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June 19th, 2019

British democracy and the power of the military: too much or too little?

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Estimated reading time: 5 minutes


June 19th, 2019

British democracy and the power of the military: too much or too little?

0 comments | 11 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the escalation of Britain’s involvement in Afghanistan in 2006, the British military have gone from being highly popular to spectacularly popular. This has been achieved in spite of the widespread perception that the two wars were failures. Why, then, has the military become so popular and does this represent a threat to British democracy? Paul Dixon explains.

In the Hansard Society’s 2019 ‘Audit of Political Engagement’, the military topped the survey suggesting that 74% of public opinion had most confidence in the military/armed forces to act in the best interests of the public. 32% had complete confidence and 42% a ‘fair amount of confidence’. By contrast, just 29-34% had confidence in political actors.

The military has always been one of the UK’s most respected institutions, alongside the NHS and the BBC. There was a dip in popularity after the invasion of Iraq. Since 2005, ‘favourable’ opinions of the armed forces have gone from a low of 54% in 2005 to 88% in 2017. Most significantly, those having a ‘very favourable’ impression have gone from 14% to 61%.

Public sympathy for the military is important because it can constrain the extent to which politicians are able to control the armed forces.

The Militarisation Offensive 2006

On 12 October 2006, General Dannatt, head of the British Army, broke constitutional convention and publicly attacked the Labour government. In an interview for the Daily Mail, Dannatt argued that Britain should withdraw from Iraq and claimed that the government and nation had broken the ‘Military Covenant’. This was the opening shot of a ‘Militarisation Offensive’ to extend the power of the armed forces.

The Covenant, some claimed, dated back to the days of the Duke of Wellington, or was as old as soldiering itself. In reality, the Covenant was invented by the army in 2000. After Dannatt’s interview, however, the concept took off and was referenced in the Armed Services Act 2011.

The Military Covenant was so vague it could be endorsed by right-wing militarists and left-wing anti-imperialists. Right wing militarists saw the Covenant as a way of extending militarisation and creating special privileges for the military that might generate public support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and bolster recruitment. Left-wing anti-imperialists could support the Covenant as a way of achieving fair treatment for working class soldiers who were victims of imperialist wars.

The ‘Militarisation Offensive’ was galvanised by ‘Moral Panic’. The right-wing press attempted to generate further support for the military and the wars they were fighting by highlighting, exaggerating or even inventing allegations of discrimination against or insults to military personnel. A ‘Report of Inquiry into National Recognition of Our Armed Forces’ (2008) found very few ‘unpleasant incidents’ of discrimination against the armed forces.

Stab in the back?

The military elite’s power and popularity have been achieved by blaming politicians for failure in Iraq and Afghanistan and that they were ‘stabbed in the back’. The ‘dominant military narrative’ blames the politicians for over-stretching the military by fighting two wars, the ‘bad’ war in Iraq and the ‘good’ war in Afghanistan. The politicians lacked the will and determination to rally domestic public opinion by putting the country on a ‘war footing’. The military were left with a shortage of equipment, inadequate troops numbers, and without clear political leadership.

In Afghanistan the military constantly claimed that they were ‘learning, adapting and winning’. By 2009-11 the counterinsurgency strategy and ‘surge’ was winning the war just at the moment the politicians decided to withdraw from combat. The implication is that the power of the military should be increased so that in the future, it has greater resources and control over the conduct of war.

The power of the Generals

The ‘Dominant Military Narrative’ is problematic. There is growing evidence, particularly from The Chilcot Report (2016), of the military’s responsibility for failure in Iraq and Afghanistan. The problem is not that the military elite lack power, but that they have too much power to shape policy.

The Chilcot Report suggested that it was the military, and particularly the army, that pushed for maximum British involvement in the invasion of Iraq. The size and composition of the UK military contribution to the invasion was ‘largely discretionary’. The British military used their connections with the US military to get the US President to put pressure on Prime Minister Tony Blair for a strong contribution to the invasion. The President would have been satisfied by a limited British military contribution to the invasion. But the army would have been left out of such a force and so lobbied for a maximum deployment that involved about 46,000 British service personnel.

The British military elite sought the mission to Helmand in Afghanistan, in 2006, as redemption for failure in Southern Iraq. They reassured the politicians that they could simultaneously fight two wars. The ‘high risk’ assumption was made that as the troops drew down from Iraq they would be re-deployed to Afghanistan. The Helmand mission was sold to the politicians and the public as ‘peacekeeping’. There is some evidence, however, that intelligence was withheld from politicians about the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan for fear it would jeopardise the deployment. Soon after troops went in the army changed the mission from peacekeeping to war-fighting. Some claim that this had always been the intention of the military. The change of mission led to some of the most severe fighting since the Korean War.

The military were overstretched and in crisis. In September 2006, General Dannatt stated that the military was ‘running hot’ and could only “just” cope.

Politicians in Power?

General Dannatt’s attack in the Daily Mailwas trumping the government and setting strategy’. In public, Tony Blair announced that “he agreed with every word” of Dannatt’s interview. In private, the Prime Minister considered sacking him but, with good reason, feared an adverse public reaction. An ICM opinion poll for the Sunday Express suggested that 71% of the British people believed Dannatt should not be sacked for saying that the British presence in Iraq was making the security situation there worse.

Gordon Brown recounts in My Life, Our Times his struggle with the military. A militarist alliance – comprising some in the media, the Conservative opposition, and groups in civil society – was putting intense pressure on the Prime Minister. When the Chief of Defence Staff asked for an additional 500 troops, Brown wanted a public guarantee ‘that each of them was properly equipped for the tasks ahead’. Brown, criticised Dannatt for crossing a line by publicly identifying with the Conservative Party. He quotes a constitutional expert, ‘To abandon the principle of a non-political army would be a catastrophe’.

The Conservative Opposition had allied with the military to attack the Labour government. In government, however, Prime Minister David Cameron also struggled with the power of the military. He claimed that he had been alarmed at the way the Army chiefs ran rings around Gordon Brown, colluding with The Sun to whip up support for the troops ‘to gain financial leverage for more equipment and more men’.

There was tension between Cameron and the Chief of Defence Staff, David Richards, because Cameron felt Richards was briefing the media and preparing to blame him in the event of failure in Libya. In June 2011 the Prime Minister responded to public pressure from the military: ‘I tell you what, you do the fighting and I’ll do the talking’.

In 2015 the military, after intense pressure, won the Conservative government’s pledge to commit 2% GDP to defence spending. Remarkably, the Corbyn-led Labour party embraced the 2% target in its general election manifesto in 2017.

There is emerging evidence, most notably from The Chilcot Report, that the military manoeuvred to achieve maximum British military involvement in both the Iraq and Afghan wars. Yet the legacy of the two wars has been a spectacular increase in the popularity and confidence in the military. This has been in spite of growing evidence that it was the military elite that were responsible for overstretch and the military crisis. War was good for the military organisation and this creates further incentives to embark on future unwinnable wars.


Note: the above draws on the author’s published work in Parliamentary Affairs.

About the Author

Paul Dixon is Honorary Research Fellow at Birkbeck College, University of London. He is the author of Warrior Nation: War, Militarisation and British Democracy (2018) and Performing the Northern Ireland Peace Process: In Defence of Politics (2018). He is working on a book on the Iraq and Afghan wars.



All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay (Public Domain).

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This work by British Politics and Policy at LSE is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported.