David Maddox: Front-line peace-keeping force or nuclear powerhouse
The Scotland Office building is the envy of most of other departments in Whitehall not least because it has a long balcony that overlooks Horse Guards Parade ground, offering a prime spot for watching the annual Trooping of the Colour and, this year, the Olympics beach volleyball competition.
So on Saturday, like every other year, politicians, civil servants, journalists, business people and members of the Scottish great and good jostled for space to watch the impressive military celebration of the Queen’s official birthday by the five Guards regiments and Household Cavalry.
There was a particular poignancy about this year’s celebration not just because it was the Queen’s diamond jubilee or for the return to official duties for Prince Phillip. Rather it was because the event was led by the Coldstream Guards, whose days as a regular infantry battalion look numbered in the army cuts set to be announced after the summer.
The Coldstream Guards’ history dates back to 1650 when they were first raised in the Scottish Borders to serve in Cromwell’s New Model Army and they lay claim to being the oldest regiment in the British Army. In its long, distinguished history the unit has 117 battle honours and 13 winners of the Victoria Cross. But in the army 2020 reforms, set to be announced, it looks like they will be reduced to a territorial army unit or see their named merged with another Guards regiment.
This may be why the Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, who was a guest of the Scotland Office on Saturday, was looking down on them with a look that could have been mistaken for regret.
And yet this defence secretary will be responsible for a series of famous names being reduced or lost including the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, the regiment of the thin red line at Balaclava.
It was interesting that Scottish Secretary Michael Moore in his speech on Saturday appeared to make a plea for the Coldstream Guards, noting with some pride that they took their name from a town in his constituency.
But within 24 hours of overlooking what might be the last stand of the Coldstream Guards, Mr Hammond was on the screens defending new investment in the replacement for Trident.
The contrast in the billions poured into what many see as an outdated deterrent and the loss of men to put on the ground is at the heart of the debate over the military’s way forward. Should Britain be investing in a world role as a peace keeper and front-line fighter in troubled countries or in weapons of mass destruction that keeps it at the top table in terms of international power?
The Lib Dems and SNP would prefer more troops the Tories and most of Labour want the nuclear option. But in these straightened economic times it seems unlikely that Britain can do both.
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Friday 24 May 2013
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