Sep 21, 2015

Simpkin's iceberg

Something quite surprising happened yesterday: a British general, speaking anonymously, said that the army would mutiny rather than serve under Jeremy Corbyn.

The general staff would not allow a prime minister to jeopardise the security of this country and I think people would use whatever means possible, fair or foul to prevent that. You can’t put a maverick in charge of a country’s security. There would be mass resignations at all levels and you would face the very real prospect of an event which would effectively be a mutiny.

This is astounding: a serving officer threatening a military coup in a Western democracy. Or is it?


Brigadier Richard Simpkin has, through his magnum opus Race to the Swift, been a considerable influence on my thinking. I re-read it as I was working on my thesis, and one particular section struck me again, as it's done in the past. In chapter 15, The Supple Chain, Simpkin is discussing the choice between a professional and a conscript army. He takes rather a rosy view of conscription, but the interesting bit is when he moves on to talk about professional armies.

By contrast I have lost count of the number of United Nations members ruled by their military or by governments placed and kept in power by the armed forces. We now know that practically anything can 'happen here', whether here in Britain, the Federal Republic, France, the Netherlands or the United States. So let us for the moemtn [sic] focus on the political threat implicit in the existence of long-service standing forces.

One saw first the danger in Britain in the sixties, with the ending of conscription and the butchery of the reserve forces. Even where strong local links exist, the standing forces, notably the Regular Army, have become divorced from society as a whole. This is perhaps no more than an accentuation of a trend which has been evident in England since the days of Cromwell, and was one of our earlier and more enduring exports to the United States. Over the past 25 years, however, the tip of an exceptionally ugly and menacing iceberg has manifested itself more than once in Britain, France, Germany and the United States. Prudence dictates gobbledygook here. Se let us content ourselves with "extra-parliamentary activity of a paramilitary nature", and let who runs read.
- Race to the Swift, Brassey's 2000 reprint, pp. 250-251.

The very last bit is a biblical reference. From the context, it seems clear that Simpkin is talking about the threat of the professional armed forces interfering in the political process. Unfortunately he then leaves it at that and moves on to his next point. Prudent, no doubt, especially from a general officer, but I can't help being fascinated by this passage. I've tried to find some exegesis or commentary of this and have failed, so it's time to crush prudence to the sward and try to decipher this on my own.

The reference to Germany, I think, must be to his belief that Willy Brandt was framed (Race to the Swift, p. 285). It's absolutely fascinating that Simpkin, who was fluent in German and had ties to the Bundeswehr, seems to have thought that the German armed forces were involved in ousting Brandt. If the reference is to something else, then I have no idea what it might be. A 25-year time frame from the 1984 publication of Race to the Swift strongly suggests that the French reference is to the Algiers putsch, which must anyhow be the first instance that comes to anyone's mind on the subject. A conventional interpretation of the American reference would be General Walker and the John Birch Society, which would fit the timeframe. So, of course, does the Kennedy assassination.

But when a British general officer mentions "extra-parliamentary activity of a paramilitary nature" in the UK, this has to be the focus of interest. Again, an obvious reference is to the Troubles, specifically the collusion between the British Army and Ulster "loyalists". But is that what he means? As nasty as the secret war in Ireland undoubtedly was, is Simpkin really comparing it to the Algiers putsch? My interpretation is that what he's referring to is the coup plot against Harold Wilson. For Simpkin to mention it in the same list as Algiers is, in my opinion, significant. Leaving aside the MI5 angle - I've read Peter Wright's Spycatcher and didn't quite know what to think of it, but Christopher Andrew's official history is unsatisfactory, especially given his own comments on it - to me, Simpkin's brief statement here has been a strong reason to take the allegations of a military coup plot against Wilson more seriously than I otherwise might. Again, I can't think of anything else he could be referring to. If there's something I'm missing, do let me know!


This argument that professional armies will become more divorced from societies than conscript armies is quite a common one. What's rarely stated is the flip side: a society less distant from its armed forces is also a more militarized one. Simpkin also talks about the fading away of western "bellicism", or the belief that war is, if not actually virtuous, then at least an excellent way of settling differences. Even today, western countries mostly tend to see military violence as a policy to use against overseas others, whereas in the past war was the go-to solution in the metropole as well. My question would be whether this increased distance between the people and armed forces isn't both a cause and effect of the downward trend of bellicism. Our public understanding of conscription as indoctrination is sadly deficient.

But nonetheless, although I'm quite sure that most of us Europeans think of military coups as something that happens to other countries overseas, this isn't actually the case. For a Finnish example, see the Mäntsälä rebellion, which had supporters throughout the army. With better (read: less drunk) leadership, the movement might have become a national insurrection, and crucially, it had so many friends in the army that had Finland not been fortunate enough to have had a commander of the defence forces so dedicated to democracy, it's more than likely that Finnish democracy would have ended in the 1930's.

So the anynomous general's comments in the Sunday Times are quite surprising, but hardly unprecedented. The specter of military intervention in domestic politics has hovered over quite a few Western democracies in the cold war years, and the massively militarized xenophobia of the "war on terror" will hardly have exorcised it. It's not a law of nature that Western countries should be democracies; for the vast majority of their history, they've been anything but. To echo Simpkin, practically anything can, indeed, happen here!


Aaro Sahari said...

there's new research coming out about Northern Ireland and the militarisation of police forces in the UK during the middle part of the 20th century. It seems there are many linkages based on my numerous discussions with the person doing this stuff. I'll try to keep you up to date as (hopefully) this gets published.

Michael Halila said...

Thanks, that'd be awesome!