Mark Rowe

Better backfill, Sir Patrick: part one

by Mark Rowe

The outgoing chief of the general staff Sir Patrick Sanders’ talk in public this week of a ‘citizen army’ was doubly dismal, writes Mark Rowe. Partly because it showed so little understanding of Britain, in 2024, which is profoundly unmilitary; partly because Sir Patrick would have done better to consider backfill – if the Army has to go to war, who guards the gates at barracks, at nuclear power stations, at the Houses of Parliament? The answer in part already is private security. What part should private security play in backing up the state at its request, as part of the more general contracting out of work by the state to private industry? Mark Rowe asks.

The question matters because the private sector – commercial or voluntary – has always been there to help the state, in vital ways, when most needed. Take the climactic year 1940, when Nazi Germany looked likely, and well able, to invade Britain. In the crisis of late 1940, when the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had retreated to Dunkirk and looked trapped if it were not evacuated across the Channel, the British state drew on ‘the little ships’. At extremes, single mariners, even kayakers, crossed the water (at risk of death and with minimal state advice and presumably uninsured) to bring troops (even a single soldier at a time) home. In the only crisis to Britain’s existence at all comparable since, the covid pandemic, again the state turned to the goodwill of volunteers (at vaccination centres) and via commercial contracts private companies, to deliver services that the state could not create, either at all or within the prompt time demanded.

Sir Patrick showed himself dismally blind to how badly the state has long treated volunteers. Perhaps three-quarters of a million applied online to do good deeds in the uncertain early days of the covid pandemic, in spring to summer 2020. The British state did nothing with that goodwill. The police and British Army have long made less than they could have of the Special Constabulary and Territorial Army respectively.

The precedent for Sir Patrick is not good: the Home Guard. Not the World War Two version, but the little known revival of it, a bright idea of Winston Churchill’s in the early 1950s, when Britain was part of a United Nations defence of southern Korea against what became North Korea and China. Britain could reasonably fear a World War Three and practice against Russian paratroop landings and nuclear war (hence the Civil Defence Corps, with a core of a few thousand paid officials in local government and up to hundreds of thousands of uniformed volunteers, many World War Two veterans).

Whether Sir Patrick had in mind or would settle for a ‘citizen army’ to bear arms, or do back office things to release younger and fitter people for the battlefield, the generations that had the discipline and example of two world wars to inspire service have passed. Besides, the Conservative Government quietly folded the Home Guard after a few years because so few took part. In practical terms: who would train the citizens, in what? Digging and manning trenches? Hiding from and shooting at drones? Urban warfare? Would the trainers be from the military, taking instructors away from the front-line force when Britain’s armed forces has a hard enough time recruiting and retaining already? A citizen army would at least give newly retired officers some paid work and get them out from under their wives’ feet (did those retired officers who came out in support of Sir Patrick have anyone in mind?!).

Part two, on this link.

Photo by Mark Rowe: London, looking west from Hungerford Bridge, yesterday afternoon.

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