The growth of social media is, for most of us, probably the defining cultural experience of the last decade; that we prefer our social media to be an ‘echo chamber’ of our own world view should be no surprise, after all we have chosen our newspapers according to political inclination for years. Unsurprisingly to many of you, I read the Daily Telegraph, Spectator, and Economist; I am therefore a Conservative, a Brexiteer, and an Old Curmudgeon. I am aware, however, that life in an echo chamber, while self-affirmatory, can lead us down rabbit holes in our souls, to more radical warrens and chambers than would be the case if we were more objective and diverse in our choices. I don’t suppose I’m entirely alone in this, and far be it for me to be sanctimonious about diversity of opinion, but I have friends and family from across the opinion spectrum; I follow, and am followed by, Remainers, Communists, Zionists, Unionists, and even the odd Scottish Nationalist. That diversity of opinion helps create a perspective where Trump is not always wrong, May is not always right, and Nicola Sturgeon is little Jimmy Krankie. In short, collecting the thoughts of the many, gives balance and informed opinion.
This week, I was fortunate to attend the RAF’s Air Power Conference 2018, ostensibly to collect the Salmond Prize from the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier. The Conference was a wonderful event, in a prestigious venue, organised with complete precision by the RAF and followed by a wonderful champagne reception sponsored by various defence contractors. I met several very senior Air Officers, many middle-ranking Officers, a handful of Airmen, and a smattering of engaging civilians particularly a Twitter friend, Mr Alan Jackson, with whom I spent a good deal of time chatting, and sharing thoughts and ideas. As the only serving soldier at the Conference on the first day, CDS popped-in on day two, I was made to feel thoroughly welcome but I was appalled to discover that, had I wished to enjoy the two-day Conference at cost, even as a serviceman, I would have had to pay almost £700 for the privilege! This is by no means unusual, top tickets to the two-day RUSI Land Warfare Conference were £900, and the RUSI First Sea Lord’s one-day Sea Power Conference came in at £850. Whilst I accept that each conference had subsidised ticketing for serving personnel, that the target audience is diverse, including representatives of the cash-rich international defence industry, and that swanky comes at a price, I must say the costs are so high as to exclude many with much to add. The price tag thus creates an echo chamber where the same people engage year on year, feeding-in ideas formulated against a background of the same biases, creating policies which may or may not be relevant, while the starving masses of Other Ranks, academics, and laymen look on, holding out their bowl like Oliver asking for more!
Swanky costs. I understand that, I’m sitting in my lounge this morning whilst a dizzying array of military and commercial aircraft burn thousands of pounds in aviation fuel whilst practicing for the Farnborough Air Show. However, the role of a defence conference should not be to crown a king or to admire the Emperor’s new clothes, rather it should bring together expertise and diverse views, create debate, and ultimately lead to a more relevant and capable joint force. I fear that as currently constituted, the three Service conferences are almost propaganda; perhaps there should be a single Joint Service Conference where the problems affecting Defence can be discussed in the round, to create more rounded and effective solutions. If we live in a parochial echo chamber where Jean Claude Juncker is always drunk, Boris is always eyeing up the Prime Minister’s chair, and Theresa May is well, just Theresa May, we end up with Nicola Sturgeon; no one deserves that, not even Donald Trump.
Many thanks and have a lovely weekend.