Defence Reviews

– in the Scottish Parliament at 9:30 am on 16th December 2004.

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Photo of George Reid George Reid None 9:30 am, 16th December 2004

Good morning. The first item of business is a debate on motion S2M-2165, in the name of Murdo Fraser, on defence reviews from a Scottish perspective, and three amendments to the motion. I invite those members who wish to contribute to the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

Later today, the Secretary of State for Defence Geoff Hoon will rise in the House of Commons to make a statement on the future of the Scottish regiments. If, as we expect, he announces that the King's Own Scottish Borderers and the Royal Scots will be merged into one battalion and the remaining four existing single-battalion infantry regiments in Scotland will be amalgamated into one super-regiment, that will constitute an act of political vandalism against the Scottish armed forces. I hope that the Parliament will support my motion and send a clear message to Geoff Hoon and his colleagues at Westminster that the Scottish Parliament will not tolerate such behaviour and that it will speak up for our regiments that have served this country and the British Army so well over so many years.

My motion refers to the impact on Scotland of proposed defence cuts. This is not only about the army. The Ministry of Defence's command paper published in July, "Delivering Security in a Changing World: Future Capabilities", set out in general terms a number of areas that were heading for longer-term restructuring and re-equipping. The paper also outlined a series of cuts in services, including reductions in manpower: 7,500 for the Royal Air Force and 1,500 each in the Royal Navy and the Army.

As members are aware, there has been a great deal of uncertainty about the future of Scottish bases and regiments. There was a particular question mark over RAF Kinloss and an announcement was made yesterday about the loss of a squadron based there. Other bases, such as HMS Gannet—the Navy's base in Prestwick, Ayrshire—could face the axe. There will be serious economic implications for Scotland.

However, it is fair to say that the primary concern for many in Scotland surrounds the future of our six infantry regiments. The proposal is that the Royal Scots and the King's Own Scottish Borderers be merged and that all five battalions then be amalgamated into a super-regiment of five battalions. That proposal has been vigorously opposed with an energetic campaign headed by the save the Scottish regiments group, backed up by support from across the political parties.

The arguments in favour of retaining the existing six Scottish infantry regiments have been well rehearsed, not least during the members' business debate on the subject that I led in the chamber on 23 September. In the short debate this morning, I do not intend to repeat all those arguments, with which I am sure members are familiar. I will say, however, that there has been an attempt in some quarters to portray the proposal for amalgamation as a military one. Certainly, General Sir Michael Jackson, who has been pushing the plans, has no sense of regimental loyalty, coming, as he does, from a Parachute regiment background. However, we need to be absolutely clear that any decision that will be taken will be political and not military. It is up to the Army board, stuffed full of Ministry of Defence mandarins, to take the final decision. If Geoff Hoon, Alistair Darling, Gordon Brown or Tony Blair wanted to stop the plans going through, it would be entirely within their power to do so. There should be no attempt to pass the blame to the military.

This is not just a Conservative issue, although I am proud of the role that my party has played at the forefront of the campaign to retain our regiments. I am pleased that I have had the support of colleagues from other parties. Indeed, during my members' business debate, politicians from across the chamber spoke with one voice in defence of our six infantry regiments. In that spirit, I am delighted to say that we can accept the amendments from the Scottish National Party and the Liberal Democrats this morning.

However, I am both surprised and disappointed by the terms of the Labour amendment. I had hoped that we would have the support of Labour members this morning. I remind John Home Robertson that when he spoke in my members' business debate, he said:

"I hope that my colleagues at Westminster will prevail against the military top brass, in this case General Jackson."—[Official Report, 23 September; c 10640.]

Similarly, Dr Elaine Murray MSP said:

"I express my unequivocal support for the retention of the identity of the King's Own Scottish Borderers"—[Official Report, 23 September; c 10648.]

It seems that John Home Robertson has made a U-turn of his own. No doubt he will clarify shortly the reason for his Damascene conversion. I refer him to remarks that were made by a spokeswoman for the First Minister, Jack McConnell MSP, and which were quoted in The Scotsman on 8 October:

"The First Minister has always made his views clear ... he recognises the need to modernise the army, to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

However he also thinks the identity of the six Scottish battalions is important, both to their local communities and to Scotland, and those identities should be protected within any new structure. He does not think that the suggestion to merge the Royal Scots with the KOSB serves that view."

I hope that those words mean that Mr McConnell will support my motion and that his Labour colleagues should feel no compunction in so doing.

We should be clear that retaining identity should not mean keeping cap badges as part of a super-regiment that will have one tartan and one regimental headquarters. We will settle for nothing less than the retention of six single-battalion Scottish regiments, and those who support our motion should be quite clear that that is what we mean.

What makes this issue particularly poignant is the fact that the Black Watch has just returned this week from Iraq, having served with distinction. The regiment has lost five of its men, whose funerals we have seen conducted. What a betrayal it would be of the service of those fine men for their regiment to be amalgamated—in effect, out of existence—by the Government. The sight of Geoff Hoon in Iraq last week with the Black Watch was sickening. One moment he was patting the brave troops on the back, and the very next, he was prepared to stab them in the back with the proposed amalgamations.

This Parliament can send a clear message today to Geoff Hoon and Tony Blair. We will defend our Scottish regiments; we will not have vandalism of our historic traditions; and we will not stomach a cut in our armed forces at this dangerous time.

I move,

That the Parliament notes the proposed cuts in manpower from the Royal Air Force, the Royal Navy and Army throughout the United Kingdom; further notes that this would mean the merger of the Royal Scots and the King's Own Scottish Borderers into one battalion and the amalgamation of all five battalions into a super regiment of five battalions and a reduction in jobs and operations at RAF Lossiemouth and Kinloss; believes that this will have an adverse economic impact on the areas affected by the cuts; further believes that the Scottish regiments are an important part of the tradition and heritage of Scotland; notes that the recent war in Iraq was the latest conflict which showed Scotland's regiments to be a modern, effective fighting force; believes that, in a time of increased commitments across the globe, our armed forces must have the necessary resources and structure to protect our country, deter aggression and safeguard our vital interests in the wider world, and, accordingly, condemns any cuts and mergers and, in particular, believes that the six existing single battalion Scottish infantry regiments should be retained.

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson Labour 9:37 am, 16th December 2004

I will address some of the points that Murdo Fraser raised shortly, but before I go any further, I reiterate my support for the First Minister's position on the six battalions in the Scottish division.

I have strong personal feelings about the subject—first, as the son of a King's Own Scottish Borderer, and secondly, as a constituency MSP for the Royal Scots area. The Royal Scots and the King's Own Scottish Borderers are two of the finest regiments in any army anywhere on the planet. No one should forget that the Royal Scots is the first regiment of foot in the British Army and is affectionately known as Pontius Pilate's bodyguard because of its long record.

I was involved in the campaign against the plan to amalgamate those two regiments under the Tory Government in 1991 and nothing has happened to change my mind since then. However, one would have to be especially gullible to support any motion on the subject that had been lodged by the Tory party in this Parliament. We have a party that professes undying commitment to the sovereignty of the Westminster Parliament moving a motion in this devolved Parliament that challenges the authority of Westminster in relation to defence policy. This might be the season of good will, but I recognise humbug when I hear it.

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson Labour

I am sorry—I have only a short time to speak.

It gets worse. Here in the Scottish Parliament, which has no responsibility for defence, the Tories swear total commitment to six infantry battalions, the RAF stations, the naval bases and everything else. Yet what did they do when they were in power at Westminster in the Parliament that is responsible for defence? I have a very long memory. I was a member of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee when a certain Malcolm Rifkind sold Rosyth naval dockyard down the river. Rosyth had the best bid for Trident refitting, but a Scottish Tory Secretary of State for Defence took that contract to Devonport for political reasons.

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson Labour

I apologise to the member; time is short in this debate.

I was on the Defence Select Committee when Tom King was Secretary of State for Defence. Members might remember the "Options for Change" white paper that was presented by that Tory secretary of state in 1991. At that time, the Cheshire regiment was deployed on a difficult and dangerous operation in Bosnia and—can we believe it—was under threat of amalgamation.

Tom King proposed to amalgamate the Royal Scots and the KOSB, but we managed to beat the amalgamation threat in 1991 because of the excellent recruitment and retention record of most of the Scottish infantry battalions. I am afraid that that case cannot be made as effectively in 2004. We all know that the Scottish infantry division is heavily dependent on recruitment from Commonwealth countries. If we can learn one lesson from that, it is that we need to do more to make careers in the armed forces more attractive to recruits and their families throughout Scotland.

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson Labour

I am sorry, but I do not have time. If the Tory party had allowed more time for the debate I could have taken interventions, but it did not do so.

In 1991, the Tory Government forced through the amalgamation of the Queen's Own Highlanders and the Gordon Highlanders. That amalgamation disrupted centuries of military tradition in the Highlands and the north-east. With the greatest respect to Murdo Fraser, we do not need lectures about military traditions from the party that wound up the Gordons. No amount of opportunist rhetoric can conceal the fact that we cannot trust the Tories on defence. Members should remember what they did to Rosyth and what they did to the Gordon Highlanders.

I do not believe that proposals to amalgamate regiments are ever initiated by politicians. No politician in his right mind would deliberately challenge deeply held local loyalties anywhere. The plans to reorganise the armed forces come from the military. They are driven by professional soldiers, who are rightly determined to learn the lessons that Lord Raglan did not learn before the battle of Balaclava: we must keep our forces and our tactics at least two steps ahead of the potential enemy. That means that we must have modern structures, which is the underlying issue.

It would take a brave politician to face down the chief of the general staff, General Sir Mike Jackson. I have met him a number of times, and I will say simply that he is an extremely impressive officer and that it does not surprise me that he is affectionately known in the armed forces—and has been for a long time—as the "Prince of Darkness". I have no doubt that he has a clear strategy for more effective and flexible armed forces to deal with the new threats and risks of the 21st century, which he is driving forward in the Ministry of Defence.

Notwithstanding that, it should be possible to combine the best of our military traditions with the needs of 21st century military operations. The First Minister has expressed his strong support for the retention of the identities of the six Scottish infantry battalions in a modern British army. The Black Watch has demonstrated the very best of Scottish military commitment and professionalism in the peacemaking operation in Iraq. I sincerely hope that when Geoff Hoon makes his statement in the House of Commons this afternoon, he will announce a new structure for the army that will make it possible to continue the magnificent military traditions of all six infantry battalions in the Scottish infantry division in the army of the future.

I move amendment S2M-2165.4, to leave out from first "notes" to end and insert:

"acknowledges the importance of Scotland's substantial contribution to the armed forces of the United Kingdom; notes the social and economic value of the military to communities throughout Scotland; believes that Scotland is rightly proud of the historic and current contribution of Scottish service personnel to the defence of the United Kingdom and to peacekeeping operations worldwide; accepts the need for the military to drive decisions about the structure of efficient armed forces for the modern world, and believes that the traditions, community links and identities of Scotland's infantry battalions should be maintained in the armed forces of the United Kingdom."

Photo of Roseanna Cunningham Roseanna Cunningham Scottish National Party 9:43 am, 16th December 2004

John Home Robertson gave us five minutes of history lesson and 50 seconds of fatuous waffle, which is what we have come to expect from the Government. I am astonished that the duly elected, democratic Labour Government of this country is going to be told what to do by the military. I thought that that kind of thing happened only in third-world countries—apparently not.

I quote from Kipling:

"For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' 'Chuck him out, the brute!'

But it's 'Saviour of 'is country' when the guns begin to shoot;

An' it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' anything you please;

An' Tommy ain't a bloomin' fool—you bet that Tommy sees!"

We can replace the word "Tommy" with "the Black Watch", "the KOSB", or any of the other regiments and we can bet that Scottish soldiers are not bloomin' fools and that they see through the Government.

I brought with me a stack of blueys—letters from the field, which were sent to me from Iraq by soldiers who are serving in the Black Watch. The letters represent the views of soldiers, from privates to non-commissioned officers and senior officers. I will quote directly from some of the blueys so that the words of those soldiers are recorded in our Official Report:

"I have been sent here from (what was until now) a non-deployable post but, due to the lack of trained units Britain has to offer at short notice, there are no other units in a position to deploy rapidly." "We are serving out here ... with an Artillery Regiment that is serving in a role more normally filled by an infantry regiment ... In a period of 18 months they will have the opportunity to train on their artillery weapons for one 2-week period, because they are being deployed as infantry to fill a gap created by Options for Change." "The decision to reduce the armed forces ... can only add to the stress, strains and pressures already endured by us soldiers, wives and children. Some of us have been separated for 400 days in the last 2 years."

It makes me profoundly angry to read those messages and then to hear the managerial newspeak that emanates from a senior Government minister, who waffles away about how the emphasis is no longer on troop numbers but is on efficiencies and outcomes. Our soldiers deserve straight talking, not fatuous waffle, spin and deceit. They do not deserve the fatuous waffle that has spewed out of Westminster over the past few months and that we have just heard in the debate. The reality is that although money is no object when it comes to our weapons of mass destruction, the ordinary soldier is regarded as an expensive luxury.

I have heard it said that the United Kingdom has been involved in six wars in five years. I have not counted them, but if that is the case, we cannot expect our soldiers to be spread so thinly. Most people who join the army do so in the knowledge that at some time they might be expected to fight. Perhaps they do not anticipate that they will fight as often as they do—we have not anticipated that—or that they might occasionally be expected to fight in dubious circumstances.

In Scotland, most people who join up prefer to join a unit that has a strong and distinct identity. Young people go into the family regiment. In Perthshire, that regiment is the Black Watch, in which the ties are multigenerational and permeate the entire county and beyond. I believe that that is the case for all the other regiments. The experience of previous mergers, such as the one that led to the creation of the Highlanders in 1994, shows that it can take 10 years for recruitment to recover. Do we want that to happen to the whole of the Scottish division?

I will give the last word to a writer of one of the blueys:

"As a voter and a soldier I am writing to you for support, for you to question this decision and fight on our behalf to reverse the decision to reduce our armed services, as I am fighting for my life out here in Iraq in support of the politicians."

Shame on those politicians, and shame on Labour front-bench politicians in the Scottish Parliament, who display their contempt by their absence.

I move amendment S2M-2165.3, to insert at end:

"and condemns the fact that these proposals have been developed while Black Watch soldiers and other members of the armed forces are involved in a dangerous conflict in Iraq."

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat 9:48 am, 16th December 2004

Every defence review that has taken place post-1945 has had its critics, but the current review has far more than its fair share. It is obvious that the Government will be more than happy to accede to General Jackson's request that the remaining five regiments of the Scottish division be amalgamated into one super-sized regiment. As has been pointed out, General Jackson's background is in the Parachute regiment, which is a single regiment of three battalions that are drawn from throughout the country. General Jackson seems to think that that is a good model, which should be adopted by everyone else.

The general has failed to identify a believable rationale behind his argument. He wrote to me to explain that a multiple battalion is the modern way forward, because it would allow him to end the arms plot and it would allow trickle posting between battalions. Who is he trying to kid? Trickle postings between regiments already take place and do not depend on having a super-regiment. General Jackson says that the officers and men of the Scottish division are behind his plan, but people like him give consultation a bad name. The retention of single regiments was not even an option in his so-called consultation. The argument that a multi-battalion regiment is a necessary pre-condition for modern 21st century warfare is utter nonsense. The all-arms battle does not rely on large multibattalion regiments—quite the reverse. General Jackson does not help his argument when he tries to pull the wool over people's eyes in such a way.

I can put the case no better than did Brigadier Gary Barnett, a former colonel of the Black Watch, who said:

"We have seen no arguments that persuade us that battalions from large regiments are more operationally efficient or exhibit any advantage over single battalion regiments. It is clear to us that the advantages of a sense of belonging, continuity, regional connections, recruiting focus and esprit de corps far exceed the perceived disadvantages of the small regiment."

This is not the time to be proposing cuts in our armed forces. The Defence Committee of the House of Commons thinks that now is not the right time and the armed services think that it is not the right time. I believe that members of the Scottish Parliament should also send a message to the United Kingdom Government that it is not the right time. I say to John Home Robertson that we can speak for Scotland in this chamber.

How can a Government expect our armed forces to do more with less? When I left the Army some 10 years ago, I had served for two years in Northern Ireland and had also served in Gibraltar. In addition, I had done several tours in Germany—our garrisons are still there. In addition, we have troops in the Falklands, Belize and Cyprus and we have commitments in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and the middle east. When will those commitments stop? When will the Army's overstretch stop?

General John McColl, who is one of the most senior officers serving in Iraq, put it like this:

"You either work the Army harder or do less with them ... our capacity to conduct a number of these commitments is reduced with a reduction in the number of infantry battalions."

Yet Geoff Hoon, our distinguished Secretary of State for Defence, seriously proposes to cut some 6,500 men and women from the established strength of the Army, bringing it down to about the 100,000 mark. With that sort of strength, it will be impossible for the Army to carry out effectively the duties that we have placed upon it; the only other way it could do that would be if our commitments were cut. I am always an optimist, and I believe that serious terrorist operations in Northern Ireland are over, but we will need to station troops there for some time to come. Where does the Government expect to reduce our commitment? Are we signalling that we do not expect to be in Iraq for any length of time? Are going to cut and run from that unfortunate country?

The Liberal Democrats believe that it would be a mistake to cut our armed forces at this most difficult time in world affairs. We also believe that it would be foolish to deliver a self-inflicted wound by amalgamating our very effective Scottish infantry regiments into one over-large regiment for the whole country.

One of the reasons for amalgamating the Scottish infantry regiments is not based on sound military logic. If it were, surely the five Guards regiments—the Irish Guards, the Scots Guards, the Welsh Guards, the Coldstream Guards and the Grenadier Guards—should face amalgamation too. Why is that not the case? Because General Jackson would not dare: he knows that it is not a military argument to have one large regiment.

The Liberal Democrats will support the Conservative motion that is before us. That is the right thing for us to do. I am pleased that the Conservatives have accepted our amendment, as it expresses clearly the main reason that our six existing single-battalion regiments should be retained.

I move amendment S2M-2165.1, to insert at end:

"as the best way to maintain the operational effectiveness of the Scottish infantry."

Photo of George Reid George Reid None

The open debate is tight, therefore I ask members to keep their speeches to four minutes.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative 9:53 am, 16th December 2004

It is interesting that John Home Robertson, in his speech today, lost track of the notion of the new politics and took the opportunity to come forward with an argument that was aggressive but not based too much on the facts. The truth is that the Conservative party has shown genuine commitment on the issue; this is the second time that we have brought the matter to the chamber. Our record speaks for itself.

John Home Robertson was keen to raise the performance of past Conservative Governments. Indeed, the options for change review, which took place in the 1990s, made certain attempts to merge regiments, not least in my own area. As John Home Robertson rightly mentioned, the Gordons were subject to merger. I was an active part of the campaign against that merger. I take great pride in the fact that I spoke out against the merger then and I am proud to speak out against it again today. That merger served to give us a valuable lesson, which we need to ensure that we learn here and now.

The north-east area, which I represent, covers an area in the north, which recruits for the Gordons—or traditionally did—and an area in the south, which recruits for the Black Watch. It is easy to compare the amount of reaction in those two areas to the campaign against merger. I have taken great pride in going out on the streets of Montrose with my good friend Sid Mather to collect signatures in support of the Black Watch to try to head off this disastrous amalgamation. However, there has been hardly a peep from the area in the north that traditionally recruited to the Gordons. Above all else, that indicates that the sense of regimental loyalty, which has been retained by the Black Watch—and which is important to the commitment that our Army gives—has been lost in the area in the north as a result of the merger of the Gordons.

We must remember that what we are debating is not only the merger of the Scottish regiments. As our motion makes clear, we are experiencing an across-the-board cut in defence expenditure that will have a significant and serious economic impact throughout many areas of Scotland, not least in places such as Moray where two airbases could be threatened over time. Given that economic responsibilities are firmly in the Scottish Parliament's area of responsibility, it would be irresponsible of us not to address the issues.

We need only think back to the performance of the squadrons at RAF Kinloss and to the number of fishermen and seamen's lives that have been saved in the north Atlantic and North sea as a result of the efforts of the Nimrod crews that are based at Kinloss. One can only worry about how such safety measures will be implemented in the future. I am sure that all members share those concerns.

We are concerned that the proposals to merge the Scottish regiments are mirrored in other parts of the British Army, not least in the Royal Marines. In the constituency of Angus, which is represented by my colleague Andrew Welsh on the benches opposite, we also have RM Condor, which is an important base for 45 Commando squadron. From the reports that are being circulated today, it would appear that the Royal Marines are likely to be subjected to the same kind of merger that the Scottish regiments are experiencing, with all the potential impact on areas such as Arbroath if the base is closed or changed significantly.

The impact that Arbroath has had on the role of the Royal Marines over the years never ceases to amaze me. I remember being on holiday in Poole in Dorset and being surprised to find that all the young women who worked in the hotels there had Arbroath accents. Once I had spoken to them, however, that was not hard to understand. They told me that many of them had married marines and had, over time, been transferred to Dorset.

The Scottish Parliament has a responsibility to ensure that we address the issues that are before the chamber today. We have heard from members such as Mike Rumbles who have genuine experience in the Army. A number of members have also had experience in the Territorial Army. We need to listen to that wisdom and vote accordingly at decision time.

Photo of Elaine Murray Elaine Murray Labour 9:57 am, 16th December 2004

I make it clear from the start that, as I have only four minutes, I do not intend to take any interventions. Members can barrack as much as they like; I will not give way.

We need to face the fact that nothing that we say in the chamber this morning will make one iota of difference to the announcement that is due to be made by the Secretary of State for Defence later today. We had the opportunity to make our views known during the members' business debate that Murdo Fraser secured on 23 September. Indeed, some members who are in the chamber today took the opportunity to state their positions at that time.

Today's debate, on a reserved issue and in core parliamentary time, is all about the Conservative party making political capital out of whatever happens later today. I can understand the Conservatives doing that in the context of the probable general election in the next few months, especially given that they do not appear to be making much headway with the electorate. I speak in support of the amendment in the name of my colleague John Home Robertson. Whatever Roseanna Cunningham said about him, John Home Robertson has made his position clear: he made it clear on 23 September and he has done so again today.

I expect to be disappointed today, especially if we hear of the merger of the King's Own Scottish Borderers and the Royal Scots. If that was not going to happen, I think that we would have heard more hints by now, unfortunately. As I said in my contribution to the members' business debate, I whole-heartedly support the retention of the identity of the KOSB, which recruits from Dumfries and Galloway, the Scottish Borders and Lanarkshire. I believe, as John Home Robertson's motion states, that the KOSB's traditions, community links and identity should be maintained. However, that may not happen. I make no bones about the fact that I will regret the merger deeply. If it happens, I believe that the KOSB will have been made the victim of recruitment and retention problems elsewhere. Nevertheless, no amount of posturing by the Conservatives or by any other party in the chamber will assist the KOSB.

Let me return to the facts. The debate is not about cuts in defence expenditure, even if it is portrayed as such. This year's UK spending review settlement will provide a 1.4 per cent increase in real terms per annum for the next four years in defence spending, which amounts to £3.7 billion. The settlement means that planned defence spending will have increased by 7 per cent between 1997 and 2008. On the other hand, planned defence spending fell under the last three years of the Tory Government by 15 per cent or £4.2 billion.

In 1994, as John Home Robertson said, the Queen's Own Highlanders were merged with the Gordon Highlanders. That was the second merger of regiments under a Tory Government in 35 years. In 1961, the Queen's Own Highlanders was formed by the merger of two other regiments. Defence reorganisation has occurred under Governments of both political persuasions. Oliver Letwin has made a commitment that all departments should have 0 per cent growth in budget over the first two years of the spending review period. That means that, under the Tories, the Ministry of Defence would have its budget reduced by £2.6 billion, which would put even more pressure on the Scottish regiments, rather than less. Peter Duncan, Murdo Fraser and anybody else who speaks today can posture all they like about reversing those decisions; the Tories' shadow secretary of state for defence does not think that that is possible.

I have no experience of the military. It may well be that the creation of one Scottish regiment, with battalions retaining an individual identity, will have some benefits to serving infantry soldiers. I do not know. Like John Home Robertson, I continue to support the retention of six distinct battalions at the very least. I will say one thing, though. I will not vote for a Tory motion that will achieve absolutely nothing for the Scottish regiments. The vote will be taken after the announcement has been made and it will make not one bit of difference.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party 10:01 am, 16th December 2004

I continue to be astonished by Elaine Murray. She argues that what we say in the chamber will not make a blind bit of difference. What she means is that the Labour Government at Westminster will pay absolutely no attention to Jack McConnell or the Labour Government here. That is a startling admission from Elaine Murray.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate, and to record the names of the young men from Fife who went to Camp Dogwood and did not come back: Kevin McHale; Stuart Grey; Paul Lowe; Scott McArdle; and their comrade Pita Tukatukawaqa from Fiji. In one week alone, Fife buried three young men, and the pain of the families goes on. As we welcome back the Black Watch, our thoughts naturally go to the families of those young men who have not come back. While those young men fought and died near Camp Dogwood, Geoff Hoon and Tony Blair were laying their own plans to get rid of those young men's regiment. Scotland's regiments are effective, professional and valued by everybody in Scotland and beyond. The recognition of that professionalism is why the Black Watch was sent to Camp Dogwood in the first place.

For all the strength of the American battalions, it was the Black Watch, with 850 men, which was sent to protect the backs of the United States troops. I have never believed that United Kingdom troops should have been sent to fight an illegal war, based on lies, but they followed the orders that they were given by the politicians—the same politicians who will take the decision today to disband and amalgamate the Scottish regiments. Those are not military decisions. They are not based on military imperatives. They are decisions that are taken by politicians at Westminster who, as Elaine Murray has said, feel free to ignore the democratic will of the Scottish people. Those politicians will now airbrush proud family and local regiments from history. There is a huge feeling of betrayal in Fife about the plans, but then Tony Blair, Geoff Hoon and Alistair Darling would know nothing of that, because they sent our young men to fight and die and did not bother to come to their funerals.

The plans to amalgamate and disband are opposed by soldiers, ex-soldiers and the wider Scottish community. [Interruption.] If Elaine Murray wishes to intervene, I would be happy to let her, but she should not sit there and hiss at me. Labour claims that it will retain the identity of the regiments by retaining the cap badges. That identity is rooted not in cap badges, but firmly in the communities that the soldiers come from. When that link is cut, there will no longer be a local identity. John Home Robertson commented about Rosyth and Devonport. It is true that the Tories awarded the contract to Devonport, but in 1997 the Labour Government had the opportunity to change the contract and it did not do so. The contract with Devonport continued.

This is a difficult debate for many people here, but there is great strength of feeling. A decision will be taken and, at 5 o'clock tonight, the Scottish National Party, like the Liberal Democrats, will support the Conservative motion because it is important—despite what Elaine Murray says—that the view of the Scottish Parliament is heard, and that that view is heard at Westminster.

Photo of Mr Mark Ruskell Mr Mark Ruskell Green 10:05 am, 16th December 2004

As long as we spend more in the UK on the military than we do on transport, housing, and law and order, I will always argue for spending on militarism to be cut. However, the priorities for cutting defence spending should start with weapons of mass destruction. We must start with great white elephants such as Trident and the Eurofighter, which have turned into vast black holes of public expenditure, while the human defence resource barely stretches to a third of the MOD budget. Over the course of its entire lifetime, the Trident nuclear weapons system will cost a staggering £50,000 million—equivalent to the cost of 116 Scottish Parliament building projects. Trident is totally irrelevant in a world where the wielding of a craft knife on an aircraft does more to change global politics in one hour than nuclear weapons ever did over 40 years. Clearly, I am not the only one who believes so, because it was the mantra of Labour in opposition. Indeed, I even have a great photo of the First Minister sporting a lovely moustache at the Stirling Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament stall in the 1980s, proudly campaigning against the vast waste of public expenditure Trident was to become and still is today.

Scottish conventional troops have a role in the 21st century, but their primary role is peacekeeping, humanitarian work and disaster relief in a politically and environmentally turbulent world. I want to see the soldiers of the Black Watch on the telly, not involved in an illegal war in Iraq but performing humanitarian and peacekeeping duties, wearing the blue armband of the United Nations next to the red hackle. However, in designing a military that is fit for that purpose, I do not rule out that, at some future date, amalgamation, streamlining or efficiency savings in the Scottish regiments may be required. Indeed, flexibility in the Scottish force is needed to allow viable teams of specialists to get into areas to clear mines, while others restore drinking water supplies, for example. I do not know whether that flexibility can be delivered within the existing six regiments, but what I do know is that the current proposals have run roughshod over military personnel and civilians who share the deep sense of tradition, commitment to place and community, and intergenerational history of service. The attitude of the Executive and the MOD is that there is never a good time for reorganisation of the military, given its ongoing engagement in different theatres across the globe, but I could not think of a worse time to consider upheaval. Surely it is better to bring the British involvement in Iraq to a legal end, and then to work fully and meaningfully with all stakeholders on how the important elements of the regimental family can be twinned with the need for flexibility in the 21st century.

This situation is a mess. We should get illegal weapons of mass destruction out of the UK, we should refocus the military on a role that is fit for the purpose of a modern European democracy, and we should then discuss, with those who value the human resource of our services, how we can meet that role through reform.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party 10:09 am, 16th December 2004

Like John Home Robertson, I have family connections with the King's Own Scottish Borderers. My father joined the regiment at the start of the second world war, and proceeded most of the time with his friend and colleague Jock Hunter, who came from Hawick. Unfortunately, Jock did not return from Arnhem, where the KOSBs were parachuted down. I also have connections through having, for a long time, campaigned in the Scottish Borders and in part representing the KSOB, along with other constituents.

There is no doubt that there are issues here to do with lack of morale. Morale is not some tenuous thing. Morale is at the heart of a soldier's ability to relate to other troops when they are in the most difficult situations. It cannot always be measured in statistics. Morale is based on having a connection with the regiment that sometimes goes back for generations, and a connection with the area from which the regiment comes. It is essential in dangerous, frontline situations in which soldiers must act almost immediately and as one with the other men and women who are around them. It is embarrassing to say the least—in fact, it is disgraceful—to put at risk the jobs of troops who are in such situations at this moment and to undermine their regiments. The timing could not be worse, but when did Geoff Hoon ever know anything about timing? He turned up earlier this month to flaunt himself in front of the same troops that he is going to cut.

Operational difficulties will also arise from the cuts. I am interested in Lord Guthrie's views, which were dismissed by Geoff Hoon. Unlike Elaine Murray, who admits that she knows nothing about military matters, Geoff Hoon seems to know about them, despite what those with experience tell him. Lord Guthrie says that cutbacks have left the Army

"dangerously small and over-committed".

We know that the nature of military action now is very different to what it was. I support much of what Mark Ruskell said. It is strange for a member who is a pacifist to talk about troops, but, like Mark Ruskell, I envisage the troops performing a humanitarian role, intervening and helping people to get to democracy. I hope that one day we will have no more wars. I support Mark Ruskell's view about getting rid of Trident and other real weapons of mass destruction, which eat into our economy and which we hope that we will never use against people who are vulnerable, as we are.

There has also been huge public opposition to cutting and getting rid of our regiments. That is no wonder, because the people know better than Geoff Hoon.

I will conclude with the submission that has been made on behalf of the King's Own Scottish Borderers to Geoff Hoon, who is featuring large in the debate. It is called "The KOSB Alternative Proposal" and was submitted on 19 November 2004. It submits

"that the regimental system can be retained, Scottish Regiments preserved, the problems of the arms plot eliminated, recruiting and retention put on a sound basis for the future and public expenditure on defence reduced."

I suggest that Elaine Murray reads the document.

Being a soldier is not just a job like any other job. To cut a regiment—to take it off the face of the earth and leave it with a cap badge—is a disgrace for which some of our troops might pay in other ways than simply losing their regiments.

Photo of Michael McMahon Michael McMahon Labour 10:12 am, 16th December 2004

It is often said that Government is difficult, but I find myself thinking that it must be difficult to be an Opposition MSP. Having nothing to offer the people of Scotland on the issues on which this Parliament was set up to legislate, the Opposition continually resorts to holding debates on issues over which we have no authority. The Scottish National Party has a group at Westminster but does not want a British Army. The Scottish Socialist Party and the Greens have no one in London and therefore cannot debate the issue there, so, to an extent, I can understand why those parties concentrate their efforts here. However, I find it difficult to have any sympathy for the Tories. They are the main Opposition at Westminster and have ample opportunity to raise defence issues there. They have the shadow Scottish secretary to raise specific Scottish issues for them with the support of the rest of the Tory group at Westminster behind him. On second thoughts, if that is the extent of their party's ability in London, perhaps we can understand why the Tories would rather have Murdo Fraser front the subject for them here.

I have always taken great pleasure in representing Hamilton, where the regimental museum of the Cameronians is housed. That regiment was suspended, but not disbanded, in 1968—the museum assures me that the regiment awaits any renewed call to arms—and the Cameronians' recruiting area of Lanarkshire was thereafter taken over by the King's Own Scottish Borderers, which already recruited in the area. Indeed, my father spent his national service in the KOSB during the Malayan emergency in the mid-1950s.

Elaine Murray has already outlined the importance of the KOSB, so I will not dwell on it, except to note that it boasts proudly of being the only regiment that fought for the Government in all three decisive engagements in the Jacobite wars: at Killiekrankie, Sheriffmuir and Culloden. That is a good enough reason, some might say, for preserving the regiment in perpetuity. Unfortunately, it also spent much of the 18th and 19th centuries suppressing the Irish, so it might have fought against my ancestors at some stage, but I will forgive the regiment for that and take pleasure in defending its right to continue to exist.

I was also interested that the regiment notes on its web pages that, after all the battle honours that it achieved in the service of Britain over 300 years and following its operations in the first gulf war in 1991, it added to its list a vigorous campaign at home called operation Borderer. That was the fight against the Tory options for change proposals, which would have led to the regiment's amalgamation. The Tories were forced to reverse that decision, and the three centuries of history continued with an unbroken lineage.

I doubt that the Cameronians will be reformed to join the latest fight, but their successor in Lanarkshire, the KOSB, must be given a future. The Tories tried to destroy the KOSB themselves once. The nationalists might be scared in case the regiment comes back to haunt them, à la Culloden. The nationalists, like the Greens and the SSP, would have no need of any British Army regiment, so we will take no lecture from them.

Hypocrisy reigns in the Parliament this morning. We have to ignore the sanctimonious hyperbole that is emanating from various parties: those who want to turn the Army into an ambulance service or a military brass band and those who do not want a British Army at all. We need to ensure that Scotland's present needs are put first, and Scotland needs the King's Own Scottish Borderers.

Photo of Keith Raffan Keith Raffan Liberal Democrat 10:16 am, 16th December 2004

I join members from all parties in welcoming the Black Watch home and expressing condolences to the families of those brave five who lost their lives in the deserts of Iraq.

"I ... believe that a super-regiment would submerge and eventually extinguish all the individual loyalties, traditions and histories of the Scottish regiments as we know them. That might not matter to the MOD or to General Jackson, but it has created a profound reaction in Dundee, which has traditionally supplied the industrial muscle to balance the rural brawn that recruits from areas such as north Tayside and Perthshire have brought to the regiment."—[Official Report, House of Commons, 17 November 2004; Vol 426, c 413WH.]

Those eloquent words are not mine, but those of the Labour member for Dundee East, Mr Iain Luke, in Westminster Hall on 17 November. Apart from Dundee itself, the region that I and many other members in the Parliament represent in whole or in part covers the Black Watch's entire recruiting area, and the reaction to the proposed change within Mid Scotland and Fife has indeed been profound. The issue is highly charged; it unites members of all parties and none. I was present with members from the four main parties—sadly, there were none from the Greens or the Scottish Socialist Party—at the parade, drumhead service and rally in Dundee on 23 October that was organised by the lord provost of Dundee, the provost of Perth and Kinross Council, the provost of Angus Council and the convener of Fife Council.

I will make two principal points. In the words of my colleague, Sir Menzies Campbell, this is not a time for reduction in our armed forces,

"against the pattern of present commitments, not to mention continuing uncertainties in an increasingly volatile world."

It is worth listing our commitments: active service in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo and Northern Ireland; and garrisons in Germany, Gibraltar, Cyprus, Belize and the Falklands. The House of Commons Defence Select Committee, which is chaired by that distinguished Labour member, Bruce George, concluded in its fifth report of the session 2003-04 that the Army is already overstretched. Indeed, the strategic defence review argued for an increase in the armed forces of 3,300, not for the secretary of state's proposed cut of 6,500.

Photo of Keith Raffan Keith Raffan Liberal Democrat


My second main point is to counter the argument that the move to larger regiments will increase recruitment and retention. I will give the 2003-04 recruitment target and actual recruitment figure for the Black Watch: the annual target was 112 and the actual recruitment was 122, so 109 per cent was achieved. The links with the community are not only a matter of sentiment, tradition and history or of the honour to parade—bayonets fixed, colours flying and drums beating—through the cities whose freedom the Black Watch has. The links, the real and genuine roots in Perthshire, Kinrosshire, Fife, Angus and Dee, are the key to recruitment and vital to the esprit de corps—the spirit of the regiment.

It has been said on Mr Hoon's behalf that the proposed changes are for the Army to decide. The buck cannot be passed so easily. Even in Turkey, generals now defer to ministers, rather than the other way round. As Sir Menzies Campbell has said,

"it is Ministers and not Generals who must answer to the House of Commons. The proposals ... represent a major policy change, which Ministers have either to accept or reject."

It is ministers who make policy. Those ministers alone will be held accountable by the House of Commons, the electorate and the brave men of the Black Watch.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party 10:20 am, 16th December 2004

It is my pleasure to close the debate for the Scottish National Party. This is not the first time that the Parliament has debated the issue, which was the subject of a members' business debate in September.

My colleagues in the House of Commons—particularly my counterpart Pete Wishart, and also Annabelle Ewing—have raised the issue numerous times in the House of Commons and in Westminster Hall debates. The essential point is that we must use every opportunity to express our opinion and our opposition to the proposals that Her Majesty's Government is likely to announce later today. My colleagues have taken every parliamentary opportunity at Westminster and we have the right to take the opportunity here.

Members will know that I have the privilege to represent the North Tayside constituency, which recruits formidably for the Black Watch regiment. In the past few months, I have visited the families of constituents who have been injured in Iraq and listened to the anguish of parents back here about their injured sons in Iraq and their worries about what faces their sons in a dangerous situation. We cannot disregard the attitudes and points in the letters that my colleague Roseanna Cunningham read out, because they represent the genuine fears and anxieties of very brave individuals who confront a danger that none of us will ever have to confront.

Our amendment focuses on the Government's disgraceful approach of questioning the Black Watch's future while that regiment was serving in Iraq. It is disgraceful that the debate has taken place at that time. The same situation will face the Royal Scots regiment, which is likely to be deployed in Iraq in January. Those soldiers will go there with enormous uncertainty about their regiment's future and it was right to raise that concern.

A big debate is taking place about the role and purpose of infantry personnel in our armed forces. I do not subscribe to the view that we need fewer infantry personnel. The Royal Scots are to return to Iraq more quickly than they should under Army protocols and the Black Watch has returned to Iraq earlier than Army protocols suggest because we have insufficient infantry to manage all the trouble spots, whether they are in Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan or Bosnia. Mr Rumbles made that point well.

Much of the debate has highlighted the regiments' identities, which the Labour amendment concerns. To say that if all the regiments keep their cap badges, that somehow makes the situation all right is to put up a smokescreen. The First Minister has articulated that despicably dishonest position at question time.

I will make a substantial point about identity that I think John Home Robertson made in our debate in September, in which he said that once the link between the regiment and its geographical recruiting area is broken, it is only a matter of time before the individual identity of the regiment is lost. That is absolutely right, but the Labour amendment tries to brush aside that substantial point.

We have heard many pleas in the debate for people to establish a consistent position. Mr McMahon made a fantastic contribution by saying that hypocrisy reigns in the chamber. I will quote to him what his Westminster colleague the right hon Dr John Reid said in the House of Commons in 1993 about the Conservatives' plans to cut regiments. He said:

"It is a disgrace and a disservice to our soldiers that we are spending £3,000 million on a new nuclear weapon which is not needed—while we are putting them on the dole, giving them compulsory redundancy and disbanding infantry regiments which are needed to deal with the very threats that we now face."—[Official Report, House of Commons, 24 February 1993; Vol 219, c 908.]

If that was not hypocrisy, I do not know what is.

The Labour Party should have the decency to reflect on its roots and to recognise that the waste of money on weapons of mass destruction is an error that it should put right. It should ensure that we have a military operation that is much more focused on preserving peace than on advancing the interests of war.

Photo of Scott Barrie Scott Barrie Labour 10:24 am, 16th December 2004

I find it strange to speak in the debate, because it is a Tory-inspired debate on a subject that is wholly reserved to Westminster and because I have no experience of involvement in the armed forces. However, I will speak because of the considerable constituency interest that the proposals have evoked.

Whatever people's personal views of our involvement in Iraq, I am immensely proud of the role that the Black Watch has played in the conflict. It has undertaken two tours of duty. When the second was announced, I wrote to thank the battalion for its contribution and to wish it a safe return. After the review was announced, I replied to every serving soldier who wrote to me—many of them are my constituents.

Roseanna Cunningham and others said that the Black Watch recruits extensively from Mid Scotland and Fife. It recruits extensively from west Fife and it was Fifers and others who paid the ultimate sacrifice in the past months in the conflict in Iraq.

As I said, I have no personal experience of the armed forces but, like other members, I have family who fought for their country. Members of my mother's family served in the Black Watch and I had relatives who were killed when fighting for Britain in that battalion.

Murdo Fraser said that the ultimate decision will be taken today in another place. He also issued a rallying cry to maintain the six existing Scottish regiments. As John Home Robertson ably showed, Murdo Fraser made no defence of his party's previous decision to reduce the number of Scottish regiments. As Labour politicians know only too well through many years out of power, opposition is easy; government is much more difficult.

I wish the identities of all six Scottish regiments to be maintained. The clear geographical identities of those regiments are important for recruitment, although it must be acknowledged that recruitment is much more robust in some areas than in others.

Some members have claimed that Labour politicians have not spoken out on the issue, which is untrue. My Westminster colleague Rachel Squire, who is the MP for Dunfermline West, has been assiduous on the matter. She is also a member of the House of Commons Defence Committee. Other Labour MPs have made their views abundantly clear.

Whatever decision is announced later today, it is clear that all Scottish regiments' identities should be maintained.

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell Conservative 10:27 am, 16th December 2004

I am pleased to conclude the debate, but I am afraid that I have had to tear up my consensual speech, or at least the parts about the Labour Party. I wanted to deliver such a speech because my experience is that soldiers and former servicemen throughout Scotland are not really interested in party politics or in individual politicians saying that they have done more than others. Members of the King's Own Scottish Borderers Association were delighted when Sir Archy Kirkwood arranged a meeting for them with Geoff Hoon and I applaud that positive gesture.

I was deeply saddened by the Labour contribution to the debate. John Home Robertson may well have a long political memory, but his speech showed us why he did not have a long ministerial career—it was utter claptrap. Although he was involved in the campaign to establish the Scottish Parliament and in Scottish Constitutional Convention events, John Home Robertson seems to have forgotten that a clear purpose that was set out for the Parliament and from a unionist perspective was to lobby Westminster on issues of importance to Scotland, so discussing the regiments causes no difficulty. I predict that the people who criticise the debate today will be the very ones who raise such issues when we have another Conservative Government at Westminster, as we surely will.

I was particularly saddened by Elaine Murray's speech. I hope that she will go away and reflect on it. A clear difference has emerged between the conduct of Government MPs at Westminster when the previous proposal was made—which I accept was under a Conservative Government—and now. Previously, the then member of Parliament for Dumfries—Hector Monro—did not try to sell what the Government had done when he disagreed with the merger of the Royal Scots and the KOSB. Even though the Conservative party was in Government, he fought the merger. He said that he disagreed with it and he got things changed. That is the difference. Members have come to the Parliament today to try to sell not only the fact that regiments are being downgraded to battalions, but the double whammy of a merger in the case of the Royal Scots and the KOSB. Elaine Murray and her colleague Russell Brown would do themselves far more credit by standing up and saying, "This is wrong." I would certainly respect them if they did so, and I am sure that their constituents would respect them too.

Mr McMahon made an interesting speech. Last week, he and Mr Muldoon made a difference by not going along with the Executive on an issue on which they did not agree. As Major William Turner of the Kings Own Scottish Borderers Association pointed out to me this morning on the telephone, if all the Labour MPs who are affected by the military changes joined the Conservative, the Liberal Democrat and SNP members at Westminster, they could defeat the proposals. I agree with Roseanna Cunningham that they do not have the courage to do so. That is the reality. There is no point in trying to sell identity, as people understand that if regimental structures go, the identity will ultimately go.

The proposals are flawed, but they are political proposals. I was saddened when I read in the Dumfries and Galloway Standard that Tony Blair—who was, unfortunately, unable to come to Dumfries to answer for himself—said that he was doing what he was doing because the military told him that he had to do so. He did not accept personal responsibility. Our serving soldiers and ex-servicemen would have much more respect for Mr Blair and his Labour colleagues if they were willing to say that they think that the proposals are a good thing and if they argued the case for them rather than trying to pretend that things are being forced on them.

A lot has been said by Mike Rumbles and other members about Mike Jackson. However, Mike Jackson has made his position clear. He has been quoted as saying:

"I would much prefer increasing the size of the Army, but that's simply not on offer. I can either accept what's on offer—a reduced size of the Army—or go."

Major Jackson accepts that the decision is a political decision. There is still time to change that political decision.

I am sad that no minister has bothered to turn up to the debate. At least there was ministerial presence at Murdo Fraser's members' business debate.

During the afternoon, Labour MSPs can reflect on the position that they have taken today and perhaps still join us at this final hour so that there is a single voice from Scotland that says that we want our six regiments to be retained. Whatever the outcome of today's vote in the Scottish Parliament and whatever Geoff Hoon says in the Westminster Parliament, the one thing that Labour MSPs should be sure about is that the fight to retain our regiments will go on and the people who have the courage to fight will ultimately be victorious.