When you wish to understand what is happening in an economy, the answer comes from the small things. Not from the micro-economics of the classical economist but from stories repeated about events in the real world. The source of inspiration for this essay was a comment from my daughter who has friends who are married to soldiers. Their husbands are very discontented, as they seem to waste their time on a series of seemingly meaningless tasks. It seems as if the bad of practices of national service days are being reinvented when soldiers could be told to do such meaningless tasks as cut the grass with nail scissors. If they are correct the British army seems to be at present an organisation without purpose or meaning.
This I can contrast with the attitude of a former pupil of mine who served with the army in Northern Ireland. I thought that he would have hated service there because of the dangers. Instead he loved it, he had two posting there and was considering leaving the army because his next would be an action less posting to Germany. Anybody with even the briefest knowledge of the British army knows that it can do mindless routine like no other organisation. He as did many others join the army for the excitement, a life out of the routine. I cannot describe in words the excitement he told me he experienced on an active mission hunting an IRA unit.
A dysfunctional army and discontented soldiers is a metaphor for so much of contemporary Britain. There are countless business organisations that demonstrate the same lack of purpose, due to poor leadership and with a discontented workforce. What the British army demonstrates is how state and private sector organisations become increasingly dysfunctional in a society that appears to be in decline.
Britain has been in decline since it lost its Empire and in the words of Dean Acheson it ‘has lost an empire and has not yet found a role’. In the post war period many politicians attempted to find a new role for Britain. At first it seemed its future lay with Europe and the country joined the EU. However being one of the leading nations in the EU did not satisfy the political class, as it had not injected the hoped for dynamism into British economy and society. What the political class wanted was the great shock that would electrify the economy and restore it to economic health and they found the needed great shock they needed in the practice of Neo-Liberal economics.
One of the great ideas of the Neo-Liberal revolution is the idealisation of the private sector business model. In consequence much of the public sector was transferred to private ownership and that included much of the defence department. Now procuring weapons for the army is in the hands of a private sector organisation called the Defence Procurement Agency. This department was intended to be a commissioning agency, that would outsource the design and production of defence equipment to private sector companies, so getting the best deal for the armed services from the competing defence contractors.
It was assumed that by outsourcing expertise to the private contractor the government would cut out the expense of employing its own specialists and it could leave the difficult decisions about design and production to the private sector companies. Unfortunately these very same companies also practised cost cutting and reduced the most expensive labour costs, which were the design engineers. Outsourcing of design has led to a multiplicity of contractors involved in producing a product that usually fails to serve its purpose. The new army automatic rifle (SA80) costing more than a £470 million is an example of the abject failure of this policy*. It tends to jam when used in action. Special forces units who are constantly in action never use it because of its unreliability, instead preferring to use the American alternative. Having to make do with inferior and unsuitable equipment is destructive of morale and it is said that in the Royal Navy service morale has never been lower, as it is the service most affected by having to operate with poor and inadequate resources.
Generals and politicians have with enthusiasm adopted the cost cutting practices of Neo-Liberalism. This means that in consequence the cost of having realistic large scale training exercises is too great in terms of men and resources. There is just not the money to keep the army trained in is a state of readiness for war. All to often soldiers are given home leave, as this is the least expensive option. One way politicians and the generals have tried to overcome this problem is by cutting the numbers of serving soldiers and instead relying upon the cheap part time reserve solder to fill the gaps in the time of crisis. Forcing experienced soldiers to leave the army because they are too expensive is destructive of morale.
Warrant officers are the unsung heroes of the army. These non-commissioned officers are the men who make the regimental system effective. They have years of service and are the men that keep the regiment operating at maximum efficiency. Officers come and go, but they are always there. However they are expensive and the government and generals decided that they should reduce their numbers in a cost cutting exercise. A number of warrant officers who received their redundancy notices were on active service in Afghanistan. Many private and state organisations have suffered similar drops in service effectiveness, when they have got rid of much of the middle management.
Neo-Liberal theory emphasises the great value of the entrepreneurial leader, societies movers and shakers, whom Ayn Rand states the billionaire class. This has been applied to the army as the cost cutting has been at the expensive of the junior ranks, not the generals. It is believed that all is needed is the great man who will meld the disparate units that make up an army unit into an effective fighting force at the time of crisis. Skills, training and experience are almost irrelevant in the junior ranks, as what matters is the genius of the leader. Therefore whatever cuts are made they should not apply to the generals, as they are the key personnel who will make the army great in the times of war. In consequence the British army is one of the most ‘over generalled’ in the world. The British army is about the size of the American marine corps which has only a third of the generals.
The great weakness of current British army is that it does not have a large cadre of outstanding leaders. Too many of the current generals are quite undistinguished and there are too many duds amongst them. When an American general addressed a conference of senior British army staff to discuss the lessons learnt from the conflict in Afghanistan he said gentlemen you have failed. It is an open secret that the Americans have a very poor opinion of the British army or more particularly its generals.
There is a very revealing story from Afghanistan which reveals the poor quality of British generalship. There was an airbase in which was the responsibility of a British and American general. The British general was responsible for the defence of the perimeter. He left some watch towers unoccupied.The Taliban spotted this and crept in and destroyed a number of American aircraft. The American General who was responsible for the defence of the aircraft was sacked, although he was comparatively blameless, while the British general was not only not sanctioned but he was promoted to a higher grade. Incompetence does not seem a bar to seniority in the British army.
This is why my daughters friends husbands find that they are doing no real soldiering, it is because they belong a dysfunctional organisation that is unable to effectively utilise their talents. Recently the government was criticised for failing to respond adequately to Hurricane Irma. The Americans and French evacuated their citizens from the islands in the before the hurricane struck, the British did nothing. While much of the blame for the inaction must rest with the politicians, it is also likely that if the defence minister had asked for immediate action, the armed services would have struggled to respond.
What the British army demonstrates is the current British vice, over investment in a poor and undistinguished leadership and underinvestment in its workforce. Almost all British companies have experienced a ruthless weeding out of middle management and of its more expensive and skilled staff. Once the British Atomic Energy Authority was one of the world leaders in nuclear engineering, but since privatisation the new company disposed of the expensive engineers and became largely a commissioning organisation. Now when Britain needs to build new nuclear power stations it lacks the expertise to do so and instead relies upon outsourcing the task a French company EDF. The leadership of the nuclear industry is so poor that it is not concerned that the two nuclear power stations that EDF is building in France and Finland are so delayed by construction problems and cost overruns that are years behind schedule. Just as in much of British industry a poor leadership makes poor decisions.
*The initial model of this rifle used by the army was so poor that it had to be modified and re-engineered by the German manufacturer Heckler and Koch.
*The branch of the armed services that has suffered most from the lack of in house expertise and poor leadership is the Royal Navy. Its new £1 billion Daring class destroyers are so badly engineered that they are prone to break down. The only solution is cut large holes in the sides of the ships so engineers can install new power units. A ‘patch up’ job that will be extremely expensive and could double the cost of equipping the navy with these new ships.