The Scottish regiments have been spared in the latest round of defence cuts - but not everyone north of the border is happy.
Conservatives on either side of the Scottish border yesterday found themselves split over the future shape of the British Army.
Whilst the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders may find themselves guarding high-profile locations such as Edinburgh’s Holyrood Palace as the battalion takes on more ceremonially focused duties, Scotland’s other four battalions – the Royal Scots Borderers, the Black Watch, the Royal Highland Fusiliers and the Highlanders – will remain intact, despite 17 units facing the axe elsewhere in the country with the loss of 20,000 jobs.
The Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, expressed ‘delight’ at the decision:
“As a former reservist, I know from first-hand experience the unsurpassed professionalism and dedication of the men and women of our United Kingdom armed forces.
Scotland has played a proud role in defending our shores and fighting for freedom and democracy around the world.
One of the core strengths of our army is the regimental and battalion names – the Golden Thread – and that is why I fought Scotland’s corner hard to keep them.
I had no hesitation in raising these issues with David Cameron and I’m delighted the prime minister and Philip Hammond, Secretary of State for Defence, recognised the strength of these arguments.
As a result, we have an army fit for purpose for the world we face today and a continued pivotal role for the fine soldiers who wear the cap badges of Scotland.”
Davidson’s views were not shared by her colleagues in London. Conservative MP John Baron, a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, expressed his anger at the decision, speaking of a “grubby political fix”. He told defence secretary Philip Hammond that:
“Not only does the decision to cut the Army by a fifth smack of accountants running amok, but the decision to axe the better recruited English battalions, such as [2nd Battalion, Royal Regiment of Fusiliers], at the expense of the more poorly recruited Scottish battalions, smacks of a grubby political fix, given the advent of the Scottish referendum.”
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Nonetheless, this morning’s Daily Record writes of the UK government insulting Scotland.
The paper’s editorial reads:
“Defence cuts will take infantry levels to their lowest levels since the Napoleonic Wars.
As part of that, the world-famous Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders will be reduced to a ceremonial role guarding Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyrood.
In other words, warriors will be reduced to providing the backdrop to tourists’ photographs.
Shadow Defence Secretary Jim Murphy was absolutely right when he said: ‘This isn’t just a smaller Army, it’s also a less powerful Army in a less influential nation. Our armed forces and their families deserve better.’
Downgrading the Argylls to the status of glorified watchmen is an insult to the regiment and to Scotland’s proud infantry history.”
The Scotsman’s leader, in turn, picks up the theme of betrayal:
“In Scotland, the announcement has the sound of covering fire being laid down by water pistols. Highly valued regimental names, Mr Hammond boasted, are being retained.
The history and sentiment associated with these names and cap badges has been the focus of much oppositional political campaigning and Mr Hammond was responding to that.
“But it seems unlikely the officers and soldiers of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, a regiment whose name is synonymous with some of the hardest-fought conflicts in history, will be delighted with their much reduced numbers and new job as a “public duty company”. It means providing, among other things, sentries at Holyrood Palace and Edinburgh Castle. Hardly a taxing military duty.
If recruitment to Scottish regiments is a problem, then the consigning of the Argylls to what the rest of the army thinks of as toy soldiering is unlikely to fix that.
“The SNP has been vocal in condemning the cuts as overly harsh in Scotland. The absence from the announcement of how previously declared intentions to move an army multi-role brigade to Leuchars in Fife once the RAF has departed will be implemented is indeed concerning.
But since First Minister Alex Salmond has previously said that the slimmed-down military presence in Scotland looked suited to the needs of independence, the SNP’s criticism sounds more than a little hollow.”
Meanwhile, in Wales, the loss of 2nd Battalion Royal Welsh Regiment has prompted the nation’s most senior solider to warn that Wales’s regular units cannot sustain any further cuts. Quoted this morning in the Western Mail this morning, Brigadier Philip Napier said:
“It’s a tough day for Wales and a tough day for the Army. The government has made some difficult decisions, and the Army is going to have to adapt as it always does.
Wales, I think, is now probably down to somewhere near the irreducible bare minimum because we only have one cavalry regiment, one line infantry battalion and one guards battalion.
Any further cuts in the regulars from Wales would mean the loss of a cap badge and a regiment, which would be extraordinarily difficult to deliver.
It’s got to a point where if you go any further, you lose a regiment which has 325 years of history.”