Journalist and historian Peter Hennessy meets former chief of the defence staff General Sir David Richards to discuss Whitehall’s internal wars, and the need for truly strategic thinking in Whitehall
David Richards and I first met, chilled to the marrow, during a blizzard at the end of a Norwegian fjord inside the Arctic Circle. Then an artillery officer attached to the Royal Marines, he explained to this young man from The Times and my fellow journalists why, if the Cold War ever turned hot, deploying the Army’s new light gun would be problematic. The Fleet Air Arms’ old Wessex helicopters couldn’t lift the gun, and procurement of the more powerful Sea Kings had fallen victim to a defence review. We hacks wrote up the story. There was a row. The Navy got the Sea Kings.
“I got into a little bit of trouble for talking too freely to you, incidentally,” says General Richards, as we begin another interview in quite different circumstances: last year he retired after three years in the country’s top military job, chief of the defence staff (CDS). Inwardly, I hope that he hasn’t lost the habit of talking freely. I suspect that he hasn’t.
Richards’ first contacts with Whitehall came more than 20 years after he’d joined up in early 1971, after leaving school. In what frame of mind did he encounter the civil service in the mid-1990s? “I was full of prejudices, as one is. Even then, we rather pejoratively referred to them as ‘suits’. It implied superiority on our part. What I rapidly realised – and I was mixing with middle-ranking civil servants, on the whole – is that they were much more capable than the military prejudice had suggested might be the case and… I was constantly being educated as to the nature of the civil service people around me.”
“What did you come to learn of them?”
“They are loyal to their own creed.”
“What is their creed?”
“I was always trying to do the best for the Army and then the Armed Forces, regardless of cost, and would push the envelope as much as I could. Whereas the civil service – particularly the more senior, as I was CGS [chief of the general staff, the top Army officer] and CDS – were very clear that they felt obliged to stick to [rules], whereas I viewed them as a guide only. And there’s a constructive tension in that.”
How did MoD officials react as the rising David Richards shoved away at that envelope?
They “jealously protected their right of access and influence over ministers,” he replies. “Even as CDS, I found some civil servants quite obstructive if they knew that my line was different to theirs. They’d do a lot to avoid me getting it to ministers. It was almost a gamem which I quite enjoyed playing in a way. And sometimes you won, sometimes you lost.”
General Richards exudes what Lloyd George called ‘push and go’. This led some senior officials in MoD to detect overmighty tendencies in him when he was CDS. One of them, a friend of his and a man he admires, said in an internal MoD communication that if Richards got what he wanted, he would become the most powerful military figure since Cromwell.
What had he done to generate such a reaction? He wanted the First Sea Lord, the CGS and the Chief of the Air Staff to formally come under the command of the CDS, rather than CDS remaining primus inter pares. But he couldn’t persuade his secretary of state, Liam Fox, or prime minister David Cameron.
Why the resistance? “It would make [the CDS] more powerful. The secretary of state didn’t particularly like it, because he would like to divide and rule. The civil service didn’t like it, because it would make the Armed Forces more powerful.”
But he did get somewhere. “As a compensation, I was allowed to create the Armed Forces Committee, which I chaired and which was required to give synthesized advice.”
General Richards still pines for his lost reform – but he thinks events will conspire to bring it about one day, “because as the Armed Forces get smaller, it doesn’t make much sense that four or five people can go and lobby over a probably diminishing cake. You really need to bite the bullet. One person’s appointed head of the Armed Forces, and he should be allowed to synthesize the three services and deliver a single product to politicians and civil servants.”
Lord Richards is an optimistic man. He has bounce and buoyancy. But he has another big regret: that the plan he put together in 2011-12 to build up an Arab (mainly Syrian) army to topple President Assad (“I called it ‘extract, equip and train’,” he says.) did not find favour in London or Washington.
“And this would have toppled Assad, do you think?”
“Without a doubt, we would have won. It would have been successful because psychologically – a lot of war is psychological – the West and the Arabs would have come together with a very clear message that we are going to beat you.”
Lord Richards worries about a lack of appetite for grand, strategic thinking amongst our current set of policy makers. But wasn’t the PM’s single greatest innovation – the creation of the National Security Council – meant to reduce the chances of strategic thinking being crowded out by tactical?
“You’re getting into sensitive territory, Lord Hennessy! I’m a big supporter of the NSC. I think it has the potential to do what you just said. But in my judgement – and people know this in Whitehall – it has yet fully to live up to its promise.”
Because of that strategy gap? “Often we were talking tactics [in the NSC]. We never talked grand strategy; we never talked national strategy… We did talk about strategic issues, obviously. But there’s a big difference between talking about strategic issues and being strategic. I think some people round that table thought – because we were talking about Russia, or Libya, or the Middle East – that we were being strategic, but we weren’t. We didn’t. We were talking about policy goals!”
The NSC is served by the intelligence and security machine – of which, as CDS, Richards was a prime customer. How does he rate the providers and the product?
“It’s very easy to be critical,” he replies. “It’s easy to be sitting in a nice general’s office in the warmth, or in an academic study, or in an editor’s office. That’s why everything I’m saying, I’m saying with – I hope – a certain amount of humility.
“At a tactical level, intelligence is pretty good. But things have taken us by surprise still; and therefore, there’s work to be done in those areas.”
“It’s the Holy Grail, isn’t it? Not being taken by surprise?”
“It is. Libya: no one thought that was going to happen. Egypt. Syria. But it’s a very good system and the people in the intelligence and security services, and GCHQ, are really second to none. So on balance, I’m a huge fan.”
Whitehall is already gearing up for the next National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review, both of which are due in autumn 2015 – the other side of the next general election. General Richards has, naturally, been thinking about them too.
“What did you mean recently when you said we were ‘living off the fumes of the past’?”
“There is a risk that people don’t come to terms with a reduced Britain. The Armed Forces are a lot smaller than even 10 years ago… Money is obviously an issue for the country. And we need to debate again whether or not we have suffered some strategic shrinkage. A man that I’ve got a lot of time for, William Hague, claimed we haven’t. My feeling is that’s probably not the case. And that is why I said if we’re not careful, we’ll be living off the fumes of the past.”
“If I was PM,” I respond, “and I said: ‘Right David, you can have the first paragraph of the next National Security Strategy’, would that be your first sentence? ‘We are in danger of living off the fumes of the past’?”
“Ha! It might be, actually – or words to that effect. And very closely following would be: ‘We, therefore, require to take stock of our position and role in the world and devise a national strategy that maturely reflects it and will ensure that Britain will remain a prosperous and influential country over the next 30 years.”
General Richards hasn’t changed much. At heart, he’s still that candid young officer I met in a blizzard at the end of a Norwegian fjord, inside the Arctic Circle.
Lord Hennessy is the Attlee Professor of Contemporary British History at Queen Mary University of London, and a cross-bench peer. He writes for CSW every other month