Sir Nicholas Soames: Touchy-feely political correctness has absolutely no role whatever in the British Army.

RECRUITING is the lifeblood of our Armed Forces, and most especially about recruiting to the Army.
Gurkha recruits complete their trianing at Catterick, but do the Armed Forces have sufficient manpower?Gurkha recruits complete their trianing at Catterick, but do the Armed Forces have sufficient manpower?
Gurkha recruits complete their trianing at Catterick, but do the Armed Forces have sufficient manpower?

It is not an idle boast that the British Army is, man for man, probably the best fighting force in the world.

In the Falklands, the Gulf, Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone and, most recently, Iraq and Afghanistan, both our enemies and their allies have been deeply impressed by the fitness, determination, courage, professionalism and, most especially, humanity of our Armed Forces.

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The answer is simple and not, I suspect, much understood outside the Armed Forces and those who have been lucky enough to serve in them. In no other army in the world can a soldier depend on the men around him in the way that he can in the British Army.

From Waterloo to Alamein, from Goose Green to the Euphrates, from Bosnia to Basra and Helmand, British soldiers and commandos have proved time again that they can face tremendous odds and triumph.

A soldier will likely say that the key to that confidence is their discipline and training. It is therefore a matter of the first importance that the system that produces young men and women of that calibre must not be altered in such a way that it will produce only pale imitations of what is required.

So far the Army has held the line, but only just. It is a constant battle for all three services to fight off politically correct notions that are, rightly, anathema to the ethos of the Armed Forces.

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They require a very high standard of personal conduct, respect for the law, teamwork, cohesion, trust and a highly developed sense of duty. After training, these men and women are no ordinary people, and they may well be asked to do extraordinary things. For the soldiers of today and tomorrow, as for their forebears, warfare will continue to represent the ultimate physical and moral challenge.

They may have to take part in a terrifying contest of wills that inevitably leads to death, terror, bloodshed and destruction. They will encounter extreme danger, in rapidly changing circumstances, amid conditions of chaos and uncertainty. Their skills and the quality of their leadership, weapons and equipment will be severely tested.

Such operations can be sustained only by highly trained men and women, motivated by a service ethos and absolute confidence in their training, by pride in their traditions and institutions, by comradeship and an exceptional level of team spirit, by the emotional, intellectual and moral qualities that lead people to put their lives on the line, and of course by loyalty, patriotism, and an enduring belief in essentially British values and an unshakeable determination to defend them.

I remind Ministers of what Lord Wavell said in his famous lecture on generalship. His words are very apposite. He said: “In the last resort, the end of all military training, the settling of all policy, the ordering of all weaponry and all that goes into the makings of the Armed Forces is that the deciding factor in battle will always be this: That sooner or later, private so-and-so will, of his own free will and in the face of great danger, uncertainty and chaos have to advance to his front in the face of the enemy.”

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If all that goes wrong, after all the training, intensive preparation, provision of equipment and vast expenditure, the system has failed. So far it has not failed. The Armed Forces have never let us down, but the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and Parliament must see to it that the state does not let them down by failing to resource them adequately for the hugely demanding tasks that are placed upon them. Although I am all for the Army adapting its recruiting to some vaguely woolly notions if it really feels it has to, it is important that we continue to get the outstanding young men and women whom we are so lucky to have in our Armed Forces, and that the training does indeed prepare them for what might come.

The Ministry of Defence made a huge mistake when it let the contract for recruiting to Capita, which has made a real pig’s ear of it. It was done much better and much more efficiently when the Ministry of Defence retained recruiting offices all over the country.

They had vast local knowledge and were staffed by officers and senior non-commissioned officers, who were all highly experienced. They took the greatest possible trouble with the selection of recruits and were better able to guide those recruits towards well-thought-out careers. It is much more effective for the Armed Forces to leave recruiting to the military staff who actually know what is wanted.

I conclude by saying this: I do not mean to sound like a stick-in-the-mud, but touchy-feely political correctness has absolutely no role whatever in the British Army. The services have so much to offer young men and women, many of whom join up to acquire very valuable skills, but all of whom, in their basic training and beyond, require courage, toughness, resilience and skill at arms. They are truly some of our very finest young men and women. I accept that the Army must do what it thinks it needs to do to get people to join, but I think it ought to be extremely cautious about the message that it sends outside.

Sir Nicholas Soames is a Tory MP and grandson of Sir Winston Churchill. He spoke in a Parliamentary debate on the Armed Forces – this is an edited version.