Leaders: Military cuts condemn UK to reduced global role
WHEN the cuts to military personnel announced by Philip Hammond, the Defence Secretary, take place, Britain’s armed forces will be pruned back to a level smaller than existed at the time of the Crimean War.
The reduction, taking numbers down to 82,000, will also mean that there are almost as many bureaucrats at the Ministry of Defence – 75,000 – as there are service personnel.
The cut is among the most severe the military has known. While the UK Government insists that military capabilities will not be significantly affected, reducing the size of the armed forces by a fifth is alone grounds for doubting that. Whatever may be thought of the merits of military operations which have been undertaken in recent years in Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan, it seems improbable that British armed forces could carry out such large-scale deployments again.
When the cuts are set against the bloated bureaucracy over which Mr Hammond presides, there are also grounds for doubting that a government led by a Conservative Party which prides itself as being the party of and for the armed forces has its priorities right.
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.
Mr Hammond declared his announcement produced a “forward-looking fighting machine, respecting the past but looking forward to the future”. If so, it is a future which implicitly accepts that Britain’s role in the world is much diminished and its capacity to defend British interests abroad is much reduced. That may be the reality but Mr Hammond should have the courage to admit it.
Unpalatable decision on meat plant
Recession has meant that grim announcements such as that made by Vion UK that the Halls of Broxburn meat processing facility which it owns may have to close with the loss of 1,700 jobs are not unusual. But it is still a heavy blow, for Halls has been part of West Lothian for a long time.
Should it eventually close, it will be a major economic blow to an area of the country which has become all too used to such hits over the last half-century – from the rundown of mining, through the rise and fall of the manufacture of motor vehicles and then electronics. Now this. The Scottish Government has been commendably quick to convene a task force of local representatives, enterprise bodies and the industry to see what can be done.
This worked in 2008, when under the ownership of the then troubled Grampian Foods group, it was rescued from closure by Vion.
This time, however, the task looks a lot more difficult. Vion UK has clearly done a lot to improve the fortunes of Halls, putting in considerable investment to a facility which was badly in need of modernisation, though the company statement makes it plain that it has not been able to deal with all the site’s problems.
Sadly, other factors look beyond Vion or government control, such as high feed prices which pushed up the costs of pigs, recession which increased pressure for lower-priced foodstuffs, and a surfeit of meat processing capacity.
The decision the authorities will have to make is whether to fight to keep the plant open, or to look for alternative sources of employment. The former should be tried but, unfortunately, the latter may be more realistic.
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Tuesday 21 May 2013
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