On Friday afternoon I went for a run. Some light snow was beginning to blow in from the east, as I jogged against the winds across the moor. I knew a busy weekend might be in store. For the past 10 months I had been leading an inquiry into the working of the Iraq Historic Allegations Team (Ihat) and, more broadly, into how we “do” investigations into Service personnel.
The inquiry report was devastating. It exposed absurd decisions, where the welfare of those who serve was almost totally disregarded in an effort to facilitate the efforts of the human rights lawyer Phil Shiner. Yes, the Ministry of Defence did finally report Mr Shiner to the Solicitors Regulation Authority over misconduct and Mr Shiner has now been struck off, but that was after seven years and more than £30 million of taxpayers’ money.
Suddenly my mobile phone went mad. The MoD was trying to “shoot my fox” and announce that Ihat was to close, 24 hours before publication of the inquiry report. The advice was to release our report and cancel the embargo. I thought for a minute. Committee staff had put many hours into the report, journalists had done their bit, but the MoD was keen to bring credit to itself by closing Ihat before the report called for it.
When I saw the MoD’s statement I felt sad. It had decided to shower praise on itself for reporting Mr Shiner and to disregard its role in facilitating him and in the ensuing pain and bitterness he created among the serving ranks. Humility was something they demanded of their people, but palpably not something for the ministry to embrace.
The committee’s staff went ahead and published immediately and they were right to. They had worked hard to expose this disgrace, why shouldn’t the report be read? Then the MoD broke their own embargo and made their announcement.
We talk an excellent game in Whitehall and Westminster: about our freedom, about how brave our men and women are, about how they are our finest asset. But then we bend over backwards to facilitate Mr Shiner. The MoD genuinely entertained the notion of a complete moral breakdown within the Army in Iraq.
In pursuing that end, they were willing to expend capital we didn’t have, both in money and in this nation’s relationship with its military.
This attitude must end. To command our military is a deep privilege. They are the best of us. And that’s why I won’t let this bone go. Because I’ve seen their qualities at their most raw : the bravery, the sacrifice, the endurance, the resilience, the patriotism.
These intangible qualities do not change. They are the same qualities that drove young men into storms of gunfire to liberate Europe in 1944, the same values that Special Forces had in 2016 when they jumped out of a Hercules C-130 over the Upper Sangin Valley into a prepared defensive position riddled with improvised explosive devices and machine gun posts. They remain brave; they sacrifice for their mates; they endure and are the true patriots.
However, we have become complacent. Our appreciation of these qualities has waned, if not within the general public then most certainly in Whitehall and Westminster.
Hence the facilitation of Mr Shiner and the statement made last October by former chief of the defence staff General Sir David Richards that there is an “instinct” in Whitehall that British soldiers “aren’t good” and that, he says, no one has “the guts” to say that view is “rubbish”.
Well it is rubbish. And I’m sorry no one said it sooner. We are so damn fortunate in this country that in a desperately dangerous and unpredictable world, we are free, and largely safe.
We speak endlessly of our precious democracy, but it comes at a price that continues to be paid.
So, never again must we fail to back those in our Armed Services. Ihat’s closure is not a time for MoD self-congratulations but a day for reflection on how it came to this and a steely commitment to never allow it to happen again.
Finally, this weekend, we should think of those who bear the cost, who served this nation then felt it turn on them. Think of them. Some things are not so easily rectified.