David Maddox: Defence committee let MSP off hook

GIVEN that Tories are still not exactly popular north of the Border, it is perhaps surprising that one of their MPs – defence select committee chairman James Arbuthnot – could lay claim to the throne of Scotland.

Picture: Getty

But being the direct descendent of James IV, the king of Scotland who was humiliated and killed at Flodden 500 years ago, is not necessarily something to boast about. Unlike his predecessor, Mr Arbuthnot is widely respected for his knowledge of defence and chairmanship of one of the most important committees in parliament.

The defence select committee under him has been a constant thorn in the side of the UK government, exposing its lack of strategy beyond cuts and constantly questioning the rationale of downsizing the military.

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But despite this powerful record, the committee has decided to back away from holding the Scottish Government to account in the same way.

Last July it invited the SNP veterans minister Keith Brown to give evidence to them on the committee’s inquiry into the impact of independence. At the hearing, the SNP minister, a former marine, managed to get tangled up on a whole series of issues including procurement, training, structure of the forces and ship building. He didn’t even know what type of fast jets an independent Scotland would want.

But even though the committee was handed a chance to go for the kill, it held off and the report it published in September was instead a long list of questions to be answered in the Scottish Government’s white paper.

The white paper failed to answer the majority of those questions, not least what the foreign policy aims and strategy would be, which the committee argued has to be decided before a military force can even be constructed.

The original plan had been to recall Mr Brown, but the committee has decided to not do it. The Scotsman understands that the reason for this is that there are now no Scottish MPs on the committee and they are afraid of being counter-productive and coming over as “bullying English MPs”.

The rationale is one which is playing out across Westminster as an increasing number of MPs with no Scottish link are stepping away from the debate. The recent debate in the Commons on independence only had one contribution from an MP who did not represent a Scottish seat or was not Scottish in another way. The front benches only had Scottish representatives as well. No Cameron, Miliband, Osborne or Balls.

English MPs do not seem to be following Mr Cameron’s call to show Scotland their love but the defence select committee’s decision not to hold the Scottish Government to account undermines Westminster’s place as a parliament for the whole of the UK.