For the second time in a month representatives of the armed forces have broken from neutrality and entered the political sphere. Today, four prominent figures within the armed forces scenery in the UK rode into British politics decrying the use or abuse of the armed forces by ‘extremists’ – a thinly veiled attack on the British National Party. What has sparked this recent foray into the public arena, and are these members of the establishment right to come out fighting?

Never mind the rights and wrongs of the BNP’s policies, tactics and attitudes (of which I venture there may be more wrongs than rights), there seems to be a hint of desperation in the General’s letter and perhaps even a little hypocrisy.

Whether the BNP’s threat warrants such major intrusion from figures who live by the rule of neutrality and serving the nation rather than a government seems to be questionable. This sort of interruption creates a precedent that is at once dangerous for political society (how can parties hope to stimulate debate with the fear that what is said is attacked by the revered armed forces?) and for the forces themselves (creating division in Whitehall and within the forces about their loyalty may breed suspicion). However, these elements of the move can be debated elsewhere. Here I am concerned more with the cause of the letter rather than with its consequences.

The images of concern are of figures such as Winston Churchill and the Spitfire fighter plane have been used multiple times before. They have stood for “Britishness”, whatever that is, ever since the idea of “Britishness” was founded in the crucible of 1940. Exclusion of European elements from an island sure of itself as head of the civilised world has been associated with the armed forces for as long as “Britain” has been mythologised. And yet, suddenly, a minor force in British politics have taken these symbols, attitudes and themes one step further and senior Generals have rushed to cry wolf. It reeks of hypocrisy. Who in the establishment has rushed to protect sacred “British” symbols when used before in the political sphere before? When the union jack has stood for anti-EU campaigns and ‘saving the pound’? When Imperial rule was defended against calls for self-determination?

By throwing their hats into the ring the Generals have done what all Generals should not. They have politiced themselves, they have thrown light onto those who should remain in the shadows and they have exposed the fact that the armed forces and those who run them do not share the values of all those who live in the UK. They have shown their colours to be conservative, anti-EU, xenophobic, imperial. Suddenly, through one letter and one peerage, the armed forces are not for everyone, they are political.

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