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It’s that time of year. Exhausted members of our intensely tangled politico-media knot are daring to dream about the moment when they will start the long drive to Cornwall/turn the keys in the door of the Highland getaway/take the first sip of rose wine by the pool in the South of France/send the first tweet from the voluntary project they are taking part in to show their commitment to the party, (delete as appropriate).
Naturally the leaders’ choices of destination will be worried about, although I for one could probably do without seeing another ‘look I’m just like you moment’ with senior politicians sweating their way through the budget flight experience.
Although Parliament has not had the busiest time of late, the way the inhabitants of the Westminster bubble live their lives is frenetic by many standards, so the relief of the session ending is entirely understandable. The desire to switch off completely is strong. Yet this year, I’m afraid that members and peers will have something rather more to worry about during the long summer break.
As you read, Scotland is already on holiday. School is already out, the Holyrood Parliament has already broken up. By some accounts the later English holidays were to ensure a ready supply of child labour for the harvesting in August. The Scottish break in October holidays were originally intended so Scottish children were available to help in the October tattie howking, picking potatoes, later in the year.
But whatever the real reason for the historical quirk, and I confess my research could not probably be described as exhaustive, that means the Scottish calendar of public life runs rather differently to the rest of the UK. This year, it takes on a special significance.
Just as many of Westminster’s finest are settling into the final stretch in the sun lounger, Scottish life will be getting back into routine, and it’s an easy bet that the SNP’s dogged campaigners will be really getting into their stride.
There will be a frenzied fortnight in Scotland while down South politics is still on pause. Better Together think they are pretty secure in the polling numbers that give them a victory.
But while it’s not exactly original to note it’s daft to underestimate Alex Salmond, it is still entirely true. And any lethargy on the Unionist side, any distraction, even the completely understandable joy of being on holiday, will be exploited by the Nationalists at the first chance.
Better Together campaigners in Scotland know this. But if Westminster unionists want to play a big part, and maybe that is the big if, they had better not clear the diary, but mark something very important down instead.
Laura Kuenssberg is chief correspondent and presenter for the BBC's Newsnight
It didn’t take me long to accept the invitation from the German Körber Foundation to go to Tehran and Isfahan. The theme of the Bergedorf Round Table discussion was to be ‘Stability in the Middle East – Prospects for Cooperation between Iran and the West’. We couldn’t have known that events in Iraq would mean Saudi Arabia and Iran would have a shared interest in defeating ISIS, and that rather than aiming for stability, we’d just be hoping to avoid breakdown.
I had been to Iran before – in 2007, with the Foreign Affairs Committee. Then, our embassy was open, we were startled to see the ‘Bobby Sands Hamburger’ stand just next door and even more surprised to hear that on the day of the Queen’s birthday, women were throwing stones over the embassy walls. President George W. Bush had included Iran in his ‘axis of evil’ speech; President Ahmadinejad aggressively questioned Israel’s right to exist; and Iran seemed inextricably on the road towards acquiring military nuclear capability.
We saw queues in petrol stations. When I asked one of the economic ministers whether the sanctions were biting, he smiled and told me that whilst he did not know about “my antecedents”, I clearly had “no idea” what I was talking about.
Not long after, the young Iranian who worked for the Embassy and who’d accompanied us to Isfahan was threatened with prison on some trumped-up charges. I left with a deep sadness. Here was a rich, ancient civilisation stuck with a repressive regime that used irrational behaviour as a rational weapon of statecraft. A government that combined parliamentary democracy with a revolutionary religious theocracy. And it was the only country I’d ever visited where they thought the Americans do what the British tell them! If only…
Seven years on, this time going with a German delegation, what would be different? I couldn’t get my visa in London. Following the ransacking of our embassy in Tehran in 2011, diplomatic relationships had broken down. My passport made a detour via Berlin. Our largely German group also included an American, a couple of French, an Austrian and some people with dual Iranian nationality.
Our Iranian counterparts and hosts were the Institute for Political and International Studies. We met in the splendid Golestan Palace, which had just recently been granted UN World Heritage status. There were a few tourists, who I thought were Chinese but a colleague believed to be North Korean.
The discussions were robust. Iran has to accept Israel’s right to exist. We touched on Hezbollah, but our hosts didn’t think they had anything to apologise for. Do they really need civil nuclear energy if their gas flares burn off more gas than the total export from Azerbaijan? Breakout capacity – the time it would take to produce highly-enriched uranium for nuclear weapons – was mentioned more often than the number of centrifuges they have. All this against the backdrop of the advance of ISIS just across the border in Iraq.
Following the election of President Rouhani in 2013, it’s obvious that there was a greater willingness to escape the isolation. Despite the longstanding sanctions, the country is holding together and the regime has succeeded in spreading the pain in a way which does not undermine the state itself.
Iran, Turkey and Israel are three functioning nation states which will become increasingly important as the old Sykes-Picot lines look like breaking. I doubt that an agreement on the nuclear issue will be reached by the artificially-imposed deadline of 20 July.
I went not least because I wanted to recapture the magic of the 33 arches of the Siose Bridge – one of the 11 bridges spanning the Zayandeh river in Isfahan, built by the Safavid king Shah Abbas in the mid-17th century. The bridge was still there, but there wasn’t a drop of water in the river bed: a drought, combined with extracting too much water for agriculture. An old man told me that the whole town is weeping.
But there was good news. We are re-opening the embassy. I wish I could take credit.
Gisela Stuart is Labour MP for Birmingham Edgbaston and Editor of The House magazine
I’m writing this article because of a young man called Liam. He’s 16 years old and has just finished his GCSE history exams. A fortnight ago, his teacher introduced me to him when I visited his school in Barnsley. Liam took one look at me and said: “The trouble with you politicians is you never learn the lessons from history!”
When I told Liam about the work I was doing on the First World War commemorations, I could see it resonated with him straight away – even though the conflict took place long before his great-grandparents were born.
The same can be said of people of all ages I’ve met across the country in this important year of remembrance. It’s striking how many people feel a special interest in events from so long ago, regardless of how old they are or where they come from.
It’s easy to understand why. The First World War changed Britain forever. It was a conflict that left its mark on every family, touched every community and fundamentally shifted our country’s place in the world. Of the 16,000 towns and villages across Britain in 1914, only 40 of them would reach 1918 without having lost someone in the conflict. It left every community with its own story to tell.
Earlier this year, I travelled to Serre in northern France to retrace the roots of one such story from my constituency. I followed in the footsteps of the Barnsley Pals from a century ago – two battalions of friends and neighbours who joined up in response to Lord Kitchener’s famous recruitment poster in 1914. Many of them lost their lives in the Battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916, when 20,000 soldiers were cut down in a single day.
It was a moving and sobering trip that brought home the profound scale of the sacrifice. One of the moments that has stayed with me most was reading through the names inscribed on the Memorial to the Missing at Thiepval. Suddenly I saw my own name – D Jarvis – staring back at me. It sent a chill right through me, taking me back to when I’ve had to read the names of fallen friends and colleagues from my service in the Army.
Our country has sadly been no stranger to loss in recent years, and we’ve all felt the pain of each of the 632 servicemen and women who have not returned from operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. It underlines how much of a scar was left on our society by a conflict that took the lives of six times that many soldiers every week.
One in every seven British men under the age of 25 would not survive the First World War. They were among 900,000 servicemen from Britain and the Commonwealth, and 16m soldiers and civilians across the globe, who would not live to see peace in 1918. The centenary commemorations provide us with a unique opportunity over the next four years to pay tribute to those heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice. That tribute should extend to the brave men and women in uniform who continue to serve us today, especially as we mark Armed Forces Day.
By accident or grand design, this year that date also coincides with the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on 28 June 1914 – the day that saw the shooting of one man in Sarajevo by a Serbian nationalist which would plunge an entire continent into conflict.
We should reflect on how that moment changed our country. That includes remembering what happened here at home, as well as on the front line. The ‘home front’ is a phrase mostly associated with the Second World War, with images like the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign and people sheltering from the Blitz imprinted on our national consciousness.
But we mustn’t forget how the First World War was the first truly total war. Civilians were targeted for the first time – with around 850 losing their lives in Zeppelin air raids – and German U-boats brought the country to the brink of starvation. That Britain came through is a testament to the heroic efforts of groups like the Women’s Land Army, as well as the miners and factory, munitions and railway workers who kept our country going.
And our country changed in the process. Women took on jobs that had previously been the preserve of men. The war contributed to the first women – and all working men – winning the vote in 1918. Our society became less deferential, the trade union movement expanded, the role of the state changed, and our politics would never be the same. That’s what we also have to remember in these commemorations.
As well as the silent tributes, there is also a space for lively discussion, as we engage together with our shared history and think about its relevance to the lives we live today. I think that’s what Liam had in mind, too.
Dan Jarvis is MP for Barnsley Central and Labour’s lead on the First World War centenary commemorations
Somewhere in the sea between Cherbourg and Southampton, I was checking out a children’s creche. I was at a conference on a cruise ship and was curious about the facilities in case it might make a family holiday some day. Cunard’s Queen Victoria is a magnificent vessel, offering every luxury to passengers who can afford the fares. For those to whom money is no object, there are round-the-world voyages stretching several months, experienced from the comfort of duplex apartments served by liveried butlers. Accommodation in steerage may be cramped, but it’s hard to put a price on the romance of a crossing on such a fabulous ship.
Relative to other facilities, the so-called ‘Kidzone’ is a relatively modest affair, around the size of the average sitting room , with a small annexe. Standing at the front desk, where parents drop off children, I could just about see it all. There was the usual array of toys, bricks and colouring books, and a soft play area with a decent enough climbing frame. Outside, one or two children were playing happily, well outnumbered by staff.
By walking two paces into the room, I could have viewed everything. But rules are rules, and my request for a quick look prompted an extraordinary kerfuffle. There were forms to fill, a laminated visitor pass to be issued, and even talk of a wristband.
Clearly designed with paedophiles and child snatchers in mind, the procedures were rigid. Up to a point, quite right too. The murder of Soham girls Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman by school caretaker Ian Huntley in 2002; and the shocking crimes of Vanessa George, a nursery worker who sexually abused children in her care in 2009, reinforced the case for intense scrutiny of anyone working with vulnerable people or young children. Highly unusually, women were involved in both these cases, demonstrating that being female – or a mother – is not a total disqualification from committing dreadful acts against children.
Of course, childcare providers, in whom parents place the utmost trust, must take all reasonable steps to protect those in their care from risk. Yet such crimes are vanishingly rare, and the ability to calculate risk is a vital life skill. I do not know of any case, anywhere, in which any passenger on a luxury cruise liner has managed to cause any harm to anyone by standing for a few seconds in the middle of an empty creche. As I waited for all the requisite paperwork to be completed, I tried to let the experience wash over me. I stood patiently while two staff rifled through fat lever arch files, trying to find the right forms. I knew there was no point in questioning it. It wasn’t personal. They didn’t set the rules.
But all I could think was: how did it come to this? How can we have arrived at a point where in any setting involving children, every stranger, no matter what the circumstances, is treated as a potential threat? Allowing sensible staff to exercise some discretion in certain circumstances is a bit like passenger profiling at airports. It may be politically incorrect to say so, but certain types of people, who behave in certain ways, are statistically far more likely than others to attempt to blow up planes. It’s just a fact.
Companies and organisations responsible for the wellbeing of children – or air passengers – should obviously operate on certain principles designed to minimise the risk of harm. But they should also allow staff to exercise common sense. Both MPs and the media have a role to play in creating a more sensible approach, by not pushing for legislation and regulation for every remote possibility.
Insisting on a one-size-fits-all approach to risk – be it in airports or cruise ship creches – is not only a waste of time and resources; it is an insult to the intelligence of staff in such settings. Worse, it infantilises us all.
Words by Paul Waugh
Photos by Paul Heartfield
David Richards wants to make something absolutely, completely crystal clear. “I am not retired,” he says. “If anything, I’m busier than ever I have been. And I’m thoroughly enjoying it.”
He may no longer be in uniform, but Lord Richards of Herstmonceux is still every inch the can-do soldier. At just 62, the man formerly known as General Sir David Richards is also very much in demand.
Having stepped down as Chief of the Defence Staff last year, he’s since become a consultant to governments and companies around the world, committed to pro-bono work for nearly two dozen charities, joined the board of a logistics firm and become senior adviser to the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
He’s also writing a book and helping a movie project about his exploits in Sierra Leone. And only this past week, he’s given evidence to the Defence Select Committee and delivered his maiden speech in the House of Lords.
Driven by a restless energy and (in his own words) rebellious nature, the outspoken former Army officer is in no mood to put his feet up after a distinguished military career stretching over more than 40 years.
From life as a commando gunner to commanding ISAF forces in southern Afghanistan, he’s impressed the last three Prime Ministers enough for each of them to promote him to more senior posts.
It’s perhaps no surprise that the former CDS has devised a clear blueprint for life after the armed forces, because having a plan is the Richards way. In his maiden address, he quoted the ancient soldier philosopher Sun Tzu: “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat”.
And it’s the lack of a proper strategy in Iraq, or indeed Syria, that is most preoccupying him today. Having spent years taking on the Taliban in Afghanistan, he says that the rise of Islamic extremists ISIS are just one symptom of a wider problem.
“For me, the biggest strategic risk facing all Western countries is militant Jihadism. And states need to come together to focus on that challenge and agree a grand strategy for dealing with it.”
The worrying news from Iraq should be a wake-up call for the West, he insists. “If I was still advising the Prime Minister I would be saying, first thing, contain the crisis, don’t let it spread any more. And there are things to West can do to prevent that happening. I think Jordan in particular needs help. Lebanon is very vulnerable, Turkey can look after itself and is. Iraq you don’t want it to spread any further outside into the Gulf for example.
“Kuwait I think is quite vulnerable as a result of this for various reasons, it’s got a big Shia population, Bahrain which is an important ally, is trying very hard to put its house in order under the Crown Prince with the King’s huge support, at some cost to them politically within their own Sunni minority.”
Focused, disciplined and unflinchingly candid, his summary of the Iraq situation is the sort of advice David Cameron received regularly during National Security Council meetings on every crisis from Libya through to Syria in recent years.
He points out that he had warned repeatedly of the dangers of the West failing to get a grip of Syria, dangers which included spilling Jihadism over its borders. “I don’t want to sound terribly clever over all of this, [but] I pushed very hard for a containment strategy. Some people who should have known better even said ‘what is a containment strategy?’ I thought it was bloody obvious what a containment strategy was. Iraq was definitely one of the countries that I and others said needed to be part of this containment strategy.
“Although I think there is some merit in what Tony Blair’s saying, that you can’t connect what’s happening today with that decision [to invade Iraq], I would connect what’s happening today with our inability to sustain our support at a critical moment. Blair needs to be listened to on that, whatever his motives are for saying it.”
But for Richards the biggest worry is that the UK, and the US, will fail to learn the lessons from Syria and Iraq and threaten all their hard work in Afghanistan. As the former Nato commander in the country, it’s a subject very close to his heart as the troop withdrawals loom.
With home-grown terrorists a fresh concern, he reveals an anecdote to underline his point. “When I was Chief Defence Staff and Drummer Lee Rigby was so sadly murdered in Woolwich, the head of the Security Service [MI5] rang me to just check that the Armed forces didn’t attach any blame to some oversight on the part of the Security Service,” he explains.
“It was very good of him to do this, Andrew Parker. I of course immediately reassured him that no such blame was attached. We know how many lives the Security Service and the SIS have saved over the last many years with close involvement from the armed forces. So it just wasn’t an issue. And he said to me ‘Well, can I say one thing to you?’ I didn’t know what he was going to say. He said: ‘The Armed Forces can be very proud that since they went into Afghanistan in the autumn of 2001 not one terrorist incident has been planned or executed from Afghan soil’. And I think that’s one hell of an achievement which we all want to hang on to. It takes a lot of effort and passion and commitment and that’s what Iraq has now brought back into perspective.”
Central to delivering on our promises to the Afghans is the exact nature of the pull-out at the end of this year. Richards fought – and lost – a battle in the National Security Council to go for a ‘conditions-based’ withdrawal rather than an arbitrary timetable of the end of 201 favoured by Barack Obama and David Cameron.
“I accepted there was some merit in agreeing a date, even though I wasn’t 100% supportive of it, I accepted it. Some things you know you are not going to win,” he says. “But we then fought quite hard battles to honour the commitment to remain capable of combat and able to support the ANA [Afghan National Army] and ANP [Afghan National Police]” This meant keeping 5,200 British troops there until last Christmas, though he adds that “some people wanted to draw down earlier than that.”
He explains how he won a pledge from the NSC to leave enough ‘combat’ capable forces in place even at the end of this year. “We had options, one of those options was that we had to be ‘all out’ of Helmand by 31 December. I successfully argued that we had a commitment under the Chicago conference that we had to be capable of combat i.e. to support the Afghan army until the end of 2014. If we were in a position to get everyone out by then, then quite clearly the last six months we couldn’t do anything to help.
“So we had agreed at the NSC that we would have between a three to six month period after that [December 31], during which you would close the hospital and do all the things you have got to do. We committed to remaining in the combat role until the end of 2014 if we get out of Helmand. So if we are all out by Christmas 2014, then we cannot honour that commitment.”
Richards is dismayed by rumours from Whitehall that there is pressure to speed up the withdrawal. “Have they learnt nothing? We are seeing in Iraq what could happen in Afghanistan…If we don’t continue to help them in the way they have asked then I am concerned that we will end up in the same position. Perhaps now what we are seeing in Iraq might just tweak their consciences."
“If we don’t do as we promised we would do for the people of Afghanistan, then there’s a real risk that come next year Afghanistan becomes Iraq. I think that would be tragic. We‘ve fought very hard there to get to the point where we are where there have been successful elections. The fact is 8 million odd Afghans have decisively rejected the Taliban and want our help, contrary to a lot of the liberal media’s misrepresentation and they do not want the Taliban.”
To ram home his point, he adds: “If we don’t honour our commitments made in good faith at Lisbon and in Chicago and then on the economic side in Tokyo, and then Afghanistan turns into an Iraq over the next year or two, then it should be on the conscience of every Western so-called statesman, because they will have caused that to happen.”
The thinly-veiled reference to both Barack Obama and David Cameron is an indication of the frustration Richards sometimes felt when arguing against the conventional wisdom that ‘Afghan fatigue’ among the voters is now a fact of life.
Richards got into trouble just before he was appointed Chief of the General Staff in 2009, when he predicted that the UK would have to be involved in Afghanistan for the next 40 years. He was talking more about development, security reform and governance than a combat role, but the details were lost amid the noise of a political battle.
He still insists that the Afghan National Army will continue to need support from the West even after the pull-out, and possibly for a generation.
“They are good low level fighters. But an army, to become proficient like the British Army, the American Army, takes probably a generation of patient learning, it’s not as easy as people would think. To get all those moving parts from logisticians, to artillerymen to infantrymen to the armoured corps, the work with air support, to get them fed on time, to be able to evacuate them if they are injured, all that you can imagine is an extremely complex business,” he says.
“And where the Afghan Army and police continue to need help is in the development of their officer corps and their high level processes and in the more difficult technically demanding areas such as air support, helicopters, logistics maybe in artillery, in terms of their officer training.”
Yet, again, he has concerns. “I’m worried that we, Britain, are not playing a sufficiently big role in the other areas that I mentioned. Because essentially I think there’s a tiredness with Afghanistan and people want to do the minimum acceptable. The Italians and the Germans will have many more people supporting the Afghans come early 2015 than we are.
“Obviously America is talking now about 10,000 [US troops] think they would liked us to have somewhere proportionate, around a thousand, as a sort of rough division we were looking at. As I understand it, and I’m out of date, we are in the low hundreds. If the Afghans are happy with that, genuinely, I’m not an expert any more, and the Nato commander says that he can do without any more help from us, well fine. My instinct is that we could probably do a bit more.”
Richards is not phased by the idea of working with some ‘Taliban’ groups to hammer out a peaceful future for the country. When he was ‘Comm, ISAF’, he did a deal in Musa Qala with tribal elders and local Taliban.
“Whether some of those tribal elders were Taliban or related to the Taliban or had Taliban in the family didn’t worry me at all, because actually there’s a complete misconception about a lot of the Taliban. A lot of them are just tribes who oppose the dominant tribe in the provincial Government. They legitimise their opposition by saying they are Taliban because it gives them greater street cred.
“Then there’s the Quetta Shura Taliban who pull the levers who are connected to the provincial and rural Taliban. But it’s not a monolithic organisation like perhaps sadly the TTP [Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan] is in Pakistan. Which is why there’s a big difference between the Pakistan Taliban and the Afghan Taliban.
“But of course we’ve got to bring them into the negotiating process. The history of every insurgency is that there will be such a process at the end. And the signs are that they could be.
“Afghanistan must not revert to what it was, i.e. extremist Taliban rule which gave safe haven to Al Qaeda and their look-a-like. We achieve that, and we can still achieve it, as long as we continue to help ANA and the ANP into the long term. But you don’t achieve it over time simply through military means.”
On this point, Richards hits back at critics of the wider move to help Afghanistan’s economy and civil society. “I think there was a lot of drivel talked about nation building and ‘we don’t do nation building’. It was to make sure that we consolidated the military gains by getting the people on side. I’m not some limp-wristed liberal. I wanted to do it because I am a moral soldier, but I [also] wanted to do it because it was a hard-nosed part of the analysis of what was required to win the campaign.”
That credo of being a ‘moral soldier’, combined with a stubborn refusal to carry out orders he believed were wrong, is in fact what gave him his career break. In the spring of 2000, he was put in charge of a small task force told to evacuate British citizens from Sierra Leone.
“My orders were to extract our people, we call it a non-combatant evacuation operation, and get out. But I knew that if I did that the country would collapse and the RUF [Revolutionary United Front] would be back into Freetown chopping arms off everywhere again,” he explains. “I was conscious about failings in Rwanda. I was conscious about failings in some places in Bosnia. And I said, well I’m not going to be part of that.”
Some have assumed that this was Blair’s first ‘liberal intervention’, but Richards explains that in Freetown, he was as far from Downing Street as he was from the MoD. And he was not far up the military chain of command.
“I was a brigadier and I had no linkage to Tony Blair the Prime Minister. But I had met Robin Cook the year before when I was going into East Timor [to head a task force], I met him at Sydney airport. And he made clear to me that Sierra Leone was a special country in the eyes of Blair and himself. And so he didn’t want it to collapse.
“They had agreed a rather dodgy deal there which I thought he felt rather guilty about, it wasn’t good for the democratically elected President Kabbah. So when I was there in early May 2000 with orders to do an evacuation operation I could see that would lead to the collapse of the country. I said to myself I’m sure that’s not what Tony Blair or Robin Cook were expecting. And so I put my metaphorical telescope to my blind eye and decided to do what I did.”
Acting independently, he radically expanded the area of evacuation to help support beleaguered President and trained up a small army of Sierra Leoneans to help.
“My orders came through three days after I’d started this. Which was do only an evacuation. So I ignored those because I was able to pretend that’s what I was doing. And then 10 days later some sort of orders came through that allowed me to support the UN which was a key part of the operation but actually my main effort was fighting the RUF with what I called, because there were some quite dodgy people in it, my ‘unholy alliance’. And actually they fought very hard on behalf of the people and the government, and the RUF were defeated.”
“It worked very well. Six weeks later we were able to leave with lots of pats on the back. There is a company that’s thinking of making a movie of it. We will see. You never know.”
But was there no reprimand from the MoD at all, afterwards?
“I was bloody lucky that I got away with it. There’s no doubt that If it had gone wrong that I’d have been chopped off at the knees, which is what a number of friends told me was going to happen.
“The MoD couldn’t argue because I was successful. I don’t advocate it as a route for stardom. But on the other hand Lord Guthrie was the CDS and I felt that he would support what I was doing too. But between me and that level which was the top of Government level, Guthrie, Blair, Cook, Geoff Hoon, there was about two or three layers that were determined that I should do my evacuation operation and go. And I kept saying well if I do that the country’s going to collapse. ‘You have your orders, Brigadier!’ So I looked at my team and I said ‘I’m not up for this’. And they said ‘we are with you Brigadier’.
“It puts a lie to the fact that I was a very ambitious officer, because it’s always slightly surprised me that I ended up as Chief of Defence Staff, although it says much for those who allowed me to do it, notwithstanding the fact that I’ve got a slightly sort of rebellious side.”
But Richards stresses that he had done his homework beforehand and knew the chances of success. “This was not a random gamble on my part. I absolutely knew the country, I knew the forces I had and I felt we could win. I was lucky but I wouldn’t want it to be characterised it as a cavalier operation because I knew what I was about to do.”
In his MoD office, Richards used to have a prized photo of himself sitting alongside Tony Blair. As part of an in-joke about a British ‘coup d’etat’, the picture reveals Blair had even allowed Richards to sit in his seat at the Cabinet table. The pair of them clearly agreed on the wider need to combat Jihadism and on intervention overseas, but Richards is uneasy with the idea that the Sierra Leone success was a template that gave Blair a taste for toppling Saddam Hussein.
“I think Kosovo and Sierra Leone are put in that bracket. But you know every operation is unique. I didn’t know Tony Blair, I did get to know him later. I didn’t talk to him about Sierra Leone. I suppose there is some possibility that [because] we did these things effectively and efficiently…
“But if you look in both Kosovo and Sierra Leone, although a different scale of activity, both the generals, me and Mike Jackson, we knew what we were doing. There’s a great phrase in the military which is ‘clout don’t dribble’. And in both cases we were able to clout. A lot of mine was psychological, I just exploited what looked like a much bigger army than it actually was and we very judiciously took the RUF on in particular places and dealt with them and that intimidated them and I knew that would happen because they are a bunch of bullies and when bullies get a sharp rap on the knuckles they tend to disappear and that’s exactly what did happen.”
Was the key difference between Sierra Leone and Iraq that he had planned properly for the aftermath?
“We left behind a training team, DfiD went in and did some work. Sierra Leone which is a difficult country..their economy is growing, they’ve had successful elections twice since then and they are very keen on their democracy. But like a lot of under developed countries they need help. And I’d like to see Britain putting more help into these countries as part of my containment strategy. Because funnily enough Sierra Leone has got a very large Muslim population, as have a lot of these countries in West African and we know also sadly in East Africa.
“We need to make sure that those good Muslims, and I’m very proud patron of the armed forces Muslim Association. The vast, vast majority of Muslims want nothing to do with this, we need to help those countries. I said this in the case of Mali and the other west African countries. I don’t think anything has happened, we are there but it’s not part of a coherent strategy designed to make it unattractive to any wobbly Muslims in the countries in question to go over to the other side, why would they if their jobs are coming and they see prospects for their children, then they will stick with the status quo. I just think it needs a bit more method in the madness than I think is probably the case.”
As for Iraq itself, Richards is certainly not a fan of the Blair approach. “I’m of the view that the invasion of Iraq was a grand strategic error. It liberated Iran, the secular bulwark against Iranian expansionism was removed. It sucked in, as a result of the poor decisions on the Iraqi army and the Baathist membership, a lot of people who are today fighting there again.”
When the National Security Council repeatedly discussed the Syria crisis, Richards was a constant voice warning that the Opposition should not be armed unless the West decided to get involved and attack Assad’s air defences.
“What I said was if you’re going to intervene, do it properly. The worst of all worlds is to do enough to keep it going, but not enough to allow the opposition groups to win. I could see that’s what was happening. I wasn’t having a go at my own Government per se, but I was trying through the Government to argue with America and everybody else about how we should do this.
“We were all supporting people who weren’t given the means to do it properly and were all fragmented. Inevitably the most powerful and most efficient and the most active have come to the fore.”
He adds that he does not want to use the benefit of hindsight, but points out that he had some foresight of how Syria might play out. “One of the other things I pushed for - don’t want to sound terribly clever over all of this - I pushed very hard for a containment strategy. Some people who should have known better even said ‘what is a containment strategy?’ I thought it was bloody obvious what a containment strategy was. You contain the conflict as best you can geographically and in other ways. I was very worried about Jordan and Lebanon and I argued hard to put more effort into helping them economically and with the humanitarian relief. We’ve done a good effort but it’s not been dramatic and full enough to stop what is happening.
As for the NSC itself, has it proved a useful tool of Government? “I think the NSC is an extremely good idea in principle. Has it reached its full flowering? No. I do think it needs to be more strategic in its approach. We tended to be a bit tactical, we still are. I banged on at length about this and if the Prime Minister was bothered to read this he would be chuckling I think because he will recognise what I’m saying again to you now.
“That said, it’s a very effective vehicle for decision making. The fact is that Libya, whether one disagrees or avers that it was a tactical success but strategic question mark, nevertheless it was a very dynamic decision making process. We were all very collegiate about it, I had some misgivings early on but once those were allayed I was very happy to play a very full and constructive part in that campaign. I think the NSC did particularly well over that.
“I think on Syria, which is really the cause of what we’ve been talking about and the spill over into Iraq, I don’t think probably we did sufficiently focus on a proper plan. Which included a containment strategy within that to deal with it in a strategically sound way. We were over-focused on getting rid of Assad and not sufficiently concentrating on the strategic implications and the broader regional risks. And therefore there is some criticism in that.”
Some defence experts worry that the National Security Council is in fact too much a creature of the Foreign Office. On this, Richards is aptly diplomatic. “It tends to be dominated by the Foreign Office. I offered myself on more than one occasion senior military officers to go in to give them the an understanding of strategic process, that so far as I know has still not been accepted that offer. So there is a little bit of tension between what the NSC Secretariat, which isn’t big enough by the way, now does and they are not trained. I still believe they need some military people, just two or three, to give them that breadth and depth of understanding of process.
“I think on balance it’s a very good thing, definitely an improvement on what went before but it still needs tweaking and needs to think more in terms of what is in Britain’s vital national interest and less instinctive reaction in line with our rather liberal instincts. I’m afraid it’s a bit like that. Vital national interests is a term rarely used at the NSC I think it ought to be a bit more.”
The NSC has certainly been preoccupied with Ukraine as much as Syria since the beginning of the year. What does he think of the way the West has handled the situation?
“I’m contrary on Russia,” he says, with a smile. “I believe in states working together to the common good and trying to bury their differences and I also believe in Realpolitik, states that understand the realities.
“In the case of Russia, I would like to know whether our, Britain’s, Europe’s long term interest is with Russia or against Russia? Are they going to be a perpetual antagonist or are we over time going to try to bring them in to the body of nations in the way I think we neglected an opportunity to do in the ‘90s.
“They went through a very difficult time then and we sort of ignored them and rather rubbed their noses in it, the collapse of Communism. So I do think Russia is finding its way out of the post Communist era. There’s a certain amount of double standards being applied. When a Western power feels its vital national interests are at stake then it’s ok to use military force. But as soon as Russia, perhaps quite mistakenly, feels similarly threatened, then it’s not OK.”
And on the issue specifically of Ukraine, Richards again defies conventional thinking among some in Government. “I’m reluctant to get into Ukraine and the detail. But for what it’s worth a democratically elected president was turfed out through a coup d’etat. He might not have been to our liking but he was democratically elected and he fled to Russia. This is why I sympathise with Russia, in that people are saying this was all part of some Russian grand design. That was not the case.
“What happened is that their strategy which was to persuade by negotiation and debate Ukraine to not become affiliated to Europe in a formal sense but to remain balanced between the two, in return for which they gave them a very good deal on gas, and economic support and actually is a much better deal economically than Europe was offering. That collapsed after the coup in Kiev that saw the president ejected. And then Russia saw that some people who were clearly opposed to Russia were calling the shots in Kiev, how representative of the nation as a whole we did not know by the way at the time, but I think this is an issue which we have to think about. How is our instinct to side with the underdog always right in that we don’t know that the majority of the people of the nation in question necessarily support the vociferous minority causing the problem.
“There was no vote on this in Russia or indeed in Syria..When we instinctively sided against Assad…it’s an instinct, the underdog democrat versus the demagogue and all that sort of stuff. But actually a lot of people living in these countries might be quite content to live under the demagogue if their children are being educated, they’ve got decent jobs and their houses are kept warm in the winter. And I think that’s something we need to think through a little bit.”
Closer to home, Richards was in post at a time of some severe troop reductions. After years of sacrifice of both blood and treasure in Iraq and Afghanistan, the last thing many in the armed forces wanted to come home to was the round of staff cuts they’ve had to endure since 2010.
“I always wonder if people feel I sort of let them down,” Richards says. “[In 2010] I was of a view that the biggest strategic risk facing Britain at the time was economic meltdown. I count myself as a strategist, and therefore I thought there was every reason why the armed forces should contribute to ensuring that wasn’t the case. So I was never arguing for no cuts. I argued along with others successfully for smaller cuts.”
Richards’ relationship with Philip Hammond was said in Whitehall to be sometimes scratchy. But he’s happy to pay tribute to the Defence Secretary.
“I’ve got to give Philip Hammond credit for sorting out MoD’s finances, they were in a state there’s no doubt about that. Although it was very painful, he had the moral courage to hold our toes to the fire. And under Future Force 2020, with which I had a lot to do, the British forces will look very impressive, will still be the second biggest spender in Nato and after the Americans we will be the most capable.”
Yet when the Treasury came back for more cuts in the last spending round of 2013, Hammond, long seen as the ‘bean-counter-in-chief’ by some in the MoD, dug in and defied George Osborne. Did he have a role in the Defence Secretary's apparent Damascene conversion to the merits of military spending? Richards says that he and other military chiefs had argued that they ‘couldn’t take any more’.
“Did I have a role in his Damascene conversion? I probably did but so did lots of others, in that it’s a fact that when sceptical politicians who know very little about defence come into the MoD, if they give themselves half a chance after a while they really love it.
“The armed forces, we are actually like big sheepdogs: stroke us and we are very loyal we do everything and anything people want. And I think that gets to them after a while and they become very protective of us.”
One area where Richards certainly didn’t see eye to eye with his boss was on plans to replace regular forces with reservists. “I didn’t particularly agree with the reservist strategy…are we calling it a strategy? I think it’s a reserves policy. There’s a big difference between a policy which is that’s what you want to do and a strategy which actually delivers it. I didn’t agree with the reserves policy.
“It was taken out of my direct chain of command, I didn’t have anything directly to do with it. I think you could say that’s because people knew I wasn’t going to be very helpful over it. But I don’t know,” he says, with a wry smile.
The review was done by others but he points out that a key recommendation was for a pilot scheme. “In that study’s recommendation as I recall - I don’t think they’ve removed it, would they do such a thing? - it did say that it needed a pilot project as a proof of principle. And the Government decided it was such a good idea that that wouldn’t be required. It looks to me like that would have been a wise idea.”
The real problem is one of a capability gap that’s opening up, he warns. “We’ve got an army that’s rapidly coming down to 82,000 regulars, which was meant to be brought back up to effective fighting strength to the point of committal through the reserves policy. It looks to me like there’s a risk that the army will be at 82,000 but the number of active reserves available will not be what the government had hoped and the Army needs.”
So there would the numbers be an issue in future conflicts? “For the sort of operation that the reserves were envisaged being involved in, which is particularly important on sustained campaigns, then yes we would have a problem. Our regular soldiers would have to go back more frequently.
“I’m just putting myself in the position of the CDS today. In terms of a short notice, one-off intervention role for six months wherever, the Army can do that. It hasn’t affected the high-readiness forces. But it would affect enduring operations. For a sustained Afghanistan type campaign, which are in cycles of five, the reserves under the concept play a very big part in cycles 3, 4 and 5. They wouldn’t be able to do that and therefore regular soldiers have to go back quicker than is desirable.”
Despite their differences over reservists, Richards tries his best to be polite about Hammond. “He was a sort of tough dad, he was quite difficult to begin with, we did what we had to do and I think there is now a very good relationship between the two….although he will never make a soldier I can tell you that.”
Richards is impeccably courteous, yet it’s obvious there were tensions. “I have respect for him. He’s not a very fluffy guy….he doesn’t need other people, he’s very much his own man. And therefore he’s not very clubbable. Whereas the military tend to be quite clubbable, we are a team effort. He doesn’t need that. He has a good sense of humour and when I left he was very kind in what he said and I count him as a close colleague and a friend. But I don’t think I’ll be spending Christmas with him.”
Asked about the media ban imposed by Hammond and MoD on private lunches or meetings between military and officials and the media, Richards can't hide his bemusement.
"I'm not surprised, I fought against it," he says. "He doesn't trust…he's very…only he wants to control the MoD as a whole's access to the media. I think it's do-able in the short term but I think it's counter-productive in the long term.
"And I have to say people find it a bit peculiar. Actually as I said to him more than once, we have no interest in undermining what he's doing. We would educate them and if he brought us into his approach we would probably be very effective but honest in advocates of it. But he didn't want to do that and he and his spad run it. I don't know whether they think it's successful or not. But I know lots of journalists think it's wrong."
The MoD’s decision not to renew tenancies for senior military staff in London apartments, including in Kensington Palace, has also caused irritation. Richards is blunt about his own stay in the Royal residence.
“I wish you to know I paid a hefty rent, it was not a grace and favour residence. As far as I know only Government ministers have grace and favour residence - a little thing to remind people!
“We loved it and it meant that in a difficult and demanding job, one aspect of it was fantastic. The people in Kensington Palace were extremely kind and we lived in a lovely part of London. I have to say without that there were occasions when I might have said ‘oh this is not worth it’ but Kensington Palace was a great icing.”
So was it short-sighted of ministers to target it for his successor? Richards responds with a wider argument about the need to recognise the sacrifices that those in public service make.
“You will always have an army or armed forces. Every country does. The difference between the British armed forces and those of most other countries, and I’ve come across many, is the quality of our people,” he says, “We don’t pay them brilliantly by any means. I only now when I’m outside do I realise for the first time what people can be paid. But because we look after them and because it’s socially at every level acceptable to be in the Army, whether you a private in the greenhouse from Yorkshire or the heir to the throne and you are a captain in some smart organisation, the fact is there is a consensus that it’s a good to be in the armed forces.
“If you lose that because you don’t look after your people well, you will have an army, a navy and an air force, but it will be the sort of army, navy and air force with which we don’t associate with the British, that you associate with banana republics ultimately. “We have outstanding people and we need to look after them. And we owe them a certain amount.
“If the Chief of Defence Staff, with all the pressure on him, having I hope given a lot to the country, isn’t allowed a small apartment in Kensington Palace, there’s got to be something wrong. So I am sad that the bean-counters haven’t seen the wood for the trees. I’m worried that certain politicians and certain senior civil servants don’t see that it is quality that makes the British armed forces able to punch above their weight and do all the things that we are used to.”
He may have swapped his khakis for a softer ermine, but David Richards isn’t planning on giving up the fight for his troops, or the causes they risked their lives for. The swashbuckling rebel soldier certainly isn’t shy. And he’s definitely not retiring.