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Defence: Public ignorance, the media, and cutbacks

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Defence: Public ignorance, the media, and cutbacks

Old 5th Dec 2003, 21:42
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Angry Defence: Public ignorance, the media, and cutbacks

The greatest threat to security is the misconception that no such threat exists.

These were the opening words of a security lecture that I attended a few months ago. Just as the most important thing in (information) is being aware of the threat, lack of public awareness of defence issues is a major threat to the Armed Forces, because it makes them vulnerable of cutbacks, often by back door means. Even worse, common misconceptions mean that the defence community receives neither the support nor the recognition that they deserve from the public. Hence the above statement applies to national and international security.

The reasons for this are not simple. Apathy, bad PR by the Services, poor journalism and the "Me me me" culture are all, in my opinion, partly to blame. But problems with support from the public are reflected at a political level, just look at how few MPs attend debates on defence issues. Yet defence affects us all - both directly and indirectly.

People commonly believe that there is no threat to the UK. It may well be true that, apart from terrorism, there is no direct threat at the present, but there are many threats to UK interests. We are very dependant on imported oil, the sources of which may need to be defended. Electricity generation relies greatly on imported natural gas. Most UK imports/exports are by sea. Remember the chaos caused by the 2000 fuel protests? Imagine if that disruption to the oil supply was caused by an act of aggression by a hostile nation, and we could not respond as we did not have the troops/ships/aircraft?

Imagine if a major ally/trading partner was attacked and we could not respond? What if a regional conflict elsewhere was escalating rapidly? In the inter-dependant world of the 21st century, such events could have grave implications, political, economic, humanitarian and security, for all of us. There is trouble and strife all over the world, some of it will involve us. Who can say where British forces may be needed? Or what for?

Many do not realise that many potential aggressors have sophisticated capabilities - modern armoured vehicles, missiles of various types, aircraft of various types, missile armed ships, submarines - the list is a long one. Because they don't realise the threats that potentially exist, they are unaware of the need to have suitable defences.

On a more basic level, a large part of the public simply does not understand why we spend so much on defence. Apart from not understanding the threats that exist, people lack an understanding of how defence accounts for only a small part of public expenditure and represents an even smaller percentage of GNP. Defence is always the budget looked at when the Treasury wants to make savings. Maybe it is due to the fact that it is politically easier to cut defence spending than other areas of expenditure. Despite the fact that the Armed Forces have an involvement in other areas of Government activity, Education, Health, Law and Order to name a few.

On the Sea Jet thread I have made reference to a recent public survey carried out for the Royal Navy. It sought to determine how much the general public know about the RN. The results were staggering - or at least I thought so. Whilst virtually everyone knows the Navy is there to "defend the nation" it would seem that few people knew what that meant day to day. Very few people listed counter drugs operations as a naval activity. The majority did not seem to know that the Royal Marines are not part of the Army, and did not know what the Fleet Air Arm is. Maybe this is why it has been so vulnerable to penny pinching. Whilst the Navy may have more of an image problem than the other two services, I would guess that the Army and RAF are similarly misunderstood.

Many people lack basic knowledge. They seen unaware of the different Armed Forces, what the different services do, what types of unit and equipment there are, and the different Reserve forces. More importantly they seem to be unaware of all the deployments and commitments we have (despite the fact most of the are mentioned in the papers, on TV etc). This is in spite of these issues being discussed on news and current affairs type TV programmes, in the papers, in documentaries, and sometimes in articles in (mainstream, non defence) magazines. They also seem unaware of the massive cutbacks of the last thirteen or so years. Compare the number of front line units today with those in 1990. Compare the number of operations too (see below). Incidentally, were did the so called peace dividend go? Did it actually save the taxpayer any money?

Overstretch is something of which many people are unaware, despite things like TA personnel being deployed to Afghanistan (and other delightful places), the then Chief of Defence Staff warning that we would not be able to conduct another major operation within a year or so, large numbers of infantry being needed for peace keeping/support and reconstruction in Iraq, the First Sea Lord stating that the Navy lacks enough ships for all the extra tasks that were unforeseen several years ago, etc etc etc. Because the public are unaware of the deployments and operations, they are unaware of overstretch. Or they do not understand it - perhaps not understanding that you cannot commit 100% of your forces to operations 100% of the time.

On a slightly different note - but one still highly relevant, the public often have a distorted view of personnel issues. People often seem to think people only join up because they are thick, or that they must be thick "cos you couldn't get a job and had to join....". I have seen idiots come out with this line more times than I can count. Yet they seem to ignore that a significant number of people fail the psychometric tests in the careers office and are considered to be too.....ahem....not suitable to join. And that is before interviews, medicals, basic training and so on. None of which are easy in any way. And yes, I am talking as someone who got kicked out.

And of course training never really stops. Each new promotion, new role, new unit/ship/aircraft type involves more training. As does new equipment, deployments to new areas, refresher courses, all sorts of things. Compare this with civilian life where employers are frequently reluctant to invest in training.

There is the issue of service personnel being considered louts, drunks, thugs and generally an unruly lot. This seems like a hypocritical attitude considering the appalling standards of behaviour seen in the UK these days. Go to any major town or city after closing time and you will see truly disgusting things. If members of the Forces act in a similar manner, is it not a reflection of society as a whole?

During the recent Fire-fighters' strike, there was a great deal of nonsense said in the media, on the internet and so on. Certain members of the public seemed to have some strange thoughts. Some said that covering the strike showed the services are overmanned, ignoring the fact that units were prevented from going on exercise or deployment, peoples' training was seriously disrupted and people were prevented from taking the leave and harmony time which they were entitled to. Also certain people seemed to think that serving personnel get free food and accommodation, do not pay domestic bills, and do not pay tax - all of which is complete nonsense.

Likewise certain FBU members claimed that they would not be able to fight fires or use modern equipment, or had no training to deal with NBC incidents. Some people probably believed them.

The media has to take at least some of the responsibility for the above. Apart from gaffes - such as describing RAF helicopters as Army ones, or Navy ones as RAF ones, or other combinations, describing RAF Regiment folks as "Army personnel defending airfield x", getting the names of units, places, vehicles, aircraft, etc. wrong, and other dumb mistakes - the quality of reporting on defence issues is often low.

Some of it is due to lack of knowledge. You would have thought that anyone writing an article on a defence issue for a newspaper would do some research first, perhaps starting by looking at the PR stuff available. But no, it would seem many are incapable of even this. Contacting the corporate communications (as it gets called now) people is often too hard for them as well.

Worse still is the sensationalist approach taken by many. Stories are exaggerated hugely, presumably to sell more copies. Journalistic hyperbole rules! Every base or unit gets described as "Top Secret", every operation as a "daring raid" - even routine ones, and given the chance every tabloid hack will try to mention the SAS. If a routine infantry patrol finds an arms cache you can bet that tabloid hacks will think up a headline like "Top secret SAS unit capture massive weapons cache in daring raid". It might sell papers, but does it inform the public of the real nature of things?

To add to this list of media sins, there is speculation. Frequently this speculation is based on flawed logic and incorrect information and assumptions. Assuming that they don't just make it up, that is. Often this speculation serves no purpose, except of course selling papers. All they do is cause people worry and anxiety, which they can do without. During the initial combat phases in Iraq the media seemed to like speculating on what weapons aircraft were carrying and similar. Why? When personnel were killed, particularly in the helicopter crashes or when the Tornado was brought down by a Patriot, the media speculated who it was, what type, etc. Apart from getting it wrong often, the stress and anxiety they caused the families is something they should hang their heads in shame for. Likewise the harassment of service wives and families by journalists - this happened to people I know. This was neither justifiable or forgivable.

Only exceptionally good news is reported - but negative stories are often blown out of all proportion. There's no news like bad news, or so it seems.

The Government would be well advised to think about what would have happened to the Tories if we had lost the Falklands war, which we would have done if the proposed cutbacks had been fully implemented. They would have been booted out of office or at least come close to it. The current Government should think about that. The cutbacks that they have made, or any future ones, may result in the political landscape changing overnight.

In peacetime however, defence will continue to be low on the list of political priorities. Personally I suspect that this is largely for the reasons outlined above, and until action is taken to improve the level of public awareness I fear that the overworked and underequipped British soldier/sailor/airman will continue to be taken for granted by the public and shafted by the system, and the defence budget will continue to be vulnerable to Treasury led cuts.

Edit - September 2013

The change of Government in 2010 did not improve things, with a defence review that was largely decided at the last minute, on political grounds.

It seems that major (and damaging) decisions, such as scrapping the MPA capability with only a vague idea of regenerating it at some future date, or ignoring the advice from the Admirals and scrapping the Harrier without first having worked out how the skills needed for fixed wing carrier operations would be retained and developed for the future (still an unresolved issue), or opting to switch to F-35C and a CTOL future without investigating the issues, were not subject to proper analysis.

Lack of understanding by public, media, and politicians remains an issue.

Last edited by WE Branch Fanatic; 20th Sep 2013 at 14:06.
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Old 5th Dec 2003, 23:44
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Top post. It is surely true that we are our own worst enemy - but wasn't it ever thus?
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Old 5th Dec 2003, 23:48
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Much of what you say is very apt. However, to the majority of the population, the armed forces are like that insurance policy you keep tucked at the back of the drawer. You don't really think about it, until you need to make a claim. You moan about paying the premiums and wonder if the money wouldn't be better spent on something else. On balance, you're probably content to cough-up the money, but not really interested in the small print.

Are the public interested in the routine of service life? No, not really. Are they interested in hyped-up tales of daring do? You bet. People generally get the standard of reporting they deserve. If you read the tabloids, then you deserve to be lied to. If, however, you view the media and all its works, with a skeptical eye, you can generally see through most of the nonsense.

In general, the armed forces have a very good public image. The only thing we can do to maintain this, is to keep doing our job well.

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Old 7th Dec 2003, 15:23
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Perhaps the following from the Independent today may put the projected Defence cuts into the public eye?

Huge defence cuts to fund intelligence war on terror
By Andy McSmith Political Editor
07 December 2003

Ministers are planning big cuts in military hardware in order to pour extra money into high technology intelligence operations. The plans are likely to provoke a bitter political war with service chiefs.

The Secretary of State for Defence, Geoff Hoon, is convinced that the main threats to Britain come from terrorists and insurgents, who have to be attacked with pinpoint accuracy, rather than conventional armies.

Mr Hoon is due to publish his long awaited Defence White Paper on Thursday but the cuts will not be made explicit because he wants to minimise political reaction. They will, however, emerge over the next few months.

Service chiefs fear they will lose millions of pounds worth of promised hardware. The controversy will be heightened because of the spectacular failure of the intelligence services in assessing whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Before sending British troops to war in Iraq, Tony Blair claimed in a published dossier that Saddam Hussein's regime had a "useable chemical and biological weapons capability" which presented a "serious and current" threat to the West. Since March, hundreds of inspectors have combed Iraq in search of these weapons, without success.

One casualty of the new policy could be the £50bn Eurofighter, Typhoon, being developed jointly by BAE Systems, Finmeccania of Italy, and Eads, the pan-European aerospace combine. The first batch of the 620 planes is already under construction, but there are fears that the final 236 may be at risk.

The Royal Navy is also resigned to experiencing an outbreak of what wags call SCS - "shrinking carrier syndrome". Improved technology means that new aircraft carriers can lose 10 per cent of their size without damaging their effectiveness. There is suspicion that the shrinking carriers will hit the Joint Strike Fighter that is due to enter service early in the next decade. The number of aircraft purchased could be 40 fewer than originally planned.

Explaining the philosophy behind the White Paper in a speech last July, Mr Hoon said: "The experts call this approach Effects-Based Operations. They focus on undermining an opponent's ability to exercise effective command and control of his forces rather than simply on battlefield attrition."

He also used a speech to the City of London last month to counter fears that thousands of army personnel could be made redundant as the Army's presence in Northern Ireland is cut from 14,000 to 5,000 over the next two years. He insisted that he wants to keep the Army at its present level of 103,000 trained soldiers. Even that will leave the Government open to complaints that they are asking too few soldiers to do too much.

Last week, Field Marshal Peter Inge, the former Chief of Defence Staff, said in the House of Lords: "Our armed forces are too small for the tasks that are laid upon them. The Army needs a minimum of 4,000 to 5,000 men and women to increase certain units to make them more robust... We are increasing the risk of operational failure."

Keith Simpson, a Tory defence spokesman, claimed: "They haven't yet done the detailed work required because they were hoping that Uncle Gordon Brown was going to be more generous than he has been. I fear the White Paper will be a long essay which the MoD will be using as a smokescreen to cover up what will, at the end of the day, be painful cuts."

Unlike that in Iraq, most future operations are likely to be more like those in Afghanistan or Sierra Leone, where there was no large standing army to be overcome.

Mr Hoon was delighted by the success of a computerised "game" based on satellite pictures and intelligence from MI6 which tested five options for taking Basra, in southern Iraq, last March. A team of MoD computer experts created a computer model which included information on the positions of Iraqi troops, their weapons, and even the buildings and alleyways where they might hide.
7 December 2003 21:16

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Old 7th Dec 2003, 16:58
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Ah but will there be any redundancies? I hope there will and then maybe the powers that be will see the state of morale in our overstreached continually cut forces. My guess would be that they'd see a massive number of applications. All too much to hope for really!
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Old 7th Dec 2003, 17:01
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White Paper due out this week - I think Keith Simpson, given his reported comments in the post above, has seen an advance copy!
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Old 7th Dec 2003, 17:46
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The Sunday Times 7 December 2003:

Hoon Poised for £2bn Cut in Forces

A number of senior officers, however, see the white paper as a chance to break out of the service’s historic regimental structure.

“Anybody who argues on emotional grounds for cap badges and so on doesn’t understand the needs of the army today,” a senior officer told a private Whitehall audience last week.

The army wants to move from a structure based on battalions of about 600 men to an emphasis on company-sized sub-units of about 120 men that can be more easily deployed.

I hope that bit is true and that someone has seen sense at last. The regimental system belongs in a museum, not in a modern army.
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Old 8th Dec 2003, 00:54
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I think many Army people would disagree with you. The connections units and the area that they recruit from is probably a good thing. The sense of history and tradition is also a good thing, particularly when the chips are down. People expend effort "not to let the regiment down". It helps motivate the men.

Surely any change to "X company of Y battalion or Z regiment" can only harm unit cohesion and damage morale, effectiveness, recruitment and retention?

Since battalions are made up of companies why can't companies be deployed independantly? What happens when you need a battalion sized unit?
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Old 8th Dec 2003, 01:00
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Defence cuts

Can any one tell us what proportion of the overall cost of the armed services is spent on:
Current manpower salaries
Retired pay/ pensions (and include all senior officers who have "retired")
then we may judge better what the effect of any proposed efence cuts amy be. To simply cut the manpower at lower levels (as has happened in the past) will just exacerbate the situation. Who will advise on the cuts? No oen will suggest their own redundancy surely
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Old 8th Dec 2003, 01:07
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Scud U Like,

I suspect that you have never witnessed the Regimental system. I also believe it's time for change, however, not at the expense of a very cohesive fighting unit, something that 120 men could achieve unless they are all trained to the Hereford standard.

Pissed as usual
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Old 8th Dec 2003, 01:14
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The army wants to move from a structure based on battalions of about 600 men to an emphasis on company-sized sub-units of about 120 men that can be more easily deployed.
But isn't that just how the Army is structured anyway? Coy's can be deployed independantly anyway.

As for the Regimental system being outdated ? A Regt is just the next level up before BDE, DIV etc, what you call it is neither here or there. Why not leave well alone. The Black Watch seemed to do OK in Basra.
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Old 8th Dec 2003, 05:02
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Regimental system has worked well for many years, continues to do so, seems to be a retrograde step to abolish it. The sense of family, cohesion, and esprit de corps is easier to foster around a long and proud history and most regiments certainly have that.

Why was the Royal Tournamant abolished? It served as a wonderful way of entertaining educating and inspiring generations of the public in the history make up and various facets of the armed forces and how they serve the country. It was a showcase of all that was smart disciplined and proudly patriotic, it helped our armed forces stand out in an exemplary fashion and probably did more for recruitment and good PR than was spent staging it. I never did get the reason why it was axed but feel that in line with the gender confused politicaly correct athmosphere that now prevails it was probably considered hostile and generaly inimical to the general apathetic mood we are surrounded with. Another victory to the 'roll over who needs an army brigade' who would invite the enemy in for tea and biccies and 'lets talk about this in a civilised manner.'
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Old 8th Dec 2003, 07:05
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People have been saying the regimental system should be scrapped for decades all the way back to WW2 as far as im aware yet it's still around today. It has to be said that the regiment is no longer the base unit organization of the army and it hasnt been for quite some time yet it's still around.
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Old 8th Dec 2003, 07:30
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It works sort of, and no viable altenrative is yet in place or wanted.
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Old 9th Dec 2003, 21:32
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You know when senior officers and defence planners have run out of ideas when they start spouting mealy-mouthed phrases in a Gordon-Brown like fashion, with the knowledge that their audience will never believe them.

When was the last time a CAS was done for Sabotage?

Read CAS' memo, then re-read it, then read it again. Blimey, the RAF are in heap big trouble.
The reverse psychology works well in the accountant's classroom. Unfortunately, the same accountants are nowhere to be found when Bloggsy gets shot and dies due to them being half-way down the queue when Chest Armour was being handed out.

So, CAS' memo was meant to 'butter-us-up' for the next Defence White Paper. Call me old fashioned but will it mean the end of over-stretch or negligence?

The last senior officer who they couldn't convince just to 'nod' had to walk, but atleast he went with a clear concience.

Just glad that it's my last tour.


Redundancies: One weeks' basic pay for each productive year of service. Enabling Acts of Parliament are already in force to get around the Air Force Act. You learnt about loyalty and integrity here at the RAF School of Man Management.
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Old 10th Dec 2003, 03:36
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There is nothing wrong with the Regimental System,

Bean counters and Poliies in Unison, a horrendous mix indeed.

In strife anywhere in the world, shout out the Ships Name/Reg/Unit and you they all come to your aid, if present of course, otherwise you were in deep stoomf ( PC police I don't think have thought of that one YET , anyway I never cared )
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You mention one weeks pay per year of service and possible legislation to get round the AFA. That's a bit disconcerting for the rather large numbers who will probably apply...... can you tell us where that particular change to our terms of service came from ???? The standard redundancy packages for military personnel are published in AP3392 and I am not aware of any changes since I last looked. To the best of my knowledge the one weeks pay/year is the minimum industrial standard, but the MOD has different arrangements

Only curious as I will certainly apply if a redundancy scheme comes around again.

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Old 10th Dec 2003, 05:17
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BATS you are not alone. I find the one weeks pay per year a little short of what was being given last time round. I seem to remember it going on time left to serve though not time served. More a buying you out of your contracted term left type thing really! Thats why I just signed on, just in case it buys me more pay off! Must find that darn AP3392 thingy tomorow. Mind you last time it went on negative assessments, so as I keep my nose clean I'd probably get one of those you're too valuable to loose letters! But then again the CO's wife looks OK!
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Old 10th Dec 2003, 06:57
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Back to topic

There was something about defence on the BBC news tonight. Missed the first few minutes of this. Also it was on Newsnight. I spent several minutes listening to some silly woman from an academic group saying we should funnel money away from the Armed Forces towards do gooders telling people to behave -

"Please Mr Hitler, come and join us around the camp fire and promise you'll behave...."

The talk of reducing the surface fleet flies in the face of the statement by the First Sea Lord that the Navy does not have enough ships. Talk of scrapping "older ships", something which it might well be claimed has already been done, might indicate in a reduction in the number of Type 42 destroyers. Apart from increasing the overstretch of the fleet, it would mean naval task groups would virtually no defence, apart from short range weapons, against air attack. It would also mean that the reasoning used to justify scrapping the Sea Harrier is completely false.

However, it seems likely that things are being deliberating leaked so that when the real decisions come out they do not seem so bad, particularly if it is done on a drip by drip basis.

Recently, Geoff Hoon was being awkward.. he said measuring the capability of our armed forces by the number of units will no longer be significant.

Really? How exactly does one undertake things like peacekeeping without troops?

Consider the following statement from the either CINCFLEET or the Second Sea Lord (sorry, can't remember which)...

Using technology to get rid of the fog or war and confusion on the battlefield is all well and good - but it will not replace someone simply being there.

So there we have it. Who should the public and parliamentarians believe? Senior officers, or the Ministers?

As for the Treasury, in 1940 they wanted to surrender to the Nazis to save money. That nihlistic penny pinching attitude still exists.

To go back to the original theme of this thread, the question is how do those of us who care/worry about defence go about getting the public on side?

As the issue of tuition fees shows, opposition by the public AND in parliament can make the Government reconsider things...
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Old 10th Dec 2003, 07:34
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Er... like going to war in Iraq, for instance?

Sadly, the Times led this morning with a poll suggesting that the 'majority of the population' is in fact in favour with tuition fees, and that it is in fact Labour MPs who are out of touch. Chances of Bliar not seizing upon that? Slim...

You'd have thought that, with their (whisper it gently) socialist backgrounds President Blair et al would have remembered Stalin's 'Sometimes quantity has a quality all of its own' dictum...
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