Booker Column 18 June (reproduced here in full)
One reason why British troops continue to be killed and injured in southern Iraq is that they are expected to patrol in lightly-armoured Land Rovers which give them no protection against roadside bombs and rocket-propelled grenades, Meanwhile their American counterparts walk away unscathed, even when their RG31 armoured patrol vehicles are hit by the same explosives, because these are designed to protect them against precisely the same dangers. Yet the Ministry of Defence has not seen fit to equip the British Army with the RG31, even though it is built by a British-owned company.
This is a small but chilling example of the extraordinary shambles the MoD is making of Britains defences, thanks not least to the way Tony Blair is trying to pursue two totally contradictory policies at the same time, This has not been properly appreciated because media coverage of defence has become so scrappy that we have lost sight of the overall picture.
We hear, for instance, about prosecutions of British soldiers for supposed human rights abuses, the abolition of ancient regiments and some of the more ambitious defence projects on which the MoD is spending tens of billions of pounds, such as the Eurofighter or the two giant aircraft carriers planned for the Royal Navy. But no one fits all the pieces of this jigsaw together.
On one hand, as we saw yet again with his recent visit to Washington, Mr Blair tries to keep in with the Americans, by committing thousands of hard-pressed and ill-equipped British troops to fighting the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bush and Blair still like to talk of keeping alive the Joint Strike Fighter project, the last major example of Anglo-US collaboration on military hardware.
On the other, as we saw again with his subsequent visit to President Chirac, Mr Blair has stealthily agreed to Britain playing a key role in the planned European Rapid Reaction Force. For this he and the MoD have been prepared to restructure the British Army, scrapping the old regiments, and to commit colossal sums to buying every kind of European equipment, as well as those giant carriers we are to build with the French. All this is to meet the Helsinki goals agreed by EU leaders including Mr Blair in 1999, by which an integrated European defence force is to be brought about.
For the MoD, the top priority has been to get on with meeting those Helsinki commitments, co-ordinated by the European Defence Agency in Brussels, headed by a former senior MoD official Nick Witney, which will enable us to play our part in creating that EU expeditionary force. To this end the MoD has been prepared to spend billions on EU-made missiles, ships, trucks, artillery and armoured vehicles, not to mention a French-led project to build unmanned aircraft which Blair discussed with Chirac earlier this month, following Britains withdrawal from a similar joint-project with the US.
But what this has left is a British Army starved of proper resources for its current tasks, so overstretched that it must rely on thousands of territorial soldiers, its morale sapped by the dangerous lack of proper equipment and by the MoDs insistence on enforcing the European Convention on Human Rights in situations to which it was never intended to apply.
The real problem is that all this has been so hidden away behind layers of stealth and deception that no one ever asks any longer that fundamental question: what are our armed forces for? Behind the scenes, the driving force of national policy is to fit us to play our part in building up a European expeditionary force, capable of operating anywhere in the world. But no one can explain the purpose of such a force, for essentially it has only one: to promote the cause of European integration.
This leaves us, in an increasingly darkling world, with forces ill-designed to protect any national British interests. Indeed, so dependent are we now becoming on equipment bought from our EU partners, including our most basic guns and ammunition, that it will soon be inconceivable that we could operate without their consent.
Meanwhile our armed services, which until recently we still prided ourselves on being the most professional in the world, are being asked to perform dangerous tasks, knowing that they no longer have much practical support from a Government bent on exploiting them politically, for purposes they find it increasingly hard to understand.
When the final charge sheet is drawn up against the way Mr Blair governed this country, one of the most damning charges will be the way in which he destroyed its armed forces. Yet the remarkable thing will be how almost nobody at the time noticed it was happening.
Few people south of the border are yet aware of the tragedy unfolding in Scotland, where there are now proposals for 200 wind farms, from Sutherland and the Isle of Lewis down to the Borders. These include no fewer than 6,622 turbines, many 400 feet high, covering more than 1,000 square miles. If all these are built, according to the Scottish Wind Assessment Project, which has just published a map of these sites, there will be scarcely a single view in Scotland where you cannot see one of these windmills.
Last week I spoke to Olive Repton, a 74-year old farmer in Dumfriesshire, one of thousands of campaigners against this devastation of Scotlands countryside. On Wedesday a public inquiry opened into a proposal for 71 colossal turbines to dominate the hills where she has farmed for decades. Another opens shortly into a proposal for 161 more in the nearby Upper Clyde valley.
Few of these schemes will be turned down because the Scottish Executive is so infatuated by the fantasy of wind power that by 2020 it dreams of generating 40 percent of Scotlands energy from renewable sources, double its EU target. What makes this so alarming is that wind turbines are so inefficient and expensive that, economically, they make no sense at all (without the hidden 100 percent subsidy paid by all of us through our electricity bills, it would not pay anyone to build them), As for their supposed environmental benefits, not only are these absurdly overstated in terms of combating global warming; somehow, in environmental terms, the loss of Scotlands unique landscape to these vast steel structures is never taken into account.
Forty years ago we pointlessly sacrificed the skylines of our cities to building tower blocks of council flats, many of which have since had to be demolished. When this mad obsession with turbines comes to be seen as a similar fantasy, who will then restore the wild beauty of those Scottish hills?
Who holds the record for the largest number of complaints made to the Standards Board for England under Mr Prescotts Code of Conduct for councillors? In March I reported that Richard Thomas, a town councillor in Shaftesbury, Dorset, had been the subject of 10 complaints from his colleagues. All were eventually rejected, one costing council taxpayers over #20,000.
Although Councillor Thomas now tells me he has since been the subject of two further complaints, bringing his score to 12, he points out that his own efforts are dwarfed by the 36 complaints made against Lib Dem Cabinet members of Cheltenham borough council by Christine Laird, the councils former chief executive. This long running battle between Ms Laird and senior local councillors is estimated to have cost taxpayers nearly #400,000, before she was sacked.
Not the least striking feature of Mr Prescotts system is the way it can poison relations between councillors and officials by encouraging them to sneak on each other by raising nitpicking complaints, the vast majority of which are then found to be groundless. But for both taxpayers and councillors this is proving to be an expensive sport, as in the notorious saga when a three-year investigation of complaints made by a Labour councillor against five Lib Dem members of Islington council ended up costing more than #1 million. This included a bill of #350,000 for the legal fees the victims had to pay to clear their names. At least in that case the Standards Board was good enough eventually to apologise. But might it not save a great deal of trouble if the whole absurd system was scrapped?
The Cheshire villagers invited by the police to pay #423 per household for the services of a dedicated community support officer live not in Malpas, as I wrote last week, but in the nearby hamlet of Chorlton, which shares its postal address.
A friendly letter from Diageo points out that Smirnoff would not be affected by a Brussels proposal that the term vodka could only be used for products distilled from potatoes or grain, because it is made from grain. It would not therefore have to be renamed white spirit, unlike vodkas made from other materials such as sugar beet, or that which Diageo makes in France from grape skins.
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