The political poker game over the defence establishment, defence spending, budget cuts and Scotland is full of twists, bluffs and concealments at the moment. Whatever the decisions taken, they will certainly impact on the Scottish Elections 2011.
The poker game
Yesterday’s national press trumpeted offers made by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to the Treasury on exactly how they would save the budget percentages set. Their proposals were spectacularly unfinessed – they amounted to a proposition to taking defence out of Scotland.
They included the possibilities of:
- closing down all of the RAF bases in Scotland – Kinloss, Lossiemouth and Leuchars
- scrapping the new fleets of Nimrod reconaissance aircraft and 130 Tornados that would have been based there
- scrapping a new Typhoon squadron intended for RAF Leuchars
- cancelling the two aircraft carriers building at Rosyth and Govan
- moving the Trident submarines away from Faslane
- chopping one, two, or all three of the seven battalions of the young Royal Regiment of Scotland thought to be under threat: the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders; the Black Watch; the Highlanders. (formed from the historic regiments of the Seaforths, the Gordons and the Camerons)
Sharp intake of breath.
The clue to the move is in the offer to scrap the new – and reputedly superb – Nimrod MRA4 aircraft within weeks of their delivery date to the base at RAF Kinloss.
The penalty charges for such a late action would be so severe as to leave the budget saving no more than £200 million – primary school pocket money in defence spending terms.
Of course these propositions are not serious – this is eyes-wide-open hardball.
The Treasury wants identified cuts submitted by each department, totalling the target percentages they have been given.
The MoD wants the Treasury to take the hit for replacing Trident – with replacement a political more than a military decision. The Treasury is insisting that the cost comes out of the MoD core budget – making it a military decision and imperiling the funding of the MoD’s more conventional frontline operations.
So the MoD does not want to seem unhelpful in refusing to identify cuts that could be made. Heavens no. It wants to help big time – to be excessively helpful, in fact – throwing down the gauntlet while appearing to toe the line.
This is the reason for its proposal of live organ removal from the defence establishment in Scotland, dumping a problem of another kind on the Government and threatening Scotland as an amusing byline.
It’s a sophist game.
The coalition government could never afford politically to execute such an across-the-board amputation of Scottish jobs in and dependent on the defence establishment. The Conservatives have only one MP in Scotland as it is and may feel they have little to lose – but if cuts of this order went down, the Lib Dems, active partner in the government, would see their support vanish. They could not agree such swingeing actions.
Were these to take place, the only beneficiaries would be – the SNP and certainly the independence movement – which is wider than the party leading the campaign; and Labour.
The unionist parties would not want to reheat Scotland’s urge towards independence when the recession has, for the time being anyway, cooled the appetites of the canny.
Neither would they wish to see Labour grow its power base in its Scottish heartlands with the fertiliser of massive job losses and areas, like Moray, cast into profound economic depression.
The cuts will come and they will be deep – the aircraft carriers may not survive and, if military strategy had been in the driving seat, they would no more have been ordered in the first place than the commitment to retain Trident would have been given.
But the total cuts scenario is not the real game. This is shadow boxing to test for weaknesses in the battle of wills and responsibilities over the future and cost of Trident – and it may be part of a macchiavellian sleight-of-hand routine.
The real battle
The real battle is much more low profile and is political rather than military – it is statistical.
Scotland is continually being hit with doom-sayers’ prognostications of the economic impact of the loss of defence spending – but what exactly is the proportion of defence spending in Scotland?
The MoD has now announced that it will no longer reveal the regional breakdown of defence expenditure.
Up to now it has done so, revealing, for instance, that more than 10,000 defence jobs in Scotland have been lost in recent years and that there has been a £5.6 billion defence underspend here.
The decision to stop providing such statistics offers a route to masking the reality of the cuts ultimately made in defence spending in Scotland.
With the results of the Strategic Defence and Security Review to come in the autumn, Scotland can expect bad news.
The Commons debate on the statistical issue
Angus Robertson, MSP for Moray – host to RAF Kinloss and RAF Lossienouth – and the SNP’s Defence Spokesman and Leader at Westminster, led a debate in the House of Commons yesterday (20th July 2010) on the MoD’s refusal to continue to provide the statisitics on relative regional spending.
He said: ‘The decision to withhold information showing regional breakdown of MoD spending will fuel fears that Scotland will continue to bear the brunt of defence cuts.
‘Scotland has already been massively short-changed on defence spending, with more than 10,000 defence job losses and a massive £5.6 billion underspend. The MOD know that these statistics are damaging and their answer is not to address the problem, but to stop producing the data – it’s like a plot from Yes Minister.
‘Regional and national defence statistics are available in other countries. With a mouse-click you can access this information down to State level in the United States. In Canada, a nation with close parliamentary and military links to the UK the Department for National Defence produces similar statistics both at Provincial and at constituency level. These and other countries think it is right and proper to confirm their employment and spending decisions and it clearly impacts of their policy thinking.
‘The UK Government might think that they can hide the consequences of their centralising policies by refusing to publish key statistics, but it will be hard to avoid the facts on the ground.
‘Defence policy is not just about strategic and foreign policy considerations, which must of course drive any review. Defence policy is also about the defence footprint, about where our personnel are stationed, and about where defence resources are spent amongst many other factors.
‘The UK Government must end its secrecy on regional and national defence statistics, and the SDSR must consider the impact of its deliberations for the nations and regions of the UK’.
He got nowhere.
Nick Harvey, the Armed Forces Minister responding to the debate, simply refused to reverse the MoD’s decision.
It turns out that the previous (Labour) Government had stopped collecting the statistics on regional defence spending and the current Government has decided not to revive this work on cost grounds. Who would not read between the lines – in both governments’ actions?
However, it’s not beyond a competent mathematician to work out the relative regional spending on the basis of figures already available. It just means that they won’t be handed out as a government hostage to fortune. Opposition parties will have to work them out for themselves.
But it’s the strategy that matters – the will to disguise. In poker game terms, the government hand is not going to be revealed.
The macchiavellian sleight-of-hand routine we speculated about above would see:
- the possibility raised of horrifyingly deep cuts in defence spending in Scotland (done)
- the dropping of statistics on regional budget allocations (done)
- the introduction of cuts at a less than extreme volume which, being less than feared, will not cause the seismic convulsions they would otherwise have done – and whose impact, actually and relatively, will not easily be measured (to come?)
We predict that:
- Lossiemouth will close, in the hope that Richard Branson’s space tourism project,VirginGalactic will step in to use the base and reduce the percentage of economic loss to the area with the loss of the base;
- the aircraft carriers will be cancelled, on the basis of defence strategy as well as cost;
- the HIghlanders will be axed and possibly the Argylls, with the assumption that the Black Watch could summon greater support in its protest. The Seaforths, Gordons and Camerons, masked in the bland, new, amalgam identity of The Highlanders, cannot now bring to bear the passion of historic affinity. The Argyll’s may be able to galvanise support but the split affinity with their base in Stirling and their geographical associations with Argyll and with Sutherland wold tend to dissipate the necessary heat.
- the existing Trident submarines will not be moved form Faslane. The simple fact is that the MoD needs Faslane even more than does Argyll. If may seem odd in the 21st century but the percentage of cloud cover offered by the Clyde base is of real military value to Faslane. There is no credible alternative submarine base in the UK.
For now, Scotland needs to fight to keep what it can. For the future, we need – as Moray was too complacent to do when its fishing industry died and it relaxed into utter dependency on its two RAF bases – to reduce our dependancy on UK defence spending – and putting up with the by-product which is the polluted mess much of it makes of this country.