Leaders: Case for Union takes hit on defence revamp

Picture: Fiona McNaught
Picture: Fiona McNaught
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IN POLITICS, there are some simple rules. One of these is to do with promises. Simply put, do not make a promise you cannot keep because if you break that promise, there is nowhere to hide and the public’s response will fall a considerable way short of understanding and forgiveness.

This is the rule the UK government has just broken. In 2011, the then defence secretary, Liam Fox, talked grandly of the thousands of soldiers currently based in Germany who would be coming home to new bases in Scotland. This, said the East Kilbride-born Tory MP, would be proof positive of the defence dividend enjoyed by Scotland for being part of the Union.

At the time, this was seen as a deft move by a canny politician. It confounded the contrary claims of the SNP, which had been complaining that the amount of UK defence money spent in Scotland had been on the slide.

How times change. Dr Fox is now out of government, having fallen victim to a bizarre combination of events that involved the presence of his best man, the lobbyist Adam Werritty, at high- level Ministry of Defence meetings and ministerial trips abroad. The defence strategy that formed the basis for Dr Fox’s plans to bring troops back to Scotland – to be part of a “mobile brigade” to act as a fast response unit for posting overseas at short notice – has fallen out of favour.

The result was an MoD basing announcement yesterday that rather than delivering thousands of new soldiers to Scotland, instead delivered hundreds. As the SNP was quick to point out, these extra army posts failed to compensate for the air force personnel lost to Scotland with the closure of air bases. They did not mention the proposed increase in Navy personnel.

That is not to say there is not some worth in the MoD’s revised basing structure. Leuchars survives as a military facility, and the Royal Marines’ base at Arbroath is being retained. But it is all a far cry from the original plans, which included a £400 million “super-barracks” to be built on the outskirts of Edinburgh. It is clear some of the assumptions made at the MoD under previous defence secretaries were based on fanciful assumptions – including the amount of money that could be raised, in a property slump, by selling off some of the army’s historical barrack accommodation in the capital and elsewhere.

Defence Secretary Philip Hammond yesterday tried to put the best gloss possible on a difficult day, saying Scotland would end up with “a little bit more than its fair share” of military personnel when compared with its population share of the UK. But this was cold comfort. The government was all too well aware that it had over-promised, and that the only reaction it could expect was one of disappointment.

And that will have damaged any belief in a Scottish defence dividend for being part of the Union, and damage the No campaign’s cause.

A prickly thorn in the SNP’s side

THE current SNP leadership could be forgiven for wincing whenever it hears the name “Gordon Wilson”. The heyday of the party’s former leader was the 1970s and 1980s, but in recent years he has again found his voice, often to the annoyance of his successors.

Mr Wilson’s contribution to the current political debate has primarily been on moral issues – he has been a vocal opponent of the SNP government’s plan for equal marriage, at one point calling it “a step towards fascism”.

Now, the former MP for Dundee East is turning his attention and forthright opinions to the SNP’s plans for independence. And it is likely his contribution will be just as unwelcome to the SNP hierarchy as his views on Christian morality.

Mr Wilson suggests there should be a second, post-
independence, multi-option referendum allowing Scots to give specific views on the country’s relationship with the European Union, Nato and whether Scotland should keep the pound.

Mr Wilson is to be commended for wanting to get involved in the debate about Scotland’s future after a Yes vote for independence. There is a debate, for example, over whether Scotland should be a member of the European Union or the European Free Trade Area.

All views, from whatever quarter, are welcome. However, his contribution does highlight the SNP’s difficulty in asking people to vote Yes before they know the exact shape of an independent Scotland on these key issues.

It is unlikely the SNP will
similarly welcome his comments. A single referendum is a cornerstone of the party’s strategy. Senior SNP officials will be wishing Mr Wilson was having a somewhat quieter retirement.