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Liam Fox: The SNP's defence policy undermines Scotland's security - and that of the whole UK

Liam Fox is MP for Woodspring and a former Defence Secretary

Screen shot 2012-10-18 at 18.19.18This weekend sees the celebration of Trafalgar Day.  Two hundred and seven years ago this week, Nelson finally managed to engage the French and Spanish fleets decisively in battle.  That victory off the Cape of Trafalgar would ensure British dominance of the world’s oceans for a century and, in securing our trade routes, the rise of Britain to the global power it is today with the world’s fourth largest defence budget.

Almost 100 years after the Act of Union, Nelson’s fleet was a British fleet with sailors drawn from all corners of the United Kingdom.  Amongst them was Scotsman, Captain George Duff, a celebrated commander within Nelson’s Navy and entrusted with a key part in Nelson’s plan to finally force the Combined Fleet in to battle.

Duff’s HMS Mars was positioned close in to Cadiz so that he could forewarn Nelson of any enemy movement and thus allow him to out manoeuvre the French and Spanish as they tried to get back in to the Mediterranean.  Duff’s role was vital and his success in performing it laid the foundations for the great victory that followed.

Sadly – and the lesson in Naval history ends here – Duff was killed in the opening minutes of Trafalgar as he sailed amongst the lead ships straight in to the heart of the French and Spanish fleet.

This week we are marking the Battle of Trafalgar so I highlight the contribution of Captain Duff but if I were writing next week I know that I’d find another anniversary of another Scottish contribution to this great union of Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland.  I could carry out the same exercise in relation to any other part of the United Kingdom with equal ease.

The history of the United Kingdom is striking.  In many ways we have been able to achieve a historic synergy: the intellectual vibrancy of the Scottish Enlightenment combined with the economic energy of the industrial revolution in England, enabled our respective populations to achieve hitherto unimaginable global influence, still palpable and visible in many parts of the world today.

The role that Scotland and Scots were able to play in the influence of Empire, both material and intellectual, was only possible because of the tremendous foresight of our forefathers who recognised that we brought complementary skills, and who gave birth to the union that is the United Kingdom today.  Perhaps nowhere is our shared heritage and achievement more brilliant than in our armed forces. 

For 300 years we have recruited soldiers, sailors, marines and, more recently, airmen in all parts of the United Kingdom.  These men and women have stood shoulder to shoulder on battlefields across the globe against our nation’s enemies.  Under Marlborough, Wellington and Nelson; in India and the Crimea; in two World Wars, Korea, the Falklands, the Gulf and Afghanistan; English, Irish, Welsh and Scottish soldiers have fought with courage, determination and great loyalty to their Ship or Regiment and to the United Kingdom.

In the Army there are, indeed, regiments that are raised and recruited just in Scotland but from the earliest days of these fine regiments, their artillery support could have been Welsh, their engineers Irish and their cavalry English.  These regiments are proudly Scottish and a proud part of the British Army too.  A team that has been forged under fire and that lives on today in Afghanistan where the Scots Guards and 1st Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Scotland are fighting alongside cavalry and infantry from Yorkshire, Lancashire, Cheshire, the East Midlands, Northern Ireland and Nepal!

In the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force there has never been such a distinction.  There are ships that carry Scottish names and airbases on Scottish soil but the people who fight these ships and fly those jets are from all corners of the UK and, indeed, the Commonwealth.  Their shared identity is not English, Scottish, or even British but as the custodians of the finest traditions of the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force.

How wrong it is, in the light of their joint sacrifices, to attach labels and to seek to introduce division for petty and regressive political motives.  Alex Salmond is a political opportunist not a Commander-in-Chief.

Working together over 300 years, our forces have forged a relationship that can’t just be split down proportionately based on GDP. This is not about the Royal Navy ceding to Scotland a couple of frigates; or a few Typhoon fighter jets from the Air Force; or a regiment’s worth of tanks, artillery, weapons and ammunition. Our armed forces are a human organisation and it is our service men and women who make all these battle winning pieces of equipment amount to something far greater than the sum of their parts.

The SNP are looking at our armed forces as though they were at a Pick ‘n’ Mix counter in a sweet shop.  Angus Robertson dips his hand in to the Army and grabs the Scottish infantry and cavalry regiments; then the RAF to pluck a couple of fighter jets and their crews; then the Navy for some ocean going war ships and some coastal vessels too. But like a child with his pocket money he is thinking purely of what looks most attractive for the money, and ignoring the savouries he needs to balance his diet! He’s chosen an Army without any supporting arms; an Air Force without any transport aircraft or tankers; and a Navy without a fleet auxiliary.

The SNP would deny that their proposed forces are so unbalanced. In his Defence Policy Update published in July, Robertson talks generally about support units, helicopters, transport aircraft and air defence but the numbers just don’t add up.  Whilst in the last few days, he seems to have abandoned his own policy and pinned his hopes on a new RUSI study by former SNP politician Stuart Crawford instead.

This study makes a Scottish military look much more affordable but it also changes Robertson’s strategic reach in a way that I don’t think he’s yet grasped.  Typhoon Fighter jets are replaced by the Hawk jets currently used by the RAF for pilot training.  Submarines disappear altogether as do heavy armoured fighting vehicles and precision artillery. 

So what?  Well, the UK has neighbours in Norway and Denmark who are busily equipping their navies and air forces with the state of the art equipment needed to protect their interests in the High North and Arctic.  They are not warmongers but they can see that as the ice cap retreats, there are resources that will need to be protected and potentially a shipping lane from the North Pacific to the North Atlantic that will need to be policed.  Hawks are great aircraft but NATO currently enjoys the contribution of the UK’s Typhoons in the region and the difference in capability is stark.  The same can be said for the loss of the UK’s Astute Class submarines too.

More worrying though is the very simplistic view that Crawford has taken of defence budgeting – Missing are the costs for new infrastructure; the pensions of those who have served before; munitions; an intelligence and cyber warfare service; the cost of housing the military and their families; and the countless other expenses that must be considered when you’re no longer planning a defence budget with Monopoly money.

I don’t know how closely Angus Robertson has studied the RUSI paper but it contradicts the motion he’s putting to his party conference, and the people of Scotland should be forgiven for wanting to know which defence policy the SNP is now endorsing.  Is it still the one that wants NATO membership without accepting that NATO is a nuclear alliance?

Alex Salmond’s unilateral reinterpretation of the NATO treaties and his defence spokesman’s willingness to abandon his own defence policy, on a whim, in favour of an only marginally more credible study by someone else, will be a concern to many Scots serving with distinction in the UK’s armed forces and to our NATO allies.

To undermine our collective security - to fail to understand the deep bonds that our shared sacrifices have produced or the proud history we have developed together - is not only irresponsible but shows how little those who argue for Scottish Independence really understand the indispensable role of Scotland in the defence of the interests of the whole United Kingdom.

Nelson knew it in 1805 when he was urging Captain Duff forward in to the vanguard of his division and we know it today –– the Scottish are a tenacious and bloody minded warrior nation who have contributed immeasurably to the defence of this country over the last three hundred years.  But they have done so as part of a mighty British military and, whilst the numbers may not be what they were, that military is still one of the largest and most technologically advanced in the world.

As he sailed in to battle alongside sailors from all over the British Isles, I suspect George Duff knew only too well that we are stronger, better and safer together.  I agree with him and whilst I’m hopeful of not losing my head in the cannon fire, I think that we have a responsibility to put ourselves in the vanguard of celebrating all that is great about the union.

The referendum campaign that started on Monday is not just about picking holes in the SNP’s plans.  It means that those of us – both north and south of the border – who believe in the United Kingdom must make the case for keeping our great union exactly as it is – A United Kingdom of a united people with a shared and glorious history, and a bright and prosperous future.

This article is based on a speech made by Dr Fox at a Trafalgar Day dinner earlier this week


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