Sabre Rattling for the Prewar Generation

Some of you will remember the Thatcher years when, way back in 1982 she backed the extraordinary Falkland’s War (las Malvinas) in what some thought to be a cynical exercise in militarist populism. After three years in power her popularity was tanking, and the war proved a useful distraction from mass unemployment, which was reaching three million. Looking at the strange messaging coming out of the British Army and Conservative MPs – those with long memories might detect similar tactics.

In a speech on Wednesday Gen Sir Patrick Sanders described the British people as part of a “prewar generation” who may have to prepare themselves to fight in a war against an increasingly aggressive Russia. The chief of general staff highlighted the recent example of Sweden, which has just reintroduced a form of national service as it closes in on joining Nato. He said that we need to take “preparatory steps to enable placing our societies on a war footing”.

Such comments seem to have been choreographed with such as Penny Mordaunt, who promoted this piece which references the Falklands War, she said: “The Royal Navy and its partners must keep pace with the growing capabilities of other nations. If not Britain’s interests cannot be secured.”

It’s nothing short of hilarious for the Conservatives to moan about depleted army numbers, cuts that they themselves presided over. But there’s a number of other dimensions to this.

First is the idea that ‘Britain’ in 2024 is really a thing at all, never-mind am entity that people would die for. The whole ‘conscription now’ shtick is a mixture of the deeply cynical and the profoundly naive. General Sir Patrick and the platoon of Tories supporting him seem unaware that deference culture has long-gone, and that even if they live in the 1950s – most people don’t.

The second is the generational aspect of this. Describing the present as a “prewar generation” is such an insult to people who have seen their future stolen by climate breakdown, their hope of democracy quashed by 2014, and their connection to Europe severed by the Brexit debacle. This is also the generation for whom affordable housing is a utopian dream and precarious employment in the gig economy the norm.

Third, we are experiencing unprecedented levels of poverty, destitution and insecurity. Publishing its UK poverty report for 2024, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation said six million of the poorest people – those living in very deep poverty – would need on average to more than double their incomes to move out of hardship. Do they really imagine people to move from signing up for the foodbank to enlisting in the army?

Conscription has been rejected by the army for years and is now being used as a political weapon and – like most of the desperate measures by the British establishment to prop up this utterly discredited government will fail badly.


Comments (42)

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  1. Jim Aitken says:

    Well said, Mike. These dreadful Tories are in dread of losing. Their desperation may well sink further before the election. We must be on guard.

  2. SleepingDog says:

    I believe that key impressment laws have not been repealed, though long unenforced, otherwise why be so coy as this?
    A royal prerogative power, it was used in British colonies and territories to provide slave soldiers for the Empire, and was apparently a causal factor in a war with the USA, which is why British naval impressment is perhaps better remembered there. Something that fans of ‘Rule Britannia’ seem confused about, since enslaving sailors was a key British strategy for ‘ruling the waves’.

    Watch out for food banks backing on to harbours in port cities, is all I’m saying.

  3. Ian Miles says:

    Interesting (not least to this 1/4-Scot Europhile) to see the ‘Malvinas’ mentioned in this context. The M-word was preferred by the Spanish, Francophones & co since it avoided lending any accidental credence inferred by using our ‘F-word’ for the disputed islands. But their preference prioritised their own view that the better claim over the islands was from a bunch of other settlers who’d sailed from St-Malo in Brittany … a port named after a missionary from Wales. Up ye Celts!

    1. SteveH says:

      I know. How about the Argentinians hand the land back to the indigenous peoples such as the Tehuelche of Patagonia, and the Querandí and Puelche (Guennakin) of the Pampas, but others, such as the Diaguita of the Northwest.

      Then there’s the Welsh Argentians? Hmmm

  4. Cassandra says:

    As one of the immediate post-war generation (born in 1948, the same year as the NHS) I’ve benefited hugely over my 75 years from the post-war consensus that provided a wee girl from the backwaters with free healthcare and a student grant for higher education. Thanks to Thatcher, Blair and neoliberalism those advantages were denied to those who came after me … but I keep hoping Scotland will eventually buck the trend and embrace the sort of social democracy I’ve seen in Finland, Norway and Denmark (including policies about early childhood education, which profoundly affect lifelong learning and well-being).

    I’m now feeling like the lassie in the cafe in ‘The Hitch-hikers’ Guide to the Universe’ who knows the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything. but whose world is about to be obliterated by Zogons with plans for an interstellar highway.

    Neoliberalism isn’t working.

    I truly hope there’s time for Scotland to spot what’s wrong and start putting it right. But I fear that time’s running out for us all.

  5. SteveH says:

    Its a very dangerous world out there. If we fail to adequately defend ourselves, then all the high and mighty words I read here and in the likes of the Guardian won’t save you.

    Performative protesting in a safe country like ours has lulled you all into false sense of security.

    People in the totalitarian states I’ve been to laugh at sentiments like yours.

    They understand how the real world works.

    Wars like WWI and WWII started because of the arrogance and incompetence of the elites. Today, graduate elites are no different than the old aristocracy and landowners.

    Its always the working classes that have to dig the country out of the mire.

    Don’t worry, you have destroyed us yet with your identity politics and sneering at our proud history and heritage.

    1. SleepingDog says:

      @SteveH, and here’s me thinking that British sabre-rattling was performative. Much like the British military’s recent unsuccessful operations and the MoD’s procurement processes. What is your country? Here is no safe country for protestors, regularly beaten up and heavily sentenced.
      Yes, identity politics can be right-wing and corrosive. Which parts of your country’s history are you most proud of?

    2. Frank Mahann says:

      You missed out writing God save the King.

    3. John Monro says:

      60 million people died in WW2.
      600 and more million will die in WW3, and 30 million of them will be in the UK, including Scotland – a nuclear missile on the Holy Loch and its nuclear stockpile and a SW wind will sterilise most of Alba. Indeed a few conventional cruise missiles on Sellafield might even achieve the same effect, the Russians can decide if to sterilise England if the wind is north westerly instead, or Ireland if an easterly. . The idea we can fight any sort of war with Russia and survive is sheer lunacy. This is what we need to do for geo-political self-preservation (I exclude discussion of global warming)
      1) Nuclear disarm
      2) Scrap NATO
      3) Tell the US to leave Europe (the Monroe doctrine has two parts, one that Europe won’t interfere in the Americas, and a quid pro quo, the US won’t interfered in Europe – we should hold the US to this doctrine)
      4) Seek peace terms with Russia in Ukraine, these will be much worse for Ukraine than if we’d done this earlier. Our interference in Ukraine was evil and we have along with Russian help, destroyed that country. . They’ll include recognition of Crimea as under Russian sovereignty, that Ukraine will be neutral, no NATO, that the Ukrainian army will rid themselves of extremists, and that the annexed areas will formally become under Russian sovereignty. Russia is winning this war, the US and NATO are losing, we will abandon Ukraine anyway as we were always going to betray that country in any case. We lost, get over it, though Ukraine won’t.
      5) Form a pan-European security umbrella with Russia, it might include Finland becoming neutral again – no problem there, Finland have acted incredibly stupidly joining NATO, and so is Sweden. Renegotiate nuclear arms treaties. Europe needs to grow up and look after its own interests and security, the US has no regard for Europe, why should it, why should we expect the US to care for us? That’s just so childish. I have no time for Trump, but in this matter he is spot-on.

  6. John Wood says:

    “Do they really imagine people to move from signing up for the foodbank to enlisting in the army?” Yes. It is exactly what they do imagine. The army has always recruited young men who have internalised a sense of failure and hopelessness. Maybe unemployed, or in a rotten insecure, slave wages job, who feel that they belong nowhere and maybe have no family or friends to support them. Who feel isolated and in despair … and desperate to ‘belong’ somewhere. They have always recruited from this group. The army – ‘be the best’, ‘this is belonging’ , and if you play your cards right, and follow orders, you might even end up giving orders to other people! Join the gang, the bullies, the guys who get away with murder. Driving people into utter poverty and despair is a tried and tested way to make them join up.

    And the young, alienated young men are easily led, manipulated, used as pawns. Some people have predicting that the current fascism would inevitably lead to militarisation. Here it comes.

    1. SleepingDog says:

      @John Wood, alienated children and young women too. The British Empire is an outlier in the recruitment of child soldiers.
      But, the royalist British military wants its fresh meat and more plastic minds for its minionisation process. Talk about the continued inculcation of deference culture in the UK.

    2. John says:

      John – I think you are describing a regular commentator on this page who claims to be ex army.
      He appears to be at the end of the process from reading his comments.
      No name, no pack drill but he hates graduates!

  7. Izzie says:

    I was born during WW2 and saw the Thatcher year’s destroy my family’s livelihood
    Her war was destructive to this land we live in, in order to promote her importance on the world stage and now
    they are at it again constructing a grievance to try and glorify war to make themselves into the saviors
    of a place called Britain …. a misnomer for what should be known as the United Kingdom. Disunited as it is.
    Why do people put up with this.

  8. Niemand says:

    I agree Mike.

    Below is a contemporaneous denunciation of Britain’s ‘acquiring’ of the Falklands, of war and by implication empire and colonialism. The final part reads like an attack on the modern Tory party even though it is an attack on the government of the day.

    From Samuel Johnson’s ‘Thoughts on the Late Transactions Respecting Falkland’s Islands’ (1771):

    Not many years have passed, since the cruelties of war were filling the world with terrour and with sorrow; rage was at last appeased, or strength exhausted, and, to the harassed nations peace was restored with its pleasures and its benefits. Of this state all felt the happiness, and all implored the continuance; but what continuance of happiness can be expected, when the whole system of European empire can be in danger of a new concussion, by a contention for a few spots of earth, which, in the deserts of the ocean, had almost escaped human notice . . .

    Such is the loss of Spain; let us now compute the profit of Britain. We have, by obtaining a disavowal of Buccarreli’s expedition, and a restitution of our settlement, maintained the honour of the crown, and the superiority of our influence. Beyond this what have we acquired? What, but a bleak and gloomy solitude, an island, thrown aside from human use, stormy in winter, and barren in summer; an island, which not the southern savages have dignified with habitation; where a garrison must be kept in a state that contemplates with envy the exiles of Siberia; of which the expense will be perpetual, and the use only occasional; and which, if fortune smile upon our labours, may become a nest of smugglers in peace, and in war the refuge of future bucaniers. To all this the government has now given ample attestation, for the island has been since abandoned, and, perhaps, was kept only to quiet clamours, with an intention, not then wholly concealed, of quitting it in a short time.

    This is the country of which we have now possession, and of which a numerous party pretends to wish that we had murdered thousands for the titular sovereignty. To charge any men with such madness approaches to an accusation defeated by its own incredibility. As they have been long accumulating falsehoods, it is possible that they are now only adding another to the heap, and that they do not mean all that they profess. But of this faction what evil may not be credited? They have hitherto shown no virtue, and very little wit, beyond that mischievous cunning for which it is held, by Hale, that children may be hanged!

    As war is the last of remedies, “cuncta prius tentanda,” all lawful expedients must be used to avoid it. As war is the extremity of evil, it is, surely, the duty of those, whose station intrusts them with the care of nations, to avert it from their charge. There are diseases of animal nature, which nothing but amputation can remove; so there may, by the depravation of human passions, be sometimes a gangrene in collective life, for which fire and the sword are necessary remedies; but in what can skill or caution be better shown, than preventing such dreadful operations, while there is yet room for gentler methods!

    It is wonderful with what coolness and indifference the greater part of mankind see war commenced. Those that hear of it at a distance, or read of it in books, but have never presented its evils to their minds, consider it as little more than a splendid game, a proclamation, an army, a battle, and a triumph. Some, indeed, must perish in the most successful field, but they die upon the bed of honour, “resign their lives amidst the joys of conquest, and, filled with England’s glory, smile in death.”

    The life of a modern soldier is ill represented by heroick fiction. War has means of destruction more formidable than the cannon and the sword. Of the thousands and ten thousands, that perished in our late contests with France and Spain, a very small part ever felt the stroke of an enemy; the rest languished in tents and ships, amidst damps and putrefaction; pale, torpid, spiritless, and helpless; gasping and groaning, unpitied among men, made obdurate by long continuance of hopeless misery; and were, at last, whelmed in pits, or heaved into the ocean, without notice and without remembrance. By incommodious encampments and unwholesome stations, where courage is useless, and enterprise impracticable, fleets are silently dispeopled, and armies sluggishly melted away.

    Thus is a people gradually exhausted, for the most part, with little effect. The wars of civilized nations make very slow changes in the system of empire. The publick perceives scarcely any alteration, but an increase of debt; and the few individuals who are benefited are not supposed to have the clearest right to their advantages. If he that shared the danger enjoyed the profit, and, after bleeding in the battle, grew rich by the victory, he might show his gains without envy. But, at the conclusion of a ten years’ war, how are we recompensed for the death of multitudes, and the expense of millions, but by contemplating the sudden glories of paymasters and agents, contractors and commissaries, whose equipages shine like meteors, and whose palaces rise like exhalations!

    These are the men who, without virtue, labour, or hazard, are growing rich, as their country is impoverished; they rejoice, when obstinacy or ambition adds another year to slaughter and devastation; and laugh, from their desks, at bravery and science, while they are adding figure to figure, and cipher to cipher, hoping for a new contract from a new armament, and computing the profits of a siege or tempest.

    1. DonDon says:

      It’s a shame that old Sam never mentioned the penguins. I don’t suppose there were any sheep there in those days.

      1. Niemand says:

        Penguin is in his dictionary.

        I daresay the information about Falkland’s Islands was not huge though it looks like it was uninhabited at that time, so no sheep.

    2. SleepingDog says:

      @Niemand, very interesting and relevant.

      Just a point about BBC coverage, the government secretly cut Panorama the year before Falklands Conflict became widely known as the worst-reported-war-(since-the-Crimean) and the BBC director general lied to the press about doing so (exposed in declassified papers 30 years later, apparently).

      Tom Mills mentions this in chapter 3 of The BBC: Myth of a Public Service, along with notes on jingoistic pressure on the BBC during the Falklands Conflict.

      A notable feature of British official censorship is how secretive the processes, powers and practices are. Gordon Brown may have reduced the headline delay for basic declassification from 30 to 20 years, if I recall, but the system still effectively minimises embarrassment to the Establishment.

      1. Niemand says:

        And the irony of it now being reported by the BBC. Weirdly, they do rather well reporting critically on themselves . . . when they have no choice but to admit wrongdoing.

  9. John says:

    I am part of the post war generation who benefited from the peace, opportunity, security and increased equality in my younger years.
    I am bemused and depressed that so many of my generation seem so desperate to roll back the post war gains in social security and healthcare and increase poverty and inequality for the next generation. Now they seem to want them to undergo military service in another example of inflicting things on them that our generation were lucky enough to avoid.
    I admire my father’s generation that fought in WW2 and gave us all these benefits. However the government and fellow travellers seems to fetishise the preceding generation to the point that they want the next generation to go through some of the sufferings our parents generation went through. This behaviour baffles me by I am sure a psychiatrist could come up with an answer for it.

  10. John Learmonth says:

    The unintended consequence of Margeret Thatcher retaking the Falkands was the overthrow of the military/fascist regime in Argentina which then created a domino effect throughout Latin America which by the end of the decade had become almost entirely democratic with the sole exception of Cuba (and arguably Venzeuala)
    Just goes to show what happens if you stand up to aggression rather than meekly accept it, which many at the time on both right and left wanted to do.

    1. Wul says:

      Don’t forget Thatcher’s “Economic Miracle” too. She was effing brilliant and sooooo unappreciated in Scotland.

      My kids 25yrs and 27yrs are still paying into the hands of private landlords some 8 yrs after leaving home, working 3-4 jobs, saving up for deposits that grow faster than they can save. No cooncil houses y’see. No decent, affordable flats. £60k of student debt between them too. It really is a miracle.

      She was a right one that Thatcher. Whinging Jocks, innit?

      1. John Learmonth says:


        No fan of Mrs T but its not her fault your kids have student debt as it was Blair who bought in student loans and its upto our own government to build affordable housing
        Perhaps your kids should have trained to be plumbers/electricians/builders and they’d be making a great living with no debt. Your/their choice. Mrs T resigned in 1990, long before your children were born

        1. Niemand says:

          Blair did but at just less than 50% paid by the student. It was Cameron and Clegg who are responsible for the current situation of 100% loans which was never Blair’s / Labour’s plans. So let’s tell it like it is – the LibDems sold their soul to the Tories so they could get the A/V referendum. They remain unforgivable in my book, especially after their ‘pledge’ to scrap all fees that actually got them the student vote in the first place. Despicable. The current situation of student loans in England is at the door of the Tories and LibDems who have basically privatised HE, not Labour whose policy on it actually had some merit.

          1. John Learmonth says:

            Agreed, but Wul is blaming Mrs T?
            Plenty to lay at her door but not student loans.
            Nobody is forced to go to HE, so if young people want to get into debt acquiring a pointless degree in humanities it’s their choice.
            They’d be better off getting an apprentice in trades…….oh god I’m starting to sound like SteveH.

          2. Niemand says:

            John, I teach Humanities (Music) at an HE institution

          3. John Learmonth says:

            Have you ever thought about de-colonising your students?
            Nice, cushy job (with excellent pension)for you but what do your students do after 3 years and thousands of pounds of debt.
            HE exists for the benefit of its employees not for the students who are been sold the lie that if you get a degree your made.

          4. Niemand says:

            I think you mean the curriculum, not the students.

            Most of our students do pretty well in fact. Careers in music are many and varied.

            You don’t know what you are talking about though you do sound jealous of someone who has forged a good and fairly well-paid career through hard work, dedication, some talent and actually having a brain. Try using yours sometime.

          5. John Learmonth says:

            Quick Internet search puts music at 18 out of 20 of the most pointless degrees.
            Nobody needs to go to HE to study music, Mozart didn’t and he was a pretty good musician.
            Nice job for you though.

          6. John says:

            John L – I am a science graduate who benefited from a student grant in 1970’s.
            Why should the next generation have to pay fees when I didn’t?
            Re music graduates – your insulting reply to Niemand betrays both ignorance and insult on your part.
            The arts – music etc are one of UK’s biggest financial successes.
            You quote a ranking of supposedly worthwhile degrees – no reference as to who published this – please show this.
            Education in all fields are not just about finance. The development of knowledge and expertise in fields that I am sure both you and I have no experience in can be of great benefit to society as a whole.
            I also value trades including plumbing etc but this doesn’t make me feel like insulting people who wish to follow the arts.

          7. John Learmonth says:


            When you went to uni circa 5% of young adults did so and so it was funded by the state if you came from a poorer background.
            Now 50% of young adults attend HE and the state can’t afford it. Out of interest do 50% of jobs in the UK require a degree?
            I didn’t mean to be insulting to Niemand and if it came across that way then I apologise but the fact remains that young people are been sold the lie that if you get a degree then your sorted and people who are employed in HE (like Niemand) are complicit in this deception.
            My local coffee shop has 3 baristas, all have degrees. Nothing against baristas but do you need a degree to make coffee?

          8. Niemand says:

            Complicit by teaching music. A lie. A deception.

            Does it ever occur to you that people study music because they want to, because they love it, and have been doing so since the 12th century?

          9. John says:

            John – My degree was in vocational line so I went straight into my profession from University. Some of my contemporaries did non vocational degrees and took an assortment of jobs before settling into a career choice. I am sure the experience they gained would stand them in good stead. I had a range of summer jobs as a student and they were useful as they gave me a wider life experience and interaction with people I would not have met at this point in my life my which was useful for my career. We are wandering a bit off topic when we are discussing Barista’s with degrees. Mind you you can have an interesting chat while your coffee is being made.

    2. John says:

      John – if you recall it was due to UK government negligence that Argentina felt emboldened enough to invade Falkland Islands in first place. Sir John Nott – Defence Secretary at time resigned over the invasion.
      The UK had to get USA support to ensure the mission was successful and Reagan required quite a lot of persuasion if my memory serves me correct.
      You are correct in saying that Galtieri’s Military Junta were a pretty unpleasant mob and that the retaking of Falkland Islands by UK was a probably a factor in their downfall. Not sure about your domino effect claim however and I note you didn’t mention Chile and Pinochet who was not only a murderous dictator but a friend Mrs T. I believe he was in power for the whole of the 1980’s into the 1990’s.

      1. John Learmonth says:

        Hi John,

        Pinochet stepped down in 1990 following a plebiscite on him retaining power. Very rare amongst dictatorships who are usually overthrown by force. Good luck with the Castro family allowing a plebiscite in Cuba!
        But your right he was big pals with Mrs T not least because he allowed Chilean airspace to UK special forces and RAF in the Falkands conflict as he was no pals with Galtiera.
        However my point over unintended consequences still stands.
        Mrs T the greatest liberator of Latin America since Simon Bolivar (not that she meant to be).
        All the best


    3. SleepingDog says:

      @John Learmonth, your ‘Accidental White Saviour’ manages to be even more racist than your typical white saviour trope, but you’re surely right that Thatcher would hardly have attempted to increase democracy unless it caused problems for her opponents/enemies. After all, she didn’t get to become Conservative Party leader by anything as crude as one-member one-vote.

      Certainly British imperial policy towards South America was, post WW2, constrained to be the bottom empire to the USA’s top in the Special Relationship, though they had to have two major cracks at suppressing democracy in British Guiana during the period (blame Elizabeth Windsor rather than Margaret Thatcher for those). The anti-democratic allies of Thatcher’s British Empire and her staunch opposition to majority rule in apartheid South Africa give enough of a flavour, I expect.

      However, your mischaracterisation notably omits the clandestine USAmerican-backed Operation Condor:
      an example of neoliberal state terrorism that formed the regional backdrop when Thatcher became British Prime Minister.

      1. John Learmonth says:

        Hi SD,
        plenty of flights to Cuba/Venezuala should you be interested in moving from your hated capitalist/imperialist west to a socialist society. No? What a surprise.
        All the best

        1. SleepingDog says:

          @John Learmonth, interesting you pick two countries subject to illegal USAmerican embargoes. But seriously, flights? More your kind of thing (flights of fancy, flights from reality, flights from facing up to inconvenient truths) I guess.

          The death squads, tortures, rapes, disappearances of the Operation Condor variety became counter-productive the more the crimes of graduates of the USA’s School of the Americas became better known, and they assassinated people that powerful groups and large sections of domestic publics objected to, one example being Archbishop of San Salvador, Óscar Romero, in 1980 (with the fallout continuing from UN investigations):

          I can quite believe those victims of neoliberal state terrorism were all braver than me, but I draw the line at running away. The USA eventually renamed their School of Terror, but apparently that didn’t throw its dogged opponents off the scent. By the way, you haven’t explained why prefer the government of President Batista.

    4. Frank Mahann says:

      Thatcher was good pals with Pinochet.

  11. CarolM says:

    National service made me the man I am, actually I’m trans having had reassignment surgery. I look forward to a national outbreak of confused young men seeking surgery after their service ends.

  12. James Mills says:

    I am sure that if National Service is resurrected that the first ”recruits” will be the sons /daughters of those in Power who legislated for it . No ?

  13. Cathie Lloyd says:

    And as if on cue Cameron jets off to the Falklands. We should never speak of war lightly and its shocking that the military are doing so. There used to be a narrative that people who had experienced war were more responsible about sounding the alarm. THings are changing though, the use of remotely controlled drone for instance. Time to cement our links with the peace movement.

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