I have been trying with considerable success not to give two hoots about this Harry and Meghan thing. But a detail of their departure from the royal orbit bothers me. It arises from Harry’s surrender of his royal patronages, part of his move to cease being an HRH and become a plain old duke.
That detail is this: the Captain General of the Royal Marines is resigning his post in order to spend more time on Instagram.
And that, bluntly, is a pretty shabby thing. You do not have to be the sort of red-faced harrumphing traditionalist who approvingly reads Daily Telegraph editorials over marmalade in your old rectory in Wiltshire to think that this says something unedifying about duty and service and the way empty celebrity culture has seeped into British national life like damp and started to weaken the brickwork. (I used to write those Telegraph editorials, incidentally.)
Yes, I know there are reasons for all this and that it makes logical sense for a man who got a post because he was a senior royal to give up that post when he ceases to be a senior royal. But I cannot avoid the conclusion that his decision suggests a set of values that are far removed from those that underpin the ethos of the Royal Marines.
Basically, the Royal Marines deserve better, and not just from Harry.
I first encountered the Marines – 42 Commando, to be precise – in Sierra Leone in 2000, where they had been part of British forces that had stopped a rebel group who liked cutting the arms and legs off civilians. Over the next decade and more of writing periodically about defence, I came across bootnecks in various places, including in Basra where the last British commander was Andy Salmon, a Marine.
Over that time, I formed some views of the Royal Marines, the most relevant of which is that they generally get treated quite poorly by the country they serve and possibly even more poorly than other bits of the armed forces.
There are remarkably few Marines, barely 6,500 these days, yet they contribute disproportionately to Britain’s warfighting capabilities. Depending on who you talk to, those 6,500 contribute up to half of all British Special Forces personnel; the other 175 per cent are Paras (congratulations to all those who got both the jokes there).
Yet the Marines never quite seem to get the support and status their contribution demands. Since they’re part of the Royal Navy, they ultimately fall under a command structure whose senior officers are instinctively more interested in big metal boats than in blokes with guns. When the Treasury comes looking for defence cuts, it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that successive First Sea Lords and senior RN officers have fought less hard for the Marines than for the surface fleet. The 2010 defence review, which effectively ended the Marines’ ability to deploy at brigade strength, is a good example.
Such problems have led the Marines to quite a grim position. In 2018, the Commons defence committee investigated the corps and found poor morale, falling numbers and major questions about the Marines’ long-term viability. The report was entitled Sunset for the Royal Marines? and deserves fresh attention as the Captain General does a runner.
Against that background, it will be no surprise if the next defence review – which should be this year – considers again the option of folding the Marines into the Army and maybe even merging them with, yes, the Parachute Regiment.
In short, things were looking miserable enough for the Marines, and now their supposed chief has announced he’s quitting to go to America to sell tupperware on YouTube or something. Which is another joke, but not a very funny one.