To someone in a remote place, cut off by hostile weather, a friendly face in uniform might be a welcome sight, although not as welcome as the lights coming back on. About 300 armed forces personnel have been on manoeuvres in rural parts of north-east England and Scotland, checking on vulnerable people in the aftermath of Storm Arwen and, according to the Ministry of Defence, “providing reassurance”.
In a more tyrannical regime that phrase, coupled with the image of soldiers going door to door, would have a sinister ring. In Britain it is uncontroversial, which is not necessarily a sign of healthy politics. Deployment of the military to bail out civil authorities should not be taboo, but nor should it be routine.
In October, when petrol pumps ran dry, the army was brought in, ostensibly to drive tankers, but also to show panicking motorists that the government had things under control; “providing reassurance”.
There are some peacetime jobs that only trained military personnel can do – bomb disposal, for example. Then there are episodes of turmoil when politicians need to show a flash of khaki to prove that they are still in charge. Military drivers were put on standby during the 2000 fuel protests. Troops stepped in to provide security for the 2012 Olympics when the private contractor fell short. Military involvement has long been a measure of severity in floods and other natural disasters.
The pandemic has seen a huge increase in the use of what Whitehall calls Maca – military aid to the civil authorities. Soldiers have erected field hospitals, moved people and protective equipment around, provided logistics support for testing and vaccination programmes. Army medics have been on the clinical frontline.
The scale of the Covid challenge has required something like wartime mobilisation and Britain is not the only country to have leaned on its armed forces. But there is a difference between occasional auxiliary action and playing backstop to a state that cannot cope with stress. The need for such a service speaks to some deeper malaise in the workings of government, which brings us to the evacuation of Kabul.
Here the crisis was already military by nature, and the pressure to deliver was entirely on civilian authorities. They failed. The London side of the operation was “dysfunctional” and “chaotic”, according to testimony by a civil service whistleblower to a parliamentary inquiry.
The scene in the Foreign Office, as depicted by Raphael Marshall, a former desk officer at the department, is one of institutional and individual failure at every level. Dominic Raab, then foreign secretary, now justice secretary, is portrayed as an indecisive control freak: fussing over the formatting of documents instead of engaging with their contents, and delaying action on cases of desperate Afghans seeking refuge from vengeful Taliban forces.
Thousands of emails, representing matters of life and death, went unread in deserted offices as staff clocked off at end of their Friday shifts. The Taliban didn’t get the memo about not working weekends. To the extent that Downing Street took an interest in particular cases, the lucky evacuees appear to have been animals in the care of a rescue charity run by Paul “Pen” Farthing. Marshall testified that “considerable capacity” had to be allocated for Farthing’s cargo on instructions from the prime minister.
No 10 denies that Boris Johnson made that call and Farthing rejects claims that his pet project diverted military resources. But safe passage was a precious, finite resource and arranging capacity for dogs was a distraction from rescuing people.
Raab disputes Marshall’s account. He concedes that there are lessons to be learned “in hindsight” but does not specify what they might be, beyond his previously expressed regret at having tried to manage the crisis from a beach in Crete. His subsequent removal from the Foreign Office was punishment for having bungled the brief. More precisely, it was a rebuke for ineptitude on such a scale as to invite scrutiny of the prime minister’s role in the debacle. (Johnson, too, had been on holiday.) Raab’s offence was not incompetence, but failure to keep the tide of bad headlines away from the threshold of No 10. He is still in the cabinet, still deputy prime minister.
Not all government failures are the fault of ministers. There is also a Conservative reading of Marshall’s testimony: the evacuation programme was inhibited by the volume of people working from home, and by a culture that valorised a “work-life balance” so much that, for some staff, entitlement to leisure trumped public service.
The riposte would be that being short-staffed is more often a function of inadequate budgeting than deficient work ethic. The same arguments swirl around the government’s handling of the pandemic. There is a view from the right that finds fault in a rusty, over-privileged and antique civil service machine, unfit for 21st-century challenges. And there is the counter-claim from the left that austerity stripped the state of assets it needed to get the job done properly.
Both sides can be right. An unreformed state bureaucracy might lack the agility to deal with a complex emergency, while underfunded services are easily overwhelmed. In both instances, inattentive and cowardly leadership makes the difference, turning complication into crisis. And it takes special arrogance and stupidity at the top to obstruct the flow of urgency lower down in the hierarchy.
There are flaws in the British state that pre-date the current government and managerial problems that are common to all large organisations, private and public. But there is a particular moral flimsiness about the Johnson regime that takes administrative dysfunction to a new level. It is the pattern of unpreparedness and indecision, leading to reckless choices with terrible consequences, followed by a flight from responsibility. It is the effect of hypersensitivity to public demand that something be done, applied in the absence of an ethical core to dictate what that action should be. This was all eloquently expressed in the dereliction of duty over Afghanistan.
By the time the crisis caught up with Raab and Johnson, the moment to grip it had already passed. There was no option of calling in the armed forces. They were already there, in Kabul, doing their job, which was not the scene back in Whitehall or Downing Street. This is what happens when government is led by people who seek the thrill of power without wanting the burden of office. The terrible price of that complacency is still being paid by Afghans who called to Britain for sanctuary and got no answer.
Rafael Behr is a Guardian columnist