The UK’s new Minister of Defence, Bob Ainsworth, gave his first public speech on Wednesday 8 July at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House), wordled below. Now, Ainsworth, unlike his predecessors, has previous in the area of defence, as in he was Minister of State for the Armed Forces from June 2007, so he’s pretty much up to speed on what it’s all about. Further, he’s known as a straight talker.
So his first speech as Minister of Defence could have been expected to be a no-nonsense justification of UK military operations and presence in Helmand, especially with casualty rates amongst his troops currently so appalingly high, which has given the media extra focus on Afghanistan. The circumstances, unfortunate and saddening as they are, the timing and the platform gave an opportunity for the MoD to give heightened voice to a message which is not being heard by the British public, a message clearly articulating why the UK is doing what it’s doing, and suffering because of it, in a far off counry.
Indeed, Ainsworth was refreshingly forthright, admitting that the problems faced are grave and serious. Further, he did attempt to show signs of a strategy, articulating several steps necessary, many already under way, to stabilise the situation and reach an ‘end state’, not an end date. Indeed, he stated that ‘more lives will be lost and our resolve will be tested’ – no pulling of punches here. In fact, that was the message received by the media, as scores of headlines, from the BBC to the tabloids reiterated the warning of further lives being lost.
Yet as to explaining why, an opportunity was missed. Of the 2943 words of the speech, only 220 words, less than 10%, were invested in that crucial element of explaining why. Any message explaining why it is vital that the UK continue to puts its people in harm’s way was drowned out, if really attempted at all.
The MoD itself seemed to be caught up in its own tight worldview, panglossian in its attempt to be seen to be filling this yawning information gap. As can be seen from its own website, despite the lack of real attempt to deal with the ‘why’ question, MoD were keen to portray the speech as one in which “Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth has given a speech today explaining why the British Armed Forces are on operations in Afghanistan”.
Unfortunately he didn’t. A fine speech it may have been, but it didn’t do what it says on the tin.
Of course it would be naive to think that good old-fashioned politics would merely allow such a speech to go ahead. Yet politics is about power and influence and retaining it. And modern democratic politics cannot achieve such things without an informed public. With operations at high tempo, and serving personnel working bloody hard to achieve their objectives, and suffering in order to do so, the media ensures that Afghanistan remains in the spotlight in the eyes of the public. Under this spotlight and with a new, straight talking Minister, there is a window of opportunity to articulate the governments reasons for pursuing such a difficult course, to inform its public so they may at least understand. Those at Chatham House might understand (and remember this was a public speech – Chatham House was the location not the audience), CB3 might understand, most journalists might understand, but the majority of the British public remain unclear as to why our Armed Forces are being asked to do what they are doing. The window of opportunity for changing that won’t stay open for long.