Last weekend, The Duke of Edinburgh was laid to rest at the grand old age of 99. I was grateful for the opportunity to attend a memorial service to the Duke’s life and to pay tribute to his lifetime of public service. Prince Philip’s was a life of extraordinary variety. From his service as the long-serving consort to the Queen throughout their 73 years of marriage; to the inspiration he provided to millions of young people – including (many moons ago!) me on an unforgettable expedition up the Himalayas – through the Duke of Edinburgh Awards Scheme. His was truly a life well-lived.
I particularly wanted to reflect on the Duke’s military service during the Second World War. As an officer in the Royal Navy he saw active duty from the Mediterranean to the Far East. He distinguished himself and was mentioned in dispatches. The medals he wore from that conflict were hard earned and a reflection of his fortitude and bravery. Moreover, his passing is a reminder that the lives of those veterans who served in the Second World War are passing from living memory into the pages of history. We must cherish those who remain while we can and ensure that their legacy is not forgotten.
Alongside commemorating those previous generations who risked their lives to keep our country safe, we have a duty to those who are currently serving in our Armed Forces. A duty to ensure that they have the resources needed to protect our country from harm.
In the decade since I left the Army the strategic context in which our Armed Forces operate has shifted hugely. The rise of China and the resurgence of Russia pose new challenges that our Armed Forces must rise to. Although the strategic context may have changed, the professionalism, resilience and adaptability of those who still serve, has not. They are undoubtedly our finest asset.
It therefore beggars belief that Government are stripping back the British Army to a level not seen for 300 years. While the number of service personnel is set to be reduced, it appears that what they’re expected to achieve will stay the same. The Government’s Review into our defence capability and commitments does not suggest we will reduce any of our commitments. The UK will remain the leading European partner in NATO; maintain our responsibilities in the Middle East and Africa; and expand our role in the Indo-Pacific.
It is absolutely right that Britain plays a leading role on the global stage and fulfils our commitments to our international friends and allies. But that cannot be achieved at the same time as our Armed Forces are being cut. Trying to do more with fewer resources is a recipe for disaster.
When the Prime Minister pledged to maintain the size of our Armed Forces he was right to do so. We’re now being told that size no longer matters because the threat has changed. But as I put to Defence Secretary last month in Parliament, if the threat has changed so much, so quickly, what’s to say it will not change again?
In response, I was told any future proposals to increase manning would be supported. But of course, it isn’t that simple. Retaining talent is far easier and cheaper than recruiting it. A principle that is especially true when applied to our service personnel.
We would do well to remember that technology evolves. The one thing that remains constant is people. We should also remember that our people are among the very best in the world. They are our ultimate insurance policy.