Fighting a losing battle: Why calling in the army is a sign of failure

By Phil Basey, head of research


This week Britain ground to a halt. The snow saw schools closed and motorways not gritted. Strikes shut down the railways. Post not being delivered. Bus drivers walking out. Driving examiners on strike. And of course, nurses too.


As ever when these things happen, politicians were abuzz with talk of bringing in the army. The so-called Military Aid to the Civil Authorities (MACA) arrangements allow the government to call on army help in certain conditions, namely when “there is a definite need to act” and “other options, including mutual aid and commercial alternatives, have been discounted.” With many NHS trusts facing nurse walkouts and no alternatives for a health service facing a busy winter, it was time to call in the big guns. 


It’s not the first time. We’re used to seeing the army appear for security reasons. Back in 2012, they were tasked with guarding the London Olympics. Then again in 2017, after a series of terror attacks, the military was deployed under Operation Temperer for at high-profile locations. And in emergencies too. At Whaley Bridge in 2019 and when Storm Dennis hit in 2020, military personnel pitched in for the rescue operations. The list goes on. During the covid pandemic, a massive military operation (Operation Rescript) saw the construction of temporary Nightingale hospitals and support with testing and vaccines. Not long after, Operation Isotrope was launched to prevent illegal migrants from landing on UK shores. Now, for the third Christmas in a row, the army may be called in once again, this time in response to industrial action.         


As these operations become more common, we are left asking why. As one military source told The Guardian newspaper: “MACA used to be last resort. Now it’s the go-to. Bad government planning equals soldiers missing Xmas.” Why is it these days that the army seems to be one of the first ports of call, with all other possible alternatives discounted? Taxpayers are right to wonder whether this is really the best system.


Taxes are at a 70-year high and government spending this year as a percentage of GDP is greater than the winter of discontent in 1979, amounting to £41,831 annually per household. The state has grown to a level much bigger than it was before the covid crisis, yet still public services are unable to cope without help from the military. Despite Brits paying a fortune in taxes, many services are in a complete shambles. Increasingly, MACA seems to be the sticking plaster to cover for a public sector rife with inefficiency, absenteeism, headcount explosion and permanent work-from-home privileges


The situation cannot go on. While armed forces personnel received a 3.75 per cent pay increase this year (as recommended by their pay review body), the strikers they are expected to fill in for are demanding a 17.6 per cent pay increase next year (compared to the 4.75 per cent their body recommended). It seems deeply unfair to increasingly expect soldiers to pick up the slack for poor performance elsewhere in the public sector. The next time politicians start talking tough on bringing in the army to rescue floundering public services, taxpayers will know that they are fighting a losing battle.

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