20 April 2017

S5M-05185 Defence Basing Reforms

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh): Good afternoon. The first item of business this afternoon is a debate on motion S5M-05185, in the name of Keith Brown, on defence basing reforms and their impact on Scotland.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

I have a personal interest in this debate, as Richard Lochhead and I are the constituency members who represent Moray in this place. For Moray, defence is an important issue, both for employment and for its wider economic effect. For my own part, I have little in the way of personal connection with matters military. My great-great-grandfather was a driver in the Corps of Royal Artillery Drivers and was demobbed in 1819 because he had become deaf, and my great-great-great-grandfather left HMS Medway in August 1782, and that is about it as far as my family is concerned.

Christine Grahame: Thank goodness.

Jackson Carlaw: Surely not. There must be more.

Stewart Stevenson: That is, apart from the other six people that I am being encouraged to talk about.

Seriously, though, the proposed closure of the defence bases will have, and the previous closures of defence facilities such as the RAF presence at Kinloss have had, a huge, disruptive and negative impact on the communities and families that have been part of the bases and interacted with them. However, defence estates represent a much wider problem. In tumultuous times in the world, defence is needed and must be mobilised in the fight against today’s threats. It is no good continuing to invest in defence facilities that represent a response to the nuclear stand-off of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. I am amazed to have heard Jackson Carlaw talking indirectly about the £205 billion for Trident as an almost nugatory amount of money, when I consider what other things might be done with such a sum.

Today, the threats that we face as a country and as the western part of the world are fewer from states and more from non-state actors such as ideologically and radically based groups that are not attached to particular countries but which want to break down our values of freedom and democracy through violence, fear and hateful rhetoric. Nuclear weapons have not deterred a single person in ISIS. They have not deterred North Korea, which Jackson Carlaw referred to. At the end of the day, we must look not only at the effect on the bases here but at the underlying military principles that are driving the proposals, as well as the dark hand of the UK Treasury.

We need effective defence—of course we do—but cutting bases simply to save money does not address the issue of defence in the modern world. We have got to make changes. Reference was made to the battle of Waterloo, in the aftermath of which the Army was cut to a third of its size in the three or four years after the battle. That was disastrous because of some of the things that happened thereafter. It certainly left the UK much less able to respond to threats that emerged in the Indies and the colonies.

Jackson Carlaw: That is simply not true.

Stewart Stevenson: I will take an intervention if Mr Carlaw wishes.

Jackson Carlaw: I am prepared to accept that Mr Stevenson may have been at Waterloo, but to suggest that a reduction in the armed forces after Napoleon was defeated led to some immediate crisis for Britain’s influence across the world is nonsense. It was 50 years before the threats to which Mr Stevenson is alluding emerged. Of course it was the right thing to do. Defence forces must meet the threat. Although he talks about ISIS today, he cannot know what the threats in the next 40 years are going to be.

Stewart Stevenson: I am glad that Mr Carlaw has read “The Art of War”, which contains the wonderful adage that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. I agree with Jackson Carlaw that we do not know what the threat might be next week, next year or in five years’ time. That is why we need flexibility and diversity in our defence provision, which is obviated by our committing huge proportions of our defence expenditure to a weapon that is incapable of being deployed—Trident.

In the modern world, the kind of threats to which we are subject require physical presence adjacent to local threats and a mobile force that can move to where international threats are.

In the north of Scotland, in the past five or six years, we have twice seen the Kuznetsov, the biggest military ship in the Russian navy, in the Moray Firth. It was moored so close off Banff that we could see people with the naked eye—I usually wear glasses, but I could see them without them—walking on the aircraft carrier deck. It took more than 24 hours for any UK military presence to arrive to see what the Kuznetsov was up to and to protect our interests.

It is that failure to respond to today’s defence challenges that underpins the failures that we see in the basing review. If money is simply spent on Trident, money is not spent on what we need. The Tories in particular constantly complain about business, education and healthcare budgets, but those budgets are dwarfed by the amount of money that they want us to spend on Trident.

Furthermore, the money that is spent on people in our Army and on bases has a wider economic benefit in a way that sending vast amounts of money to the United States for the equipment that is associated with Trident does not—and, by the way, we do not even receive the codes that enable us to independently decide to use it. That is hardly supportive of the economic interests of this country or the UK as a whole.

We in Scotland have particular maritime interests. We have substantial fishing interests out to 200 miles and we have substantial oil and gas interests. Despite having all the UK’s submarines based in Scotland, they are not suitable or useful for responding to the maritime threats to our interests. Therefore, we must look at what happens in navy bases. Even the Irish have seven vessels specially built for that purpose based around their coastline. That country is smaller than Scotland. Those vessels, in addition to its two maritime surveillance aircraft, are perfectly illustrative of what even small countries can do with more limited resources.

Let me return to what the previous speaker, Maurice Golden, said—

The member said that good defence is based on people. I agree. We need more personnel located in Scotland, contributing to our economy and giving stability to their families and friends.


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