The Military-Political ComplexArmed Service Trumps Public Service in Truss’ Cabinet
While the highest offices in Whitehall are well populated by military veterans, there are dwindling numbers of former key workers. Why?
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Liz Truss’ new Cabinet is tasked with addressing a series of era-defining challenges – from the cost of living to NHS waiting times – over the course of this winter.
But who has been given a top job to tackle the crises?
For the first time, none of the four great offices of state – the Prime Minister, Chancellor, Home Secretary or Foreign Secretary – is held by a white male. Liz Truss has appointed non-white people to 30% of Cabinet positions. Women now hold 35% of ministerial posts – just 1% less than the most gender diverse Cabinet in 2008 under Gordon Brown.
But there is one key area in which Truss’ Cabinet shows a curious uniformity: not for generations – since the post-war cabinets at least – have so many ministers had military experience.
Liz Truss has appointed five ministers with a military service background, according to analysis by the Byline Intelligence Team. Military veterans Defence Secretary Ben Wallace and Scotland Secretary Alister Jack are in Truss’ top team, alongside three reservists.
The proportion of ministers with military experience today stands at four times that of the general population. Some 16% of the current Cabinet have taken the King’s shilling, compared to only 3.7% of the UK population being military veterans or in the reserves.
Military experience has increasingly, in the Conservative Party at least, appeared to become a byword for administrative acumen.
Tory MP Tobias Ellwood argued earlier this year that bringing in a senior military officer to take charge of the running of Downing Street would provide the public with a “sense of assurance”. Meanwhile, Security Minister Tom Tugendhat repeatedly argued in the Conservative leadership contest that his experience of “service” made him the right person for the job.
However, while ‘service’ in the military seems to be seen as a qualification for high office – and to some a necessity – it is striking that public services in other realms is not.
According to analysis by this newspaper, not a single member of Truss’ Cabinet has a background in public services – aside from party political work – such as education or health.
Since 1988, only three secretaries of state serving in the Department for Education, for instance, have boasted backgrounds in education. Two of whom – former comprehensive school teacher Estelle Morris and David Blunkett – served in Tony Blair’s Cabinets. In 12 years of Conservative rule, not one of the seven Tory secretaries of state for education have had a professional background in the field.
In contrast, since 1988, there have been five secretaries of state for defence with military experience – and the three most recent Conservative prime ministers have recruited MPs with a background in the armed forces to head the department.
This disparity could partly be explained by the parliamentary pool that Truss had to choose from. While MPs with an employment history in education fell from 13.3% in 1987 to 5.2% in 2015, there has been a rising number of MPs with military experience. Currently, 44 veterans sit in the Commons, 40 of whom are Conservative, while only two belong to the Labour Party.
Not a single shadow minister currently has a military background, although both current veteran Labour MPs have held shadow ministerial positions. Dan Jarvis – a former paratrooper who served in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan – was appointed Shadow Justice Minister by Ed Miliband and was later handed the foreign affairs portfolio. Ex-officer Clive Lewis also held various posts on Labour’s opposition benches, most recently working in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow Treasury team.
By contrast, one-in-seven Conservative MPs currently have veteran backgrounds. This process was accelerated by David Cameron, who encouraged people with military experience to stand at the 2015 General Election.
“Voters want people with some experience of the real world and it doesn’t get much more real than fighting for your country in Afghanistan,” a Conservative source told the Financial Times in 2015.
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But how does an influx of veteran MPs affect politics?
Certainly, MPs with experience in the armed forces are generally more likely to lobby the government of the day to commit more resources to defence. That happened in the Cameron years: the 2015 intake of military MPs are thought to have pushed the then Prime Minister to maintain Britain’s defence spending at the NATO target of 2% of GDP.
History could now be repeating itself with Liz Truss. She has already committed to increasing military spending to 3% of GDP without any real explanation as to how the UK can afford this.
Defence journalist Joe Glenton has also raised concerns that the military backgrounds of MPs could act as a shield to avoid the scrutiny of their political actions.
“Military people in Parliament – with British politics being as militarised as it is – are a little bit bulletproof,” he previously told Byline Times. “If you look at the Johnny Mercers and the Tom Tugendhats – the new batch that have come through – my sense is the fact that they are military people makes it harder to criticise because the military, even in Parliament, is elevated to such status.”
As Britain braces for a winter of discontent, practical experience would seem to be a necessity. While the ranks of veterans in Truss’ Cabinet may well be able to lend their advice to the situation in Ukraine, there are many other crises that are being handled by relative novices.
This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.