Scottish Referendum

Part-Time Defence Secretary at a Time of War

Is Part-Time Good Enough?

It was 2006. UK forces were deployed to war, on two fronts, (Iraq & Afghanistan). Action in both countries was fierce, and UK military casualties were mounting. The Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, had moved Baron John Reid away from Defence to Health, (replacing Alan Milburn who had been removed, under a cloud). The absence of anyone suited to the ministry gave problems. Baron Des Browne of Ladyton, (a lawyer prior to taking up politics) was appointed.

The problem of inadequate equipment and support, for the military came to the fore and resultant of relentless pressure from the media and public finance was released so that helicopters, protective clothing and suitable vehicles could be purchased.

Lack of military experience soon took it’s toll on Browne, (a compassionate person by nature) who found it extremely difficult to provide leadership coping with ever increasing casualty levels. Uncomfortable in his role he wisely delegated operational oversight to persons more suited. He then worked assiduously supporting, improving welfare support to families.

In 2007, following the debacle of the 2007 Scottish elections Douglas Alexander was removed from office. Browne’s role at the MOD was formally reduced to part-time, (yup! indeed). Browne was instructed by Gordon Brown to take on the portfolio of Scottish Secretary, (in a part time capacity). The unique dual role was heavily criticised by the opposition, media and public, to no avail. Browne, (removed from the offices and moved to the back benches in 2008) later commentated, “I don’t think it would be wise for any future prime minister to recreate that strategy.”

Questioned at the Iraq Inquiry he stated;

1. “I do not believe the UK had sufficient resources to take part in two major deployments”.

2. “I found it very difficult to come to terms with the deaths of our people in an operational environment”.

3. “I found it difficult to personally deal with the losses of our people”.

4. “The decision to deploy thousands of British troops to Southern Afghanistan in 2006 had a negative impact on operations in Iraq”.

5. Service families were unhappy with me simultaneously holding the job of Scottish Secretary

There you have it!!! What a nonsense.

His successor John Hutton said a lack of helicopters had “undoubtedly been a factor” in the UK’s mission in Iraq. “I don’t think there is any point pretending otherwise,” he said. “The military would have liked more helicopters and the politicians would have liked to make more available.”

Mr Hutton acknowledged the death toll among Iraqi civilians since the March 2003 invasion had been, “disastrous” but he defended the war as it had transformed Iraq from a “pariah” state to a democracy that was a full member of the international community.

Des Browne and John Hutton both served as defence secretary during a period when there was dual pressure on the military. It was natural that they would be questioned about the impact of Afghanistan on Iraq, especially in the wake of Geoff Hoon’s evidence.

Last week, Mr Hoon told the inquiry that he had not agreed with Tony Blair’s announcement in 2004 that led to a troop commitment to Afghanistan, at a time when British forces were still deployed in southern Iraq in significant numbers.

Today, Mr Browne and Mr Hutton both addressed the issue of over-stretch. They painted a picture of finite resources meaning that two simultaneous operations, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, could not be sustained indefinitely.

On a lighter note, Mr Browne said at that one stage Britain had successfully sourced “six Merlin helicopters” in Iraq. The hapless stenographer in the hearing room typed this as “six million helicopters”.

Mr Browne said his concerns about troops’ welfare meant he chose to devote a lot of his time to helping the families of personnel. But he said “perceptions” of his efforts were hampered after Gordon Brown asked him to combine the role as defence secretary with that of secretary of state for Scotland from July 2007 onwards – a dual role which was heavily criticised at the time by the opposition.

Although Mr Browne said he did not have any less time to devote to the defence brief – because he had an “able” Scottish deputy to rely upon and many Scottish issues were devolved – he said public reaction to the arrangement was “disadvantageous”. “I don’t think it would be wise for any future prime minister to recreate that strategy,” he said. Resources Mr Browne acknowledged there were “concerns” within the military about the number of helicopters available to British troops in Iraq

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