Corbyn's skirmish with the chief of staff on nuclear weapons is a phoney war

Corbyn in Coventry

Just to see what it felt like, I was about to type the words “I’m with Jeremy on this one.” Why take such a leap in the dark?

Because of intemperate remarks apparently made on Andrew Marr’s Sunday sofa by Gen Sir Nicholas (he styles himself “Nick”) Houghton, the chief of the defence staff. “Pacifist Jez not fit to be PM,” that sort of thing.

Then I took the sensible precaution of watching what Houghton had actually said to Marr and realised that the bluff soldier had just about managed to tiptoe through the Trident nuclear debate more deftly than the Labour leader’s office and the media had reported overnight.

Genial Adm Lord West thinks otherwise. But we can breathe again. No more talk of military coups for a fortnight or so unless we take David Davis’s warning against insular British complacency (“we haven’t had a Stasi or Gestapo”) seriously, as I think we should.

I don’t think Sir Nick (as we should all think of him) poses any kind of threat. He is a Yorkshireman with a history degree from Oxford whose staff officer CV suggests he has probably dodged no more bullets than Jez, though he has fought a lot of desks.

He seems emollient and sensibly bland; perhaps his appointment in 2013 was a reaction to his feisty predecessor, Gen Sir David (now Lord) Richards, who was inclined to launch the occasional rocket attack on Treasury “bean counters” over budget cuts or David Cameron’s cadet corps’ strategic thinking.

But don’t think this sort of trouble will now melt away, for several reasons. Like most public servants, the military is pretty cross these days about the political class, Tory as well as Labour, for asking the soldiers (mostly), sailors and aircrews to do more for less, with less pay and fewer perks too. Even on Remembrance Day, it’s fair to point out that more pensioners have met an early death because of the cuts than soldiers, but their grievance is also legitimate.

So Cameron got it in the neck from Richards over Libya, as Gordon Brown and Tony Blair once did from the pyrotechnic former SAS man Lord Guthrie. It goes with the territory and is a two-way street. Margaret Thatcher, like Churchill, Lloyd George and Pitt before her, complained of the feebleness of some of her generals: it was a fighting sailor, Adm Lord Lewin, who put together the Falklands taskforce in a couple of days in 1982.

Jeremy Corbyn presents a challenge of a different order. Not since the saintly but unsuitable George Lansbury was unhappily leader of the Labour party between 1931 and 1935 has the opposition been led by an avowed pacifist, a position Corbyn does not explicitly endorse – “to say I was a pacifist would be very absolutist”. He says he’s “not sure”. But his general disposition is to oppose wars that come along as a default position.

That doesn’t mean he won’t adapt to new responsibilities and embrace the consequences. As I never tire of saying, Jeremy’s a nice guy – nice but naive – and the Corbyn we saw appropriately dressed like Blair at the Cenotaph, singing away with the best of them, has made compromises since his non-singing role at the Battle of Britain service in St Paul’s. Well done, Jeremy. Don’t be too discouraged by Monday’s raspberry in the Tory press.

What Sir Nick said on TV was that he’d be worried if Corbyn’s declared unwillingness to say he would press the nuclear button were “translated into power”, a state of affairs, he added, that had “a couple of bridges to cross”. In fairness, Houghton also gently corrected Cameron’s assertion that the teenage jihadis running Isis constituted an “existential threat” to Britain. No, but they threaten the values of our “remarkably open society”, he observed, mildly and correctly.

Houghton’s talk of Labour having “a couple of bridges to cross” may outrage some activists, and prompted the leader’s office to threaten a formal complaint about the army’s duty of political neutrality. But it struck me as cheerful understatement. On past evidence, you could argue that the British electorate won’t elect a pacifist prime minister who refuses to push the button, so the ball is in Corbyn’s half of the court.

That may be why, Corbyn’s defence spokeswoman, Maria Eagle, said on the same programme that she was content with the general’s view – because she shares it. Eagle has her work cut out trying to square the circle, buying time via a nuclear review. Let’s hope it will be more rigorous than the botched Tory defence review in 2010 or Thatcher’s 1981 defence review, the cuts from which directly led to the Falklands invasion.

In protesting, Corbyn’s office may simply be playing to the activist gallery, providing a diversion as leaders do in a tight corner. But just as Sir Nick is entitled to warn that nuclear deterrents are there to deter (clue in name, etc), not to be fired, so Corbyn is entitled to assert the important principle of civilian control over the military.

This has not been a serious political issue in Britain since the late 17th century, when, almost 40 years after Cromwell’s military and republican regime, Gen John Churchill switched sides to help depose his inept and autocratic king, James II of England (VII of Scotland), and allow the invading Dutch army of William of Orange to seize the throne in the winter of 1688. Petulant to the last, the king (no mean soldier himself) dropped the Great Seal of England into the Thames as he did a runner to France.

Basically, that’s it, with two conspicuous exceptions. One is civil disorder, including strikes such as the ill-fated General Strike of 1926 and political agitations such as Peterloo in 1819, when hussars attacked a radical Manchester crowd and killed at least 15 people, thereby helping trigger the foundation of the Manchester Guardian two years later.

Unless we include post-1688 unrest in Scotland, culminating in the suppression of the two Jacobite invasions by the son and grandson of James II, the other exception is Ireland, up to and including our own times, when British troops were deployed, a younger Sir Nick among them, as the Troubles began to come to an end in the 1990s.

The 1914 Curragh incident, serious though not quite a mutiny, is the best remembered in Britain. But the Irish remember plenty, not least the paramilitary Black and Tan violence as the country moved from the Easter Rising in 1916 towards partition and independence in 1921, via war.

Bad enough, but not much compared with many of our neighbours. Spain was ruled by Franco for nearly 40 years after a bloody civil war he launched against the republic (Corbyn’s father wanted to join the International Brigade, but was declared unfit); half of France was ruled by Marshal Pétain (1940-44) during the German occupation, the culmination of decades of military disloyalty to the republic. As the “good” general of wartime resistance, Charles de Gaulle came back as president (1959-69) and faced a military revolt over Algerian independence.

Germany’s president in 1933 was an old general, Hindenburg, who entrusted power to Adolf Hitler. Americans have always had a hankering for generals in the White House, from Washington to Eisenhower, who warned against the “military-industrial complex” as he stepped down in 1961. Gen Colin Powell was tempted to take it on.

No grounds for feeling smug here. A few weeks ago, an anonymous serving general was caught mumbling about a possible coup if a Corbyn government persisted with non-nuclear and non-Nato talk (it didn’t). It sounded to me like drink talking, but there were also rumblings in the troubled 1970s, when Labour was in power and in trouble. In the 1920s, Gen Sir Henry Wilson, the chief of the imperial general staff, asked his private diary “is Lloyd George a traitor?”: harsh words about one’s Liberal coalition prime minister and wartime leader. The IRA later assassinated Wilson.

As Davis says, we always have the spooks to keep a wary eye on, a topic that worries sensible Conservatives too. The great Duke of Wellington had the right idea. The victor of Waterloo had been a Tory prime minister and was bitterly opposed to the 1832 Reform Act. But he never raised a finger against it. Wellington told friends he had seen civil conflict close up and wouldn’t wish it on anyone. Wise words for soldiers, politicians and fired-up voters to bear in mind.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Michael White, for theguardian.com on Monday 9th November 2015 13.46 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010