Saturday, 23 February 2013

The not politically correct Angel of Mons? Sandhurst and renaming of buildings...


There was a minor furore recently in some parts of the media over the decision by the British Army to rename Mons Hall, at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst (RMA) after the King of Bahrain. This was in response to a generous bequest from the King to pay for an update to the gymnasium, which was apparently in desperate need of an update. There has been opposition from those that claim that the renaming of the building was somehow a snub to the veterans of the battle of Mons, despite there already being a number of memorials on site and elsewhere for the battle, and also there is a history of the RMA naming buildings after generous benefactors.

As Humphrey sees it, the issue is not so much about the renaming, but instead it is about two distinct matters – firstly, the issue of expenditure on historic buildings, and secondly, the issue of training foreign officers at Sandhurst.

On the matter of maintaining the estate, the MOD finds itself in an ever more challenging position. It owns a wide variety of sites across the world of varying age and heritage. Some are considered national icons, while others are listed building which cannot be easily updated or modified. Any change to them requires a lot of money to comply with onerous building regulations. Much of the MOD estate dates back to the late 19th and early 20th Century, and has often not been updated since that point. Anyone familiar with the Gymnasium and Pool at BRNC Dartmouth would recall it has near Victorian conditions, due to the lack of funding to update it. Sadly this is a common problem – for many years the amount of funding available to update buildings and facilities in the MOD has been decreasing. Difficult decisions have had to be made about how this money is best spent, and where it should be prioritised. Rightly, much money has gone on improving living conditions for junior service personnel and also basic training establishments. The amount of money for sites like Sandhurst is often far less than needed to keep it running in full order.

Here then the MOD faces an impossible dilemma – it is restricted in what can be done to update the buildings due to their historic nature. It cannot knock them down and start again, nor can it easily shut the sites and consolidate them elsewhere without incurring vast costs and an enormous outcry from the public, media and Parliament. Instead it has to somehow run them on without sufficient funding to do all the necessary repair work, and keep them in reasonable order and fit for purpose.

That is why bequests such as this are so important – they provide a revenue stream for the site which allows work to be carried out which otherwise would never have been completed. One can only imagine the media generated ‘outrage’ if the MOD had spent £3.5m updating a facility on a site that the media seem to think of as a cross between Hogwarts and an inbred boarding school for posh people.

On this front at least, the RMA has been able to try and secure an update to facilities in return for a small name change, which does seem the least worst course of action under the circumstances.

More broadly, this act once again highlights the unique relationship that exists between the UK, its Military training establishments and the ruling families of many nations. For decades foreign rulers have been sending their sons to the UK to carry out training at all three Service academies (BRNC, RMA and Cranwell). This has led to a situation today where many of the current Royal Families in the Middle East, and also more broadly have been trained in the UK.

This matters because it is a chance for the selected individuals to spend a period of time in their lives when they are not cosseted or treated like a future king, but instead are expected to work hard as a small member of a much larger organisation. The end result is that genuine friendships are forged in the adversity of Brecon or Dartmoor, or over late night bulling parties which then endure for a lifetime. It is clear that many of those rulers in the Middle East today have a fondness of their days in these establishments, which perhaps grows warmer with age and distance from the event. They feel a genuine connection to the UK, and a certain gratitude for giving them this training. This ties into a wider fondness, particularly in the Middle East for UK institutions such as London, the Royal Family and the Military, and helps keep them strongly linked to the UK. One reason why UK influence continues to be as great as it is in the Middle East is in no small part due to so many key individuals undergoing training in the UK.

One advantage the UK has is that its three Service Academies all offer a course that is only one year long, compared to the multi-year predominantly academic courses offered by most other nations. This has the genuine advantage of enabling someone to spend a short time away from home, but still learn relevant military and wider life skills. It is still comparatively rare to find senior foreign rulers trained in the multi-year academies of the US, France or Russia. We should not underestimate just how much of an impact these sites have on training senior Royals, nor the very real advantages for long term British influence are presented by this.

More broadly, sending young royals to these courses helps firm links with the next generation of leaders and rulers in a region which is of critical strategic importance to the UK. It is much easier to encourage nations to buy British equipment, or to have meaningful dialogue when the leader has used our equipment, or has memories of his time and knows the UK opposite number leading the talks. We may mock and scoff at such thoughts, but in the mindset of the Middle East, our Service Academies provide a genuine tool for access and influence that most other nations can only dream of.

So, while it may be tempting to be outraged at this news, let us perhaps consider that in fact it is a sign of the ongoing and enduring relationship of the UK with the Middle East, and that it bodes well for future relationships too. As the UK seeks an ever greater role in the region, particularly as HERRICK draws to a close, relationships at places like RMA Sandhurst will take on ever greater importance. We should mock at our peril... 


  1. Personally, I think if we want soft power, we should be shooting for training entire armed forces, or the officer corps at least.

  2. Adding on to the soft power TrT commented on, its also happening aviation wise... our helicopter school trains a good proportion of foreign pilots, and 208(R) sqn has a stay of disbandment as it now trains a large proportion of froeign (Saudi) pilots... I also imagine the RN has its good share too of foreign students.

    My view is that since there has long been a tradition of naming buildings after benefactors, adding to TrT's reasoning, then there should be no issue... especially after an ally of the UK's. Seems to me to be a bit of 'old school' stubbornness the officer class can have.

  3. Sir Humphrey,

    I've been following your thoughtful blog for some time. Thanks for your informative takes on defence matters.

    I think in assessing this, there are a few more things to consider:

    First, I think, there is legitimate unease about naming such a building after a monarch, just when memories of his country's uprising and its controversial suppression are still fresh in most people's minds.

    Secondly, I suppose there's always a limit to how much this sort of soft-power enhancement can buy influence. If the realist theory of international relations indeed is generally accepted, these acts, at the end of the day, will hold little sway when more fundamental matters of geopolitical or economic weight are calculated. Therefore, in weighing the costs and benefits of training other countries' officers in a fine military academy, the assumed benefits must less substantial than normally viewed.

    1. Hi Ipsiwch, thanks for your comments and for feedback on the site.

      In terms of your points, I'd note firstly there is no doubt Bahrain is having a challenging time of it right now. But, my instinct is that this is no worse than we've seen in many other countries, and perhaps the Bahrainis are getting an unduly heavy response. I'm not in any way defending what went on there, but it is not the only country to have seen a Shia uprising.

      More broadly, I think these acts do carry some weight. Knowing the region relatively well, I've found that small actions which Western culture would seem as almost trivial carry great weight there. To the Bahrainis, the naming of a hall means that the UK is still willing to talk with them, that by accepting their gift we are prepared to do business with them, and that they are still welcome in the UK. This may sound trivial, but in a region where great stock is set by personal relationships, and how even the shortest official call can be scrutinised for subtle meanings and intent, this is a useful sign of acceptance.
      More broadly, by accepting it, the UK is sending a signal to Bahrain that it is prepared to continue working with them on wider matters - this will not be forgotten in the long term that we stood by an ally at a difficult point. That doesnt mean we're not having frank conversations, but that its much easier to have them when your friend is talking to you.

      As for broader influence, its not that training should be seen as a sole major driver of influence, but that it is a highly useful building block. Influence is achieved through a variety of means, but training people at a critical point of their life, then hosting them well and treating them with respect helps bring about a certain level of disposition which in turn is helpful for wider goals.
      I've seen first hand that dealing with foreign Sandhurst educated officers, one sees them act in a much warmer and positive manner to the UK, because they feel they have a shared link with us.
      Of course not every foreign officer is going to be the next Regent or Prime Minister, but by gently building links, and helping reinforce UK values, we can use sites like Sandhurst to send a positive message about the UK.

  4. In the Arrse thread on the subject it seemed very few, if anyone, actually remembered the building being called Mons anyway! Some even speculated that it was named after the Mons Officer Cadet School (where the Bahraini king was trained coincidentally) just as Woolwich Hall was named after the original RMA Woolwich.

    Rather telling isn't it...

  5. I think if someone pays out a lot of money to help restore and upgrade a historic and working building, it is only polite to somehow acknowledge this. It is something that is quite common. What is of a far more outrageous nature, is the fact that we are naming a building in honour of a man who is currently imprisoning young girls for writing poems critical of his autocratic rule.

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