27 February 2016

The Top Brass (retd) Brexit Letter

On 24 February the Daily Telegraph published a letter from 12 retired very senior military officers addressing the security aspect of Brexit (as the more dramatic possible outcome of the June referendum on the UK’s leaving the European Union is known). Key extracts:
As former military officers, we think that it is time to consider the broader strategic issues. Between us we have led the Royal Navy, Army, and Royal Air Force, or held other senior positions in the military. … we are particularly concerned with one central question: will Britain be safer inside the EU or outside it? 
… Britain’s role in the EU strengthens the security we enjoy as part of Nato, adds to our capability and flexibility when it comes to defence co-operation and allows us to project greater power internationally. In a dangerous world it helps us to safeguard our people, our prosperity and our way of life. We therefore believe strongly that it is in our national interest to remain an EU member.
Originally the letter had 13 signatories. After its publication, various newspapers, for example the Guardian, explained that the letter had originated from Number 10. It was also revealed that Downing Street had had to apologise to one general for adding his name without his consent.

The word “military” tends to be misunderstood as referring solely to the Army, but correctly it is applicable (as in the letter above) to all three services. It is interesting, therefore, to consider the breakdown of the signatories by service (for the ranks see the note below):

The table raises two points. Firstly, I pointed out here five years ago that “One asset which British defence seems to possess in abundance is a large cohort of senior officers of all three services, serving and retired, …”. How big a cohort might that be? Well, in service currently there are about 100 men (mostly) of rank known as “three star” and above. Assuming that on average these people are in post for about three years, then retire at 60 and die at 80, it follows that for each one now working (and there were rather more than 100 a decade or two ago), there are six or seven predecessors enjoying their retirement. So Number 10 should have been able to call on, by my guesstimate, about 700 sound chaps but only alighted on 12.

Secondly, these “about 100” top posts have always been shared almost exactly among the three services, yet in the letter there are seven Army former top brass to one RAF. That is to say, only one RAF retiree among well over 200 who might have been approached. Odd, but then the referendum is becoming an increasingly odd business producing unlikely alliances. There is even one school of thought that whether the result is leave or remain, Boris Johnson will become the next leader of the Conservative party and therefore Prime Minister with hands then on so many levers of power. For example, the Daily Telegraph reported on 22 January that:
A senior RAF officer who commanded Britain’s 2011 intervention in Libya has been chosen to be the next Chief of the Defence Staff. Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach will take over the post as head of the military later this year after beating candidates from the Army and Navy. Sir Stuart was a surprise choice after being chosen ahead of the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir George Zambellas, and Gen Sir Richard Barrons. The Prime Minister is believed to have met all three candidates in recent weeks to choose a replacement for the current Chief of the Defence Staff, Gen Sir Nicholas Houghton.
Johnson’s biographer, Sonia Purnell, has long held the view that:
I think he is the most ruthless, ambitious person I have ever met. (Introduction to Just Boris: A Tale of Blond Ambition, 2011)
Whether under Boris’s affable exterior, there is a man with a long memory for his friends and for his enemies, I don’t know, but the RAF, typically shrewdly, seem to have kept their distance. As for the argument expressed in the letter, there are other views. For example, those of General Sir Michael Rose, who would have been the 13th man and who told Sky News:
I have doubts about the wisdom of using military officers for a political campaign. I happen to believe sovereignty and security are intrinsically linked and in recent years we've seen the EU erode our sovereignty.

Notes on the Table

Anyone really interested in the breakdown by rank will probably understand the “Star” and "NATO Equivalent" column headings and can study the signatories’ titles in their letter. But this might help:

OF8, 3 Star: Vice Admiral, Lt General, Air Vice Marshal
OF9, 4 Star: Admiral, General, Air Marshal
OF10; 5 Star: Admiral of the Fleet, Field Marshal, Marshal of the RAF.

The 5 Star rank is no longer used for Chiefs of the Defence Staff who are now 4 Star like the individual service chiefs. However, they seem to be given the higher rank on an honorary basis on retirement – only the Brits …

Royal Marine officers are probably counted as part of the RN for these arcane astronomical purposes.

UPDATE 29 February

The Times today has a pro-Brexit article, Don’t count on the EU to protect us. Nato will do that, by a retired Rear Admiral and in the Sun two former Major Generals and a Commodore are opining under the heading Falklands heroes call for Britain to leave the European Union. So the Notes above need to be extended:

OF7; 2 Star: Rear Admiral, Major General, Air Vice Marshal
OF6; 1 Star: Commodore, Brigadier, Air Commodore

There are probably more than 70 OF7s and 200 OF6s currently in post, so the total retired cohort (using the rule of thumb above) could be as many as 2000. And there are 115 days to go before Referendum Day!

UPDATE early March

The big guns seemed to fall silent, at least temporarily, in late February following a withering barrage from a former Royal Marine “OF7 2 Star”, Major General Julian Thompson, in the Daily Telegraph: I fought for Britain and I know how the EU weakens our defences, The myth that leaving the EU would harm British national security must be destroyed once and for all.  He attacked what he regards as four common myths which obscure understanding of why “membership of the EU weakens our national defence in very dangerous times”.

16 February 2016

Warhol at the Ashmolean

A survey of mid to late Warhol which should not be missed

Oxford seems to have a thing about Warhol. As recently as last March Modern Art Oxford was showing Love is Enough: William Morris & Andy Warhol curated by Jeremy Deller. Perhaps it derives from Warhol’s only visit, made in 1980 when he escaped from London to a party in north Oxford. Now, Andy Warhol: Works from the Hall Collection is at the Ashmolean Museum. The Hall and Hall Art Foundation was set up in Vermont in 2007 by Andrew and Christine Hall and holds about 5000 modern and contemporary works by numerous artists. Andrew Hall is an Oxford graduate who manages a hedge fund in the US. The Foundation loans its own works and those in the Halls’ own collection and has a partnership with the Ashmolean to present a series of exhibitions curated by Sir Norman Rosenthal.

This exhibition begins with Warhol in the 1960s, the period when he was establishing “The Factory” and producing silkscreen images - Self-portrait (1967, in the poster above) and copies of iconic objects - Brillo Soap Pads Box (1964, below right):

Part of the fascination of the multiple screen prints is the extent of the variations In the same run, apparent when looking at the eight prints of The American Man (Portrait of Watson Powell), (1964, above left) in the show, out of the 32 produced. There is also an opportunity to see some of the portrait films Warhol was making at this time – the four minute shorts of Marcel Duchamp (curiously, almost as conventionally respectable in appearance as René Magritte) and Bob Dylan being more likely to be watched in full by visitors than the eight hours static view of the Empire State Building.

The 70s Portraits begins with one image of a politician, Willy Brandt (1976, below top) and several prints on various media of the artist Joseph Beuys (1980, below lower):

before, almost inevitably, the Great Helmsman with Mao (1973, left) and Twenty Fuchsia Maos (1979, right):

Most striking in this section was the wall of Celebrity Portraits. Just to pick out two of interest: Pia Miller (c1985, below left) apparently introduced Ai Weiwei’s work to the West as recently as 2008, and Farah Ashraf Pahlavi (Princess of Iran) (1977, below right) established with her cousin (also portrayed by Warhol) the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, an exceptional collection little seen since 1979 but, according to the Financial Times last December, about to re-emerge and start lending.

Nearby are some Experiments In Abstraction including the Untitled (Oxidation Painting) (1978, below left), produced, we are told, by urinating onto copper, and some jollier handprints and Hammer and Sickle (1976, below right):

The final section, The Last Year, actually covering 1985 to Warhol’s untimely death in February 1987, was well-stocked but less interesting. He was producing black and white images inverted to provide positive and negative versions, eg Hamburger (positive) (1985‒86, below top) and the Map of the Eastern U.S.S.R. Missile Bases (1985-86, below lower, negative; for the positive see the Modern Art Oxford show post): 

Nearby on the gallery wall was a quotation from the artist:
Black is my favourite colour and white is my favourite colour
No point in laboring what might be wrong with that!

This exhibition provides a welcome opportunity to see a selection of Warhol's later work. Anyone unfamiliar with his career might be frustrated by the lack of context it provided – I didn’t see the usual timeline at the entrance - so some preliminary reading could be helpful, say 15 minutes’ worth?

Andy Warhol: Works from the Hall Collection continues at the Ashmolean until 15 May.

15 February 2016

Luca Guadagnino’s ‘A Bigger Splash’

Dangerous liaisons at the poolside

Ignoring its Hockney-referencing title, Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash is a remake of Jacques Deray’s La Piscine or, if you prefer, of his The Swimming Pool, both from 1969. Such alternatives exist because Deray shot each scene in English and in French. After editing the two versions, La Piscine came out slightly longer. Deray’s plot was set in a villa in Saint-Tropez (SE France), a locale favoured at the time by the French New Wave. Guadagnino’s was filmed, more interestingly for a contemporary audience, in Pantelleria, an Italian island midway between Sicily and Tunisia.

But the plot is essentially the same: a psychodrama among a quartet which turns into a limp roman policier. Marianne (Tilda Swinton), a famous rock-star, and her boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) are staying at a villa on the island while her voice recovers. Then Harry (Ralph Fiennes), her ex, descends on them with his sultry student daughter, Penelope (Dakota Johnson). It was Harry who had introduced Paul to Marianne. Although it seems, rather improbably, that Harry only learnt about Penelope’s existence recently, she behaves like a chip off the old block, for, while he sets about disrupting the couple through his relationship with Marianne, Penelope has designs on Paul. Harry also goes out of his way to irritate Paul by revisiting times past. Things are clearly not going to end well.

Ralph Fiennes (last here in the NT’s Man and Superman) is a study in manic obnoxiousness and boorish energy. Schoenaerts (last here as a German officer in Suite Française) demonstrates his versatility as an American this time. Swinton, (a remarkably upper-class lady, even by the standards of the UK stage nowadays), according to Mark Kermode:
is the real star, her decision to render Marianne all but mute (the original script apparently gave her pages of dialogue) reaping silent scream rewards.
Well, perhaps. For some people, a substantial part of the attraction of this film will be the island of Pantelleria, even muter.

Hereafter possibly a spoiler, but the attitude of the local Italian police inspector to events at the villa made what seemed an unconvincing transition. Initially suspicious, but stretched in charge of a force overwhelmed with refugees, Maresciallo turns into one of Commissario Montalbano’s comic opera sidekicks.

2 February 2016

John McTernan’s Trident Case

10 years is a long time in politics

John McTernan was Political Secretary/Director of Political Operations for Tony Blair from 2005 to 2007. Later during the last Labour government, he was Special Adviser to Des Browne, Secretary of State for Defence. Since 2010 he has been involved in Labour politics in Australia (Labor) and Scotland. Of late has been commenting widely on the emerging policies of UK Labour under Jeremy Corbyn. Late last month he took issue with Corbyn’s approach to Trident renewal in a piece for the Telegraph, If Jeremy Corbyn were a proper politician, here's what he'd be saying about Trident. In McTernan’s view:
It is an existential decision – about who we are and at the most extreme end whether we can survive as a nation. It is also one that decides what we can and cannot do for the next 50 years.
And it requires “a proper debate [which] “…is not going to come from Jeremy Corbyn”. As a better model he points to this passage in Tony Blair’s A Journey:
We agreed to the renewal of the independent nuclear deterrent. You might think I would have been certain of that decision, but I hesitated over it. I could see the force of the common sense and practical argument against Trident, yet in the final analysis I thought giving it up too big a downgrading of our status as a nation, and in an uncertain world, too big a risk for our defence. I did not think this was a ‘tough on defence’ versus ‘weak or pacifist’ issue at all. On simple, pragmatic grounds, there was a case either way. The expense is huge, and the utility in a post-Cold War world is less in terms of deterrence, and non-existence in terms of military use. Spend the money on more helicopters, airlift and anti-terror equipment? Not a daft notion. In the situations British forces would likely be called upon to fight, it was pretty clear what mattered most. It's true that it is frankly inconceivable we would use our nuclear deterrent alone, without the US – and let us hope a situation in which the US is even threatening us never arises – but it’s a big step to put that beyond your capability as a country. (Note 1)
McTernan goes on to describe how a case against Trident should be made:
… it needs to be located in a muscular defence policy. The reality of a non-nuclear Britain has to be planned for. That means realistic commitments to alternative defence sending – and not the politically lazy and untrue notion of pretending that you can switch defence to social spending. It also means an explicit commitment to sheltering behind the US deterrent within Nato – not taking the intellectually lazy option, in this case of pretending that nuclear weapons are immoral. And, it means committing to deeper bilateral defence relations with France, including a nuclear weapons treaty that would mean the UK had a backup to the US in case of the triumph of US nativism.
McTernan’s opinions are usually well-founded but on this occasion I find his arguments less than convincing. Firstly, he fails to point out that A Journey was published in 2010 and that Blair was describing policies being debated in the closing months of 2006, immediately before the publication of the White Paper Cm6994, The Future of the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent. At that time “the utility [of Trident] in a post-Cold War world” may have seemed “less in terms of deterrence”, but the last nine years have seen a considerable modernisation of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Nuclear notebook provides regular overviews of Russian nuclear forces, and the 2015 survey by Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris states that:
The broad modernization reflects the Putin government’s conviction that nuclear forces, in particular strategic nuclear forces, are indispensable for Russia’s security and status as a great power. Maintaining parity with the United States is a strong motivation for this modernization, but the development of multiple versions of the same missiles indicates the strong influence of Russia’s military-industrial complex on nuclear planning.
Overall, the nuclear modernization effort will present Russia and the international arms control community with new challenges. Unless a new arms control reduction agreement is reached in the near future, the shrinking of Russia’s strategic nuclear arsenal that has characterized the past two decades will likely come to an end …
They go on to give details of the Russian ICBM, SSBN/SLBM and heavy bomber programmes to replace nuclear systems from the Cold War period and which have been put in hand within the limitations of New START in the years since Cm6994.

Secondly, the case against Trident which McTernan thinks should (or could) be made has some weaknesses. He describes “pretending that nuclear weapons are immoral” as a lazy option. Surely so would be “sheltering behind the US deterrent within Nato” when, as no doubt McTernan is well aware, Blair’s letter to President Bush of 7 December 2006 (extract below) makes it clear that the UK assigns Trident to NATO?

The UK’s giving up Trident would be to transfer part of the NATO burden of providing deterrence – McTernan does not dispute its necessity – to the US. He also seems to believe that, post-Trident, the UK would be able to enter into a nuclear weapons treaty with France which would provide “a backup”. France would probably see themselves as being in a very strong negotiating position were such an arrangement to be requested. McTernan sees this as a safeguard against “US nativism” – presumably he means an isolationist US turning its back on NATO. Oddly, he doesn’t raise the possibility of such a US government, unlikely though it is, withdrawing support from UK Trident. Amusingly, one of the intriguing aspects of Michel Houellebecq’s recent novel Submission was its exploration (frustratingly not sustained) of French nativism. And where would that possibility, again unlikely, leave us?

Note 1. This appears on pages 635/636 of A Journey. McTernan has replaced “non-existent” with “non-existence”.


Anyone interested enough to read this far might like to look at the speech US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter gave to the Economic Club of Washington DC on 2 February about the five challenges facing his budget. Two extracts:
Two of these challenges reflect a return to great power of competition. First is in Europe, where we're taking a strong and balanced approach to deter Russian aggression, and we haven't had to worry about this for 25 years. While I wish it were otherwise, now we do.
Another near-term investment in the budget is how we are reinforcing our posture in Europe to support our NATO allies in the face of Russia's aggression. In Pentagon parlance, this is called the European Reassurance Initiative and after requesting about $800 million for last year, this year we're more than quadrupling it for a total of $3.4 billion in 2017. That will fund a lot of things: more rotational U.S. forces in Europe, more training and exercising with our allies, more preposition and war-fighting gear and infrastructure improvements to support all this. And when combined with U.S. forces already in and assigned to Europe -- which are also substantial -- all of this together by the end of 2017 will let us rapidly form a highly capable combined arms ground force that can respond across that theater, if necessary.

1 February 2016

NT Live: Les Liaisons Dangereuses

Sexual intrigues among amoral aristocrats while the tumbrils await 

For most of us back in 1988, in the absence of NT Live or anything like it, Stephen Frear’s film Dangerous Liaisons was our first encounter with Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Christopher Hampton had based the film’s script on his own play, first staged in 1985* and taken from a novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, an artillery officer, published in 1782. Hampton has since written numerous screenplays (notably Atonement), stage plays and translations. His appearance at the Cheltenham Literary Festival in 2013 to discuss the Académie Française was the subject of a post here.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses has been revived several times in recent years and was recently broadcast by NT Live from its current run at the Donmar Warehouse in London. Cleverly staged in their small space, it reveals how the cynical Vicomte de Valmont (Dominic West), in league with the equally amoral Marquise de Merteuil (Janet McTeer), sets about the seduction of two women, one young and naïve, Cécile Volanges, the other married and virtuous, Madame de Tourvel (Elaine Cassidy). These manoeuvrings do not end well for anyone. Unlike de Laclos, we know that the French Revolution was almost upon these characters, one might think no more than some of them deserve, but on reflection they could all be regarded as being trapped in their class and time, particularly the women.

The Donmar setting projects into the audience, some of whom can be glimpsed in the across-stage camera angles – only mildly disconcerting in the second act to see someone finishing their G&T.  Les Liaisons Dangereuses ends at the Donmar on 13 February. There will be NT Live Encore showings this month onwards – well worth seeing for the excellent acting, particularly McTeer and Cassidy.

*In the original 1985 RSC Les Liaisons Dangereuses, which after Stratford went to London and Broadway, the part of the Vicomte de Valmont was taken by Alan Rickman who died on 14 January 2016.