It's a good rule in a democracy that generals should keep their noses out of politics. So what should we make of today's extraordinary intervention by a group of very senior retired generals (among their number the Conservatives' worryingly loose cannon Richard Dannatt, but also the hitherto exemplary Lord Guthrie) who wrote a joint letter condemning the influence of the BNP? A public-spirited attempt to disassociate the army from neo-fascism? A statement of the obvious, destined merely to give Nick Griffin yet more publicity in advance of his appearance on Question Time this week? Or, as Griffin himself claimed, a Tory plot?
Here's what the braid-bedizened quartet wrote:
We call on all those who seek to hijack the good name of Britain’s military for their own advantage to cease and desist. The values of these extremists — many of whom are essentially racist — are fundamentally at odds with the values of the modern British military, such as tolerance and fairness.
They seem to be referring to the party's use of World War II imagery such as pictures of Spitfires and Winston Churchill: The Times spoke of "widespread frustration within the Forces at the fact that the BNP is allowed to portray itself as the party of patriots in its literature". And it's obvious why they should want to single out the racist BNP in this way. However, hijacking the good name of Britain's military for their own advantage is scarcely a BNP preserve. Most politicians try from time to time to curry favour with the electorate by wrapping themselves in the Union Jack. Gordon Brown does it every week in the House of Commons.
Worse, emoting with moistened eyes about the heroic sacrifice of our troops has become a substitute for debate about what we are doing in Afghanistan and how long we are going to be doing it. Indeed, it has become the standard way of deflecting debate. Griffin's invocation of Britain's historic stand against Nazi Germany is in poor taste - and, of course, somewhat ironic given the philosophical roots and still-extant sympathies of his organisation. But it's a side-issue compared with, for example, the poor standard of military housing.
I was even more struck by the claim that "tolerance and fairness" represented "the values of the modern British military". Tolerance and fairness are all very well in their place, but aren't much use in combat. Like the police before it, the army now finds itself under siege by the forces of modernisation, with its morale-sapping drives towards diversity, health and safety and human rights compliance. The aim is to make it better reflective of the society which it is supposed to defend. More gender-balanced, gay-friendly, non-racist, committed to "progressive" goals of developing human potential. A politically correct army that ticks all the currently fashionable boxes. The sort of army you can bring home to your Guardian-reading mother (if you are unfortunate enough to possess such a thing). An army that loses wars.
"When the blast of war blows in our ears, Shakespeare's Henry V advised his troops at Harfleur, "then imitate the action of the tiger". But that was a long time ago. These days things more cuddly-feely. Sailors go to sea clutching ipods and turn to jelly when confronted by a few Iranians with rifles. And then they sell the story of their personal hell to the newspapers. The British are less cowardly than the Italians, who pay their enemies to leave them alone; less cautious than the Germans, who in a strange historical reversal make sure there are no enemies in the vicinity in the first place; and less technologically obsessed than the Americans, who don't mind blasting away at the enemy so long as the enemy is in no position to fire back. The British army, unlike most of its Western allies, still contains fighting men. But the rot has undoubtedly begun to set in - and like the rotting of a fish, it starts at the top.
In an ideal world, there would be no contradiction between a military that embodied liberal principles of "tolerance and fairness" and a battle-hardened killing machine. But we don't live in an ideal world. And if, for reasons partly political, partly cultural, partly the result of historical drift, we prefer to have a nice army, we can't expect it to win anything. The Taliban, currently doing much better than NATO in Afghanistan (as anyone who can look past the domestic spin will be well aware) don't do cuddly. They don't do tolerance or non-racism or non-discrimination. And they sure as hell don't do gay-friendly or gender balance. The point isn't that we should want to emulate the Taliban, or that tolerance and fairness are bad things. The point is that the Taliban are winning.
But why are senior generals so keen to jump on the anti-BNP bandwagon? Explaining how much you really hate the BNP is of course an easy way of demonstrating moral virtue in today's Britain. But it's also part of an organised campaign. James Bethell and Tim Montgomerie set up "Nothing British" in March to, as their report Stolen Valour (available via their website) puts it,
help protect Britain’s fragile qualities of freedom, tolerance and fairness from the forces of extremism and racism sweeping Europe, represented by the British National Party, its surrogates and other neo-fascist splinter groups.
This is an admirable aim. Or at least it would be if (1) Britain's qualities of freedom and tolerance were "fragile" (they're not) or (2) if the main threat to them came from the BNP. These "qualities" - which Gordon Brown likes to call "British values", as though they existed nowhere else - face their greatest challenge from the government itself, which has spent twelve years preaching and passing illiberal legislation, and from the dissatisfaction produced by the radical transformation of society that there has been. At most, the BNP feed off anger that is widespread among certain sections of the population. They even help to stoke it up. And of course it's reprehensible. But, other than gaining a few council seats and, latterly, two MEPs, I struggle to identify what precisely the BNP has done that makes it such a danger to democracy. They do not appear to be orchestrating race-riots. Their councillors, when elected, behave much like any other councillors. They appeal only to a relatively small minority of voters - and while they have grown from a small base, that has been accompanied by moves (feigned as they might well be) towards the political mainstream.
Whenever he is interviewed (which is increasingly often, given the media's strange obsession with his party) Nick Griffin strives to appear rational and moderate. His dissent from centrist politics is expressed in the language of cheap populism rather than cranky race-hate. He denies being a Holocaust denier. Yes, of course his policies are ugly, and he is a smooth media-friendly face of a party that contains many thugs. But that is because he realises that without mitigating the BNP's excesses he would have no political future. And the reason for that is simple: the values of freedom, tolerance and fairness are not "fragile", but deeply rooted. If they can survive New Labour, they can survive Nick Griffin's appearance on Question Time.
Reading Nothing British's report, I find myself getting increasingly alarmed. Convinced that the BNP represents a huge threat to democracy, Bethell and Montgomerie claim that there's a need "to understand the causes of the anger and frustration" - which they put down to "policy failures". And while they say they want to appeal to "Britain's inherently benign values", they also recommend "brave solutions that sometimes challenge the liberal Establishment’s orthodoxy". In other words, they believe that the only way of defeating the BNP is to embrace some of its policies.
In a paranoia-drenched foreword, Charles Moore writes that "the military is under a new attack" and that "a newly-confident generation of neo-fascists are cynically exploiting the reputation of the military with enormous energy" and with "with the slick marketing tools of modern communications". He means that Nick Griffin appears on a platform with a picture of a Spitfire in the background. He also means
YouTube videos, political roadshows, dividing lines [what are dividing lines?cm], Photo-shopped imagery, Astro-turf community groups, FaceBook communities, even the cover of charitable social action.
I'm not sure what "dividing lines" are either. I must say, though, I'm impressed by Moore's mastery of Web 2.0 jargon. But really, what is this all about? So some BNP activists use the internet. It's not evidence of their insidious success, it's an admission of failure.
There's a Reds under the Beds quality to some of Nothing British's suggestions. They worry about racists infiltrating Remembrance Day events and urge the Charities Commission "to be vigilant about those who solicit donations under false pretences". And then there's this:
Nothing British also asks for greater care to be applied to the mental health of troops returning from combat, particularly those suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. This is to protect disgruntled service personnel from being the victims of prey from racists who seek to exploit their highly specialised skills learned during their time in the military.
The mental health of returning and former servicemen is an important issue, and a neglected one. But I find rather offensive the suggestion that they should be looked after primarily because they are vulnerable to racists. They are vulnerable and deserve support; that's all that matters.
The people behind Nothing British are right to object to the BNP's appropriation of patriotic imagery. But they are wrong to make too big a deal of it. And they are very wrong indeed to if they think that the way to counteract the BNP's influence is to take on board its legitimate concerns or to adopt its less extreme policies. Labour has been playing that game for some years now, with ghastly results (including increased levels of support for the BNP). Nothing British is a largely Conservative-based group - though it has no direct connection with the party - and Tim Montgomerie writes today that "the Left are ill-equipped to fight the kind of extremism represented by the BNP", since they lack the patriotic instincts and "tough-but-fair" immigration policies to tempt away their supporters.
That may be so. But there is not a jot of evidence that the BNP have anything approaching the level of support they would need to translate their policies into reality. Nor - unless the economy implodes like the Weimar republic - is there any prospect of that even happening. At least so long as mainstream politicians don't feel the need to give them a helping hand.