The thought of Scotland leaving the United Kingdom is depressing for a number of reasons, but, as I’ve mentioned earlier, my thoughts dwell on the future of the Armed Forces. They will be diminished, that much is sure. And I don’t think I could bear the British Army losing its kilts and trews. It will be sad to see the bagpipes go, too, but I accept that not everyone feels the same way on this particular point.
It’s not clear we fully appreciate the impact of Scottish separation on the military capabilities of these islands. Alex Salmond talks like a pacifist. He takes great care to couch his arguments in terms of British warmongering and nuclear arrogance. But he plans to take approximately 10% of British military capability for his putative Scottish defence force. And neither is it clear he understands that separate commands operating in close proximity – for that is what we will have – constitutes serious military weakness.
We can argue the flip side of the nuclear issue: that it is a weapon system that cannot be uninvented, and that it would be irresponsible in the extreme for the democratic west to decommission without securing a guarantee of wider global repudiation, especially from unreliable, authoritarian regimes such as Iran, North Korea and Russia. And we can remind ourselves that recent British military deployments have been supported by Scottish politicians (yes the SNP voted against the Iraq war in 2003, but not all Scottish politicians are SNP) as much as their English counterparts. But this would be too much like talking to Salmond’s hand.
We are well used to hearing that the NHS is our most treasured institution; but perhaps there is another that stands even higher. I refer to the Armed Forces, plus those subordinate institutions that comprise the whole: the Royal Navy, the British Army and the Royal Air Force; our ships, our regiments and our squadrons.
It is hard to see how the Armed Forces can be anything other than weakened if Great Britain breaks up. The services will of course continue to exist in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (and in Scotland, as a separate entity), but their diminishment will be even greater than it is now. Some might say ‘Good!’ particularly those who see the services as agents of repression. Sure, there are low points in the history of the Armed Forces, but they are vastly outweighed by the high points. Most Brits, both north and south of Berwick-upon-Tweed, recognise this. To us, the Armed Forces is the institution that stood for freedom against Communism and Nazism in Europe, and against slavery on the High Seas, not to mention quite a few other authoritarian psychopathies of history.
And every time the Armed Forces of these islands fought as one, they fought better – and with greater style. Together we have Arthur Wellesley, mad Irishman, who beat Napoleon, the greatest military commander who ever lived, at his own game; we have mad Lord Lovat’s mad piper, Bill Millin, who played his bagpipes on the beaches of Normandy; and who could forget Douglas Bader, the mad legless English fighter pilot, who enjoyed nothing more than strafing Nazis from his Spitfire; and finally, if this wasn’t enough to subdue the enemy, there was the killer weapon – the Welch regiments and their devastating all-male close harmonies.
The history of the British Armed forces is the richest military history in the world, ever (opinions may vary). To break them up would be a supreme act of vandalism. These islands would be left with armed forces of a sort, but they would be severely diminished. Lets keep them together; lets keep the United Kingdom together too.