Retreat to your bunkers. Repeat: this is not a drill. Field Marshal Lord Bramall, former chief of the defence staff and veteran of the Normandy landings, has delivered a parting shot. Last week, as he stood from the House of Lords, he opened fire from the crossbenches, blasting the government’s plans to replace Trident and calling for a ‘better-balanced, more relevant defence programme’ in which nuclear weapons would play little or no part. The campaign continues next week, when Bramall will be ‘taking questions’ at the Travellers Club in Piccadilly.
This is not the first time he has made known his views that Britain should phase out its nuclear weaponry. But with the new fleet due in 2016 the tension is ratcheting. At 89, Bramall is one of our highest-ranking veterans, with an armoury of medals and a voice that could hold back the crowds at a Harrods sale. We ignore such men at our peril — so here I am, parachuting into his Hampshire home with a tape recorder. But softly goes, for I’ve been warned he takes few prisoners. He once thwacked his fellow peer, the 78-year-old Lord Janner, after a row over the Lebanon conflict. The man who strides out to greet me on the gravel — ramrod straight, ruddy-faced, and dressed in corduroy and brogues — looks as if he could settle any matter with his bare hands.
‘I believe nuclear weapons are absolutely useless,’ he begins, leading me into a gracious drawing room and honing straight to his target. ‘They did not stop 9/11, despite America having the biggest deterrent in the world, and they did not stop Saddam Hussein firing missiles into Israel. They don’t deter because as everyone knows, they cannot be used.’
We’ve been here before in Yes, Prime Minister. As Sir Humphrey cautioned the PM when he announced his intention to cancel Trident on the grounds that everyone knew he probably wouldn’t press the button: ‘Yes, but even though they probably certainly know that you probably wouldn’t they don’t certainly know that although you probably wouldn’t there’s no probability that you certainly would.’ Nonsense, says Bramall, who believes that every country probably certainly knows that America or Britain probably certainly wouldn’t: ‘George Bush never considered that he would use a nuclear weapon as retaliation after 9/11 because it was impossible to know who he should use it on, or where he could possibly use it without making everything infinitely worse. What the whole business comes down to is status symbol, so we can say, “I’m a member of the nuclear club.” ’
Bramall believes we should drastically reduce our subscription to that club, setting an example to other countries by letting the existing Trident fleet ‘drip out’, allowing Britain to disarm gradually. Can he envisage a future in which we have no nuclear weapons at all? ‘If a genie came and removed all our nuclear weapons, I wouldn’t feel any less safe than I do now. If you’re respectable you say, “Oh, yes!” to multilateral disarmament, but unilateral? “Oh, no, that’s terrible!” But who’s going to start the ball rolling? My point is that we are pushing others in the wrong direction. We’re saying to countries like Iran that you can’t defend yourself properly unless you have this weapon.’
He warns that a new Trident fleet, estimated to cost more than £100 billion, will skew a defence budget already bursting at the gut. He urges we invest more in conventional forces and intelligence: ‘Prestige in the world is now more likely to come from economic strength, conflict resolution, peace-keeping and wise counsel than being able to destroy en masse. Intelligence is the key to everything. A cyber attack could muck up the whole infrastructure of this country. That’s where the real danger lies.’
It is a modern outlook from a man who received his commission in 1943. But Bramall believes the nature of conflict has changed irrevocably: ‘Sixty million people died in the second world war. There is no way that the modern, globalised, interlocked world could look back to that sort of conflict. If you are going to have a war, it has to be short and corrective. It is done by dynamic diplomacy backed by military force. As Frederick the Great said, “Diplomacy without force is like music without instruments.” But in the end it’s about getting the host nation to set their house in order.’
This is the core of Bramall’s philosophy. His brainchild was the ‘Fifth Pillar’, a concept intended to assist smaller countries without resorting to military intervention. His catchphrase, ‘helping our friends help themselves’, has been used by David Cameron. But does Britain now have any power to shape its military strategy independently of America?
‘Blair couldn’t shape anything without the Americans. There was some buddy-buddy thing going on that he was seduced by. But Cameron’s more in the driving seat. Obama realises that overplaying America’s hand in the Middle East has been one of the mainsprings of terrorist activity.’
Bramall’s all for keeping out. He is against sending troops to Mali — ‘I hope they sort it out themselves, that’s the best way of doing it’ — and he was against the war in Iraq. ‘We were charging up the wrong valley. It didn’t help the issue of terrorism, it made it worse.’ Afghanistan? ‘What we did initially was quite right — went in selectively, with limited forces, and took out the training camps. But then we should have got out and helped Pakistan deal with the problem. One of the reasons the public feels ready to come out is that the casualties have been so nasty. In my day, the most you got was a field dressing, but now in come the helicopters with 15 minutes, and they get these people back to life when before they almost certainly would have died. And they have to live with the consequences.’
Bramall was commissioned into the King’s Royal Rifle Corps fresh from Eton. He survived Normandy (‘very noisy, pretty dangerous’), picked up an MC in 1945, and then careered on seamlessly through the ranks. What took him to the top? ‘Can’t think. I never said, “I want to become chief of the defence staff.” I only joined the army because there was a war on.’
Even so, he remains a fearsome presence. He has even taken a potshot at Joanna Lumley, lampooning her recent campaign to get British citizenship for retired Gurkhas: ‘With her heart in the right place, she absolutely mucked it up for the Gurkhas. For the first time, they’re beginning to lose their popularity, because they have this right which they’ve never had before to come here without money, without jobs — they bring all their grandfathers, grandmothers, everyone else, swamp the social services…’
‘Field Marshal!’ cautions his chum the brigadier, who is loitering round the tea trolley. ‘Never march on Moscow and never attack Joanna Lumley.’ The Field Marshal desists. But he gives the impression he’ll march where he pleases, and when it comes to renewing Trident, the Prime Minister has an opponent who will not be easily gunned down. ‘I was shot once,’ he recalls, when I ask about his war injuries. ‘But I was only away for three days. Luckily, the bullet went in one side of me and came out the other.’