A strong Union needs a strong Armed Forces
Saving the Union is supposed to be one of this Government’s top priorities. You certainly found no shortage of people saying so at the recent Conservative Party Conference.
But it is a feature of Boris Johnson’s rule that slogans don’t necessarily signal a coherent policy programme. Instead, words such as ‘levelling up’ and ‘defending the UK’ can mean just about anything.
No story illustrates this gulf between rhetoric and reality than last week’s reports that the Army, in line with the Government’s plans to cut troop numbers, intends to allow its footprint in Scotland to wither on the vine.
According to the Times, the proposals would see the accelerated closure of two bases currently slated to shut in the 2030s whilst a third, perhaps even more toxically, would relocate to England. The overall number of British troops stationed in Scotland would be cut almost in half, from 3700 to 2000 — a figure out of all proportion to the overall fall in strength from 77,820 to 72,500.
In order to avoid the need to make soldiers redundant, the Army further proposes to effectively freeze recruitment in Scotland in order to let the regiments there shrink via “natural wastage”.
For a government which is nominally committed to strengthening the United Kingdom, it is difficult to overstate how short-sighted this is.
In the era of devolution, with the British State locked out of vast areas of policy, military spending has been one of the few ways for it to maintain a footprint in Scotland. Successive governments have recognised this, prioritising the Clyde for naval shipbuilding contracts at the expense of other yards. It is no coincidence that Jackie Baillie, one of Scottish Labour’s most boisterously pro-UK MSPs, has Faslane submarine base in her constituency.
During the 2014 referendum, one argument employed by Better Together campaigners was that there was no way that Alex Salmond would honour his promise to maintain all of Scotland’s historic regiments post-independence, given the tiny sums the SNP had earmarked for a Scottish Defence Force.
The Armed Forces are one of a dwindling number of genuinely pan-UK institutions. At a time when people increasingly live their lives in an English or Scottish pattern, military service produces Britons.
A far-sighted government would recognise that this social function is not, or should not be considered as, merely incidental to the Army’s proper purpose.
Making sure that the Armed Forces drew strength from, and were distributed widely around, the entire nation would be a core part of any defence review. And when one of the biggest challenges facing unionists is reaching out to young people, effectively shutting them out of a military career via a recruitment freeze would be dismissed out of hand.
At the very least, Ben Wallace, Alister Jack, and Michael Gove should join forces to demand that any reduction of troop numbers in Scotland is merely proportional to the overall cut in personnel numbers. In the long run, Westminster has to recognise that a small army undermines its nation-building potential.