The park was lively enough for a Sunday morning as the first drops of rain plopped on to waterproof coats and a tour group winding past the pond put up their umbrellas with a fusillade of flapping. A church bell was sounding in the distance from somewhere past Whitehall, and from Birdcage Walk in the other direction, the wind brought the faintest strains of a military band.
Following the music as the rain grew heavier, I admired the sentries in their scarlet tunics outside the Guards Chapel on the way to Wellington Barracks. A couple of dozen tourists were watching through the railings as the guardsmen in their giant bearskins and greatcoats stood for inspection on the parade ground.
The armed forces are among the few institutions of the British state that are still almost universally admired and function fairly efficiently despite dwindling manpower and funding shortfalls. It is no wonder that Boris Johnson has called in the army to help out with everything from coronavirus testing to processing Ukrainian refugees whenever his government has found the business of putting policy into practice to be beyond it.
The officers at Wellington Barracks saluted with their swords but when the guardsmen presented arms it was with SA80 rifles that can fire about 700 rounds a minute, a reminder that these men's primary purpose is to kill. As Britain increases its troop deployment on Nato's eastern borders in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, their chances of having to kill has risen, along with their prospects of dying.
London ought to be an upholsterers’ paradise these days for all the armchair generals holding forth on everything from Russian supply lines and the tyre pressure of their tanks to the minutiae of the materiel that could help Ukraine to prevail. One of them was in our local Italian the other evening, rendering his three companions silent if not transfixed as he walked them through the order of battle on both sides.
Pulling back from the details on the battlefield to survey the geopolitical scene, he pointed the finger of blame firmly in the direction of Angela Merkel. If you went asleep last December, you might be forgiven for thinking that Merkel was venerated on the world stage for her good sense, stability and integrity and that she had presided over 16 years of peace and prosperity in Germany.
According to the new conventional wisdom, however, Merkel infantilised her people by failing to spend tens of billions of euro more every year on lethal weapons, and her appeasement of Vladimir Putin led him to invade Ukraine after she left office.
“She grew up speaking Russian, you know,” the armchair general said.
For all of Boris Johnson's fighting talk, he has done nothing to prepare the public for any sacrifices that might be necessary because of the war
The owner and his wife were behind the bar looking out at a restaurant that was, like everywhere else around here these days, fully booked. But he was worried that if Putin could not get his way in Ukraine by conventional means, he could use nuclear weapons.
“Every night I go to bed and I say to my wife: ‘I hope I’ll see you in the morning,’” he said.
She didn’t look too pushed.
In the cafe on the corner where the cabbies meet to grumble, one of them told me he had served in the Royal Marines but he would not allow his two sons to fight for their country.
“It’s not worth fighting for,” he said.
“If they called them up I’d say, take me. When I was growing up my family was always fighting because we loved fighting. I became a marine because I loved fighting. They’re not like that.”
Most people in Britain are not like that either, and for all of Johnson’s fighting talk, he has done nothing to prepare the public for any sacrifices that might be necessary because of the war. Although Britain has played an important role in sharing intelligence with Ukraine and supplying weapons, it has been sluggish in sanctioning Russian oligarchs and mean-spirited in its official response to the refugee crisis.
Tens of thousands of British people have offered to take refugees into their homes, and public outrage against the cruelty of Putin’s war is heartfelt and justified. But there is something unsettling about the moral certainty of the armchair generals as they move the pieces around their fantasy battlefield in the comfort of a booming metropolis on Europe’s western edge.