Artillery Row

Pet Mischief

In a serious country serious people would resign over Pen’s pets

When Boris Johnson overruled Ben Wallace and ordered him to facilitate the evacuation from Kabul of Paul ‘Pen’ Farthing and his “pets”, it would probably have been better had the Defence Secretary simply resigned. Better for his dignity, certainly, and very likely for the dignity of the State.

As it is, Farthing is apparently set to be the very last Briton airlifted out of Afghanistan before the deadline imposed by Joe Biden and our incapability of acting without American support.

So ends a story that has done so much that we were warned it took Brexit to accomplish: exposing the United Kingdom as a fundamentally unserious actor on the world stage whilst exposing an unbridgeable gulf between the values of its citizens.

Many continue to cling to the idea that this was a cost-free operation

On the one hand, Farthing’s fanatical supporters. Presumably sifted from the implausibly high number of people telling pollsters they value animal life above human life, these are the men and women who crowd-funded a private flight for cats and dogs whilst the Taliban were executing men and women. Now they seem to spend their time bullying Ministry of Defence staff and sending abuse to anyone, myself included, who criticises their boy.

On the other stand myself and anyone else for whom this story is little short of a moral disgrace.

Let’s be clear on what happened here. After Farthing and his staff had been issued visas, he was getting headlines claiming he’d been “abandoned” by Britain because he wouldn’t leave his dogs. This tactic worked, and Downing Street allowed it to be known that the PM had personally intervened to make sure the cats and dogs could get out on their special flight.

At this point, the ex-marine’s defenders could still plausibly claim that getting his staff and their families out was still the primary purpose of the exercise. The animals were simply a happy bonus, flying in a hold where people couldn’t go.

Today, that line collapsed. For despite his solemn words about not leaving without his staff, Farthing has indeed left without his staff. When it came to it, the man who told us he’d die with his dogs was content to let his driver disembark at a Taliban checkpoint and hand the keys to a British soldier — perhaps one of those who then helped him load up the plane with pet food and other essentials.

Many continue to cling to the idea that this was a cost-free operation, and anyone who got out on this crowd-funded flight is simply a bonus. This is nonsense.

First, the Armed Forces and MoD — who we’d expect to know best about the practicalities of the evacuation — clearly don’t think so. Time and resources are finite. It has been nowhere suggested the operation was running short on planes. Those soldiers could have been doing other, more important things.

Hostile media are putting a spotlight on our warped priorities

Second, people could have gone in that hold. It certainly wouldn’t have been pleasant, but it is safe to assume the people throwing babies over the barbed wire or clinging to the landing gear of departing flights would have borne the discomfort. The fact that Farthing is going to be feeding and mucking out the animals on their flight to Tashkent proves it would be a survivable trip.

MoD sources are telling journalists that the public “will discover he’s not a nice man”. That may be optimistic. The people who’ve supported him thus far seem to be prepared to undertake pretty much whatever mental gymnastics prove necessary to convince themselves of their virtue. We may just get further evidence that it’s not a nice public out there.

To the rest of us, however, Farthing already stands as a real-life Mrs Jellyby, an exquisitely drawn cartoon of canting do-gooder hypocrisy. Were a fictionalised version of him to appear in a film about the evacuation of Kabul, he would not be believable.

There will be serious consequences to this. With hundreds of allies left on the ground in Afghanistan, hostile media are putting a spotlight on our warped priorities. Our allies and collaborators in other parts of the world will surely take note.

And given the extremely high stakes, that is not to mention the people who will probably lose their lives as a result of this diversion of resources.

But the most serious problem of all is perhaps that too many Britons seem not to care about any of that, no more than they care about the plight of our agriculture sector and the importance of our exports when it comes to saving a diseased but photogenic alpaca. Sections of both the Government and the press are indulging this, creating a political agenda driven by short-term emotional hits without regard to tough trade-offs or long-term consequences.

We were warned, I suppose, that the rise of the internet and social media would have terrible effects on our politics. But who would have guessed that, nestled innocuously between all the FBPE and the MAGA, it was the cutesy animal videos we really needed to worry about?

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