Scotland might be about to leave the United Kingdom. It’s worth saying this one more time, in the hope the enormity of separation might actually sink in.
The consequences will be staggering. 300 years of unrivalled history will be ended, possibly the era of greatest internal peace these islands have ever experienced; the island of Great Britain will be split, just like Timor (well, perhaps not just like Timor); and an artificial national barrier will cut the British people in two, ushering in an era of separate development, divergent history and increasing friction.
None of this is good. There is one consequence of people in Scotland (note: not the Scottish people; see here) voting ‘Yes’ later this month we haven’t much discussed. That is the impact on the British Armed Forces. David Blair, however, writing in the Telegraph, has noticed. He uses the phrase, ‘broken into pieces’.
He’s not much wrong, either. Salmond, despite his pacifist rhetoric, expects to take Scotland’s share of fighters, frigates and battalions. None of this sounds like much, but, when we remember that the British Army has just been cut by 20,000 soldiers (20% regular combat strength), it is worth considering the impact of a further cut to what remains one of the few serious military powers in the Western world.
But combat strength is not just about numbers. British military doctrine considers this part of the physical component of fighting power. There is also the moral component, which might be translated for the non-military mind as morale, spirit, heart, motivation and a sense of pride and duty. And this is where the British Army will be hit hardest. What will happen to the name? We might keep it; Britain is, after all, comprised of England and Wales, Great Britain being England, Wales and Scotland. But it will be something of a sham. Without Scotland, the British Army cannot lay full claim to the name.
But what’s in a name? Quite a lot, actually. A name carries history; and the history of the British Army is as important to the morale of the British Army as anything else – indeed, it is from history, from former battles and wars that we draw much of our store of morale. Goose Green, Imjin River, Market Garden, Battle of Britain – these battles and operations inspire the present generation, in all services.
It is true, the Royal Navy will not have its name challenged; it will remain the navy of Nelson. Neither will the Royal Air Force have its name challenged; it will remain the air force of Douglas Bader. Tracing a direct line to former military greats is important; it is tradition, and it is the core ideology of the British regimental system. Break that link and we break that history; the army of the rUK will have to start again. Pity that.
But perhaps the British Army will keep its name. It might do that. But as I’ve said: it will be denuded not only about 10% of its strength, as will the other services, but it will lose much of the power of its history. Reputation is important. It affects the morale of both friends and foes; ‘Win the war before you even begin to fight it!’ said someone quite wise. The absence of the British Army will not make the world a better place – promise.
If the people in Scotland who have a vote (see above) decide to go their own way, then there is probably nothing we can do about it. Democracy is still it. But it will present all sorts of challenges, not least for our military structures. Do we fully comprehend that? I wonder.