2011/03/10 - Sandhurst Foundation Dinner

Speech delivered by Under Secretary of State at the Sandhurst Foundation Dinner, Goodenough College, London on Thursday 10 March 2011.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
Lord Astor of Hever DL

Commandant, ladies and gentlemen, good evening.

General Patrick, thank you for that kind introduction - Lord Astor of Heaven!

Indeed, the names of peers do sometimes make good stories.

When Lord Hart was given a peerage, he received many letters with suggestions for his new title.

One was from a Scottish football fan who asked him to include Midlothian, so there would be constant references in the House of Lords to his team, Heart of Midlothian!

I would also like to thank the Sandhurst Foundation and the Inspirational Development Group for organising tonight’s event, and for the wonderful hospitality we’ve all enjoyed.

We look to Sandhurst - and to Dartmouth and Cranwell too of course - to mould and inspire the men and women who will be the future leaders of Defence; and to the Foundation as a treasure house of sought-after experience and wisdom.

And IDG, working in partnership with Sandhurst, enabling them to combine commercial awareness with the operational expertise that the Army has been honing for over 200 years, to develop leadership, fellowship and partnership skills within individuals and organisations.

As you know, we have just had a Strategic Defence and Security Review - the SDSR - and the challenge now is, with fewer resources, to use all the available talent to transform Defence - while fighting hard in Afghanistan.

Achieving these things requires real leadership.

But I know that just getting into Sandhurst is often a stern test of initiative and resolve for our future military leaders.

Sir Henry Wilson, who was later to become Chief of the Imperial General Staff, failed the entrance exam three times.

Major General JFC Fuller - perhaps one of Britain’s few great military theorists - was sent to a crammer to learn off-by-heart the answers to 12 questions that were likely to come up.

They came up, and he posted a record score of 497 out of 500, perhaps underlining how time spent on reconnaissance is seldom wasted!

On the other hand, Montgomery barely scraped in - a fairly undistinguished record he shared with my grandfather - Field Marshal Haig.

Earl Haig, as he would become, also took the crammer option, spending six months in one before going to Sandhurst.

Once there he found himself having to spend long periods ‘swotting’ - the word originated at Sandhurst and was apparently a modification of ‘sweating’.

But he went on to pass out first, winning the Anson Memorial Sword, later to become the Sword of Honour.

Sandhurst transformed him, like so many others before and since.

One of the instructors, when asked who was the most promising cadet, replied, “A Scottish lad, Douglas Haig, is top in almost everything - books, drill, riding, and sports; he is to go into the Cavalry and, before he is finished, will be top of the Army.”

That early promise was fully realised as Haig later led the British Army to arguably its greatest victory in unarguably the most gruelling war in its history.

Of course, Sandhurst has been home to many colourful characters with wildly varying leadership styles.

By the time he arrived at Sandhurst my grandfather’s room-mate at Sandhurst, General Sir Walter Congreve, VC, as he would become, was already a man not to be trifled with - he had been sent down from Oxford for shooting at his don with an air-gun!

Another fellow cadet of my grandfather’s later shot his mother-in-law and her lawyer in a drame passionnel!

I’m looking forward to visiting Sandhurst twice in the next two months, including the Commissioning Parade in May.

These are hugely emotional events.

The only time I ever saw my father lose his composure was when I was commissioned from Mons.

I hope one day that I’ll have a good blub if my son makes it to Sandhurst!

Perhaps the most famous face to pass through the hallowed portals of Sandhurst was Winston Churchill.

He narrowly passed on his third attempt, after a miserable time at Harrow, where he was bottom of the school.

However, after a ‘hard but happy experience’ he passed out with honours - eighth out of 150 in 1893.

His one regret was when he was invited to dine at the Staff College, where strategy was being discussed.

‘This was thrilling’, he wrote in My Early Life. ‘It did seem such a pity that it all had to be make-believe and that the age of wars between civilised nations had come to an end forever.’

How wrong he would turn out to be.

He continues, ‘the world was growing so sensible and pacific - and so democratic too - the great days were over.’

He adds, ‘Luckily, however, there were still savages and barbarous peoples. There were Zulus and Afghans, also the Dervishes of the Sudan. Some of these might, if they were well-disposed, “put up a show” one day.’!

Those who’ve passed out of Sandhurst this century would testify that some Afghans still are putting up a show.

International forces from 48 nations, including of course our own Armed Forces since 2001, are currently in Afghanistan.

But the reasons for being there and the challenges we face are a world away from the 19th century.

On 9/11 the world was forced to confront how terrorism had the potential to change the global strategic landscape.

We could suddenly see the clear and present dangers that state-sponsored terrorism might inflict.

So the mission of international forces there is to prevent terrorists, including Al-Qaeda, from again using Afghanistan to plot and launch terror attacks.

But it is only since August last year that we have had the number of troops and the right level of equipment to fulfil our strategy set for them.

The challenge lies in having the patience and will to see the mission through.

There is still a great deal to do - which is why current operations in Afghanistan is one of the two main priorities for Defence in the SDSR - but I believe there is also cause for cautious optimism.

I saw that for myself when I visited Afghanistan two weeks ago.

The other main priority is building a Future Force for 2020 and beyond that will be among the most versatile and capable in the world.

But getting there will be undeniably difficult, given the financial mess we inherited.

Leaving a financial mess reminds me of one of my favourite figures from history, the 19th century eccentric - who briefly served in the British Army - John “Mad Jack” Mytton.

Having been thrown out of both Westminster and Harrow, he tormented a succession of tutors, including leaving a horse in one poor tutor’s room.

Horses were clearly an important part of Mad Jack’s life.

He managed to kill one of his horses, Sportsman, by making it drink a bottle of port…

A luckier horse was his favourite, Baronet, who had full and free range inside his home, Halston Hall, and would lie in front of the fire with Jack…

And as a result of a bet, he is said to have ridden his horse into a hotel in Leamington Spa, up the grand staircase and onto the balcony, from which he jumped, still seated on his horse, over the diners in the restaurant below, and out through the window!

But apart from the sheer mayhem of life with Mad Jack, his obliviousness to reality saw him spend his inheritance at an unsustainable rate.

I’m not sure about Gordon Brown’s love of horses, but the inheritance he left us is strikingly similar to Mad Jack’s.

We inherited the largest budget deficit of any major economy - at 12% of GDP - including a national debt increasing at the rate of £3 billion per week.

The timid, but perfectly reasonable option, would have been to accept a diminished role in the world.

Instead, we reject the notion of “strategic shrinkage”.

Rather than some mythological ‘Fortress Britain’ or overcommitted expeditionary forces, our National Security Council decided on an ‘adaptable posture’ which drove our SDSR.

This allows greater flexibility and agility in our Armed Forces so they can adapt to the changing nature of threats - indeed, the evacuations operations in Libya are exactly the kind of task we envisaged in the SDSR.

Of course, if there was one overriding lesson from the Cold War it is that a weak economy is a national security liability.

The government have a duty to get public finance under control.

That’s why we had to take some very difficult decisions - like retiring the magnificent Harrier - that I know have been painful for many people in our Armed Forces, the civil service, and in industry.

But Britain will continue to meet the NATO 2% target for Defence spending.

We will still have the fourth largest military Defence budget in the world.

We are also putting that money to better use, focusing on conflict prevention and building more flexible Armed Forces.

Because the world has changed enormously in a short time, we must all change with it.

Is it really 20 years since we, and the rest of the international community, liberated Kuwait in response to Saddam Hussein’s aggression?

How long ago that now seems, not least with the turning point in history that 9/11 has come to represent.

Or indeed current events in the Middle East and North Africa which are moving at such a pace too.

These events remind us of the difficulty of predicting the future, and the folly of assuming that future wars will mirror the wars of today, though it would also be foolish to ignore the lessons of history.

We need a new approach to British foreign policy, because we cannot do it alone.

We need genuine long-term partners.

And even with 21st century communications there is no real substitute for having the right person on the ground.

Someone who speaks the language, knows the people and has a real handle on their particular cultural sensitivities.

Traditional British professionalism, determination, patience, tact, and indeed charm, can still open doors and minds.

A true diplomat.

That reminds me that the first person I sat next to at lunch in the House of Lords was Lord Franks or Sir Oliver Franks as he was when our Ambassador in Washington after the war.

Shortly after his arrival, he was asked by a local radio station what he would like for Christmas.

Sir Oliver was very touched.

But being a man of frugal tastes he said it was very kind of them to ask and what he would really like would be a small box of crystallised fruit.

On Christmas Day, the radio station broadcast the results of its enquiries.

Asked what he would like for Christmas, the French Ambassador replied, “peace for all mankind.”

The Soviet Ambassador, “freedom for all people enslaved by injustice.”

There then came the polite voice of Sir Oliver…. asking for a small box of crystallised fruit.

Defence is a serious business.

I hope I’ve managed to convey some sense of the challenges we face.

Clear leadership will be an essential component.

There are many leadership styles to choose from.

But it’s widely recognised that one of the most effective leadership styles is to lead by example.

As a young Lieutenant in The Life Guards, I was greatly impressed by Field Marshal Lord Templar, who at the time was the Colonel of our sister Regiment, the Blues and Royals.

Each time he came into the Officer’s mess for lunch, he would single out a different young officer and concentrate his whole attention on him - and find out his ambitions, intentions, concerns.

I was fortunate enough to have the benefit and privilege of his advice at one lunch.

That made a lasting impression on me.

As many of you know, it’s a huge privilege to lead men in difficult circumstances, and one of the lessons I learned was the importance of getting to know one’s Troop through good times and bad.

Things do always go wrong. Good leaders prepare for that.

And Sandhurst prepares those leaders.

My thanks - and Britain’s thanks - to the Royal Military Academy, for the vital work it does.

Published 10 March 2011