparison with the World Wars - perhaps a little more attention will be given in the media later this year during the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Once the Cold War had ended, the British presence in Germany was on borrowed time while UK defence policy tried to square the circle of the role in the world aspired to and the resources available for defence expenditure. In 1998 the Strategic Defence Review put in place by the new Labour government concluded:
Basing in Germany. The Government is committed to the principle of NATO Allies stationing forces on one another's territory, which is an important symbol of our mutual obligations. Moreover, although the specific military argument for stationing forces close to the Cold War front line has disappeared, there are still significant military benefits in having capable forces based in continental Europe, where they are closer to many potential theatres of operations and they can train more readily alongside our Allies. There is also the practical and economic question of how much additional military infrastructure and training the United Kingdom could readily accommodate. All these considerations have led us to conclude that the bulk of our current military presence in Germany should remain there.
Some reductions can, however, be made in that presence as part of Army restructuring. Three armoured regiments (including the two to be re-roled) and a number of supporting units will be removed from the front line in Germany and returned to the United Kingdom, totalling about 2,500 military personnel and some 186 tanks.
(Supporting Essay Six Future Military Capabilities paras 34 and 35)
Plans were already in place to withdraw the RAF from Germany by 2002.
In 2010 the new Coalition government completed Securing Britain in an Age of Uncertainty: The Strategic Defence and Security Review and decided to deal with the ‘practical and economic question’ raised in the SDR 12 years earlier:
The UK currently also has a major military presence in Germany, with 20,000 service personnel and their families based there. For more than 50 years the Federal Government has supported the British military presence providing essential training and operational opportunities as well as basing. The presence of the British military has played an important role in demonstrating Alliance solidarity, and has also been a symbol of steadfast UK-German friendship. But there is no longer any operational requirement for UK forces to be based there, and the current arrangements impose financial costs on the UK, disruption on personnel and their families and opportunity costs in terms of wider Army coherence. We therefore aim to withdraw all forces from Germany by 2020.
(Part 2 Overseas Bases)
Philip Larkin’s poem, Homage to a Government, elegiac when it was written in 1969 just after the then Labour government’s decision to withdraw forces from East of Suez, turns out to have been prophetic as well. It ends:
Next year we shall be living in a country
That brought its soldiers home for lack of money.
The statues will be standing in the same
Tree-muffled squares, and look nearly the same.
Our children will not know it's a different country.
All we can hope to leave them now is money.

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