20 April 2017
Speech in the Scottish Parliament debate
A little more than seven years ago, I brought to the chamber a members’ business debate to discuss concerns about the possible closure of RAF Kinloss.
The cross-party campaign was supported by all the party leaders at that time: Alex Salmond, Annabel Goldie, Tavish Scott and lain Gray.
I argued then, and I argue today, that armed forces personnel have a social covenant with our country, at times of peace and at times of war.
During times of conflict, I always remember the lines from John Maxwell Edmonds that are repeated every remembrance Sunday across Scotland and beyond: “When you go home, tell them of us and say For their tomorrow, we gave our today.
” The importance of the social covenant was best illustrated to me 25 years ago when the American naval base in Dunoon closed, with a loss of 1,500 American personnel.
The local community rallied round and set up a dynamic economic committee that received European and Government funding support to diversify the economy and provide new jobs.
Like most members in the chamber, my interest in the debate is personal.
My father did his national service with the Royal Air Force at Kinloss as a fresh-faced 18-year-old, nearly 70 years ago.
During my last year of school in the Highlands, I thought seriously—as Jackson Carlaw did—about joining the RAF, but instead I chose the less hazardous conflict zones that come with a career in politics.
However, during my time in Westminster, from 1997, I relished the opportunity to serve with the RAF for two terms as part of the armed forces parliamentary scheme.
I welcome the setting-up of the Scottish scheme this week, and I hope that members on all sides of the chamber will volunteer to take part in it.
During my involvement with the Westminster scheme, I had direct experience of RAF Kinloss and RAF Lossiemouth, as well as a memorable week in Basra, in Iraq, which I can speak about at some other time.
I flew in a Tornado fast jet, a Nimrod maritime aircraft and a Sea King search-and-rescue helicopter.
On my last day with the RAF, the Sea King that I was involved with had to attend an emergency in Glencoe.
I vividly remember flying a few hundred feet above Loch Ness on the way to Glencoe and observing at first hand the bravery, expertise and professionalism of the pilots and the winch crew as they saved the life of a young Swiss mountaineer who had fallen and suffered severe facial injuries.
My experience was a brief snapshot, but it gave me a tremendous admiration for the armed forces and for veterans.
Fort George army barracks, which is in my region and just minutes from my home, is scheduled—as we heard from the cabinet secretary—to be closed by the UK Government in 2032.
As members may know, Fort George was designed by Major General William Skinner and opened in 1769, and it has remained a British army base ever since.
As we heard from the cabinet secretary, it is home to the Black Watch, and it supports 700 jobs and contributes £16 million to the economy each year.
The original decision to close Fort George led to a storm of outrage in the local community.
The high-profile campaign was spearheaded by the actor Hugh Grant, whose grandfather once served as the commanding officer there.
Major General Alastair Dickinson, who is the director of army basing, conceded that there was a lot of emotion around the Black Watch leaving.
In The Times, in November 2016, he said: “The closure of a base like Fort George is incredibly sad.
” The base closure is a real blow to the defence footprint in Scotland and in the Highlands in particular.
In my view, Ministry of Defence bases are excellent recruiting sergeants, and there must be a real risk that base closures will hit future recruitment.
Close regional connections have always existed between Scottish sailors, soldiers and airmen and the places where they were trained and recruited.
As Times journalist Magnus Linklater said: “The fierce loyalty to their own localities was felt every bit as deeply by Scottish troops in Afghanistan and Iraq as it was at Ypres or The Somme.
“The loss of that close and enduring link will steadily erode the emotional attachment so important to military morale, as is bound to have an effect on recruitment.”
Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP): Will the member take an intervention?
David Stewart: I will just finish my point first.
I move amendment S5M-05185.
1, to insert at end: “; further notes the crucial economic and social contribution of military bases in Scotland, and calls on the UK Government to halt all and any base closures until it has prepared and consulted on full economic assessment and employment diversification plans."
This has been an excellent debate, with thoughtful and insightful speeches from across the chamber.
Of course, some members, such as Mike Rumbles, Maurice Corry, Edward Mountain and the cabinet secretary, are ex-service personnel, and I believe that their contributions mirrored the depth and the range of their significant experience in their previous occupations.
However, other members without military experience also spoke with passion and commitment about the importance of the military footprint in Scotland.
The cabinet secretary kicked off the debate by talking about the 20 per cent reduction in the defence estate, the reduction in the military footprint in Scotland and the role of the regional hubs.
He also expressed concern about the issue of the Condor airfield in Arbroath and the fact that, in large parts of Scotland, the Army will have no footprint at all.
He usefully raised the issue of the working party, which involves local authorities.
I would be interested to hear the outcome of its work.
Jackson Carlaw and I could perhaps form a club for people who, in their school days, failed to join the RAF—perhaps we should form a support group to counsel ourselves about our career choices.
On a serious note, he raised important issues from the 2015 strategic defence review and talked about the 91 sites that were earmarked for closure.
Like many members, Gordon MacDonald talked with passion and commitment about base closures in his local area and spoke about the importance of keeping army barracks in his constituency.
Maurice Golden made some valid points at the start of his speech about recognising the historic reputation of the work that the men and women of our armed forces carry out now and have carried out in the past.
On a general level, he talked about the importance of getting defence infrastructure right in the future, which involves a long-term plan.
Stewart Stevenson entertained us, as always, but he also made a significant contribution to the debate.
He raised an issue with which I have common cause, which is the impact of the armed forces, particularly the RAF, in the Moray area.
As always, he had a relative who he could bring into the debate.
I think that the year he mentioned was 1890—
Stewart Stevenson: About a hundred years earlier.
David Stewart: I will go back to school and remember the dates at a better time.
Stewart Stevenson made a valid point about the threats in the future of non-state actors and the worries about violence, fear and hatred and concerns about ISIS and North Korea, as well as about the importance of mobile forces.
He might have slightly misquoted the reference, but he cited a point made by a famous German military strategist, that no plan ever survives the first contact with the enemy.
Mark Ruskell made some valid points about the relationship between Governments—not just national Governments, but local government, which has an important role.
I note that this is probably his last meeting before he gives up being a councillor, so he will no longer have to declare that interest.
He said that, when bases are going to close, irrespective of the campaigning that has been done, we must consider how we can mitigate the effects of local base closures in the long term.
He also made some valid points about the other side of the equation in Stirling, which concerns the importance of affordable housing and how we can try to put the two issues together.
He also referred to a game of cat and mouse being played by the UK Government, and a common theme that has arisen this afternoon is the question of where the consultation has been from the UK Government.
Many members made that point.
Bruce Crawford has a lot of experience in the military and a lot of understanding of local defence issues.
He talked about the 20 per cent reduction in the defence footprint, his local base and the importance of repairing and upgrading its functions, the impact on Stirling if the base closes, and the high connectivity between the armed forces and the community in Stirling over many years.
Another common theme in the debate has been personal links with the military, and Bruce Crawford mentioned his father, who I think I am right in saying was in the Household Cavalry.
Bruce Crawford: I did not get a chance to respond to one of the points that Mark Ruskell made, but I entirely agree with him that one of the good things that will come from the proposal is that Trident will no longer be able to use Stirling as a base when it passes through.
David Stewart: I shall move on swiftly.
We heard from Mike Rumbles, who also has lots of experience, having been in the Army for 15 years in his previous life.
He talked about Glencorse being his first posting, and he made some valid points about the economic effects of the closure of the bases, and supported the regional hubs.
I do not think that anyone is suggesting that everything that the UK Government is suggesting is negative.
There are some military and strategic advantages to having the regional hubs, but I emphasise that our current and future capabilities must meet the new threats.
As the facts change, so do our opinions.
It is critical to stress that.
Mr Rumbles also mentioned the importance of getting our estates strategy right in future.
Edward Mountain was a soldier for 12 years and has a son currently serving.
His key point, which in general terms I agree with, was that it is important to consider what is good for our service personnel.
He made a general point about Fort George.
He and I are on opposite sides of the argument, but I concede that setting up a working party is a good idea, and I would certainly volunteer for that.
He said that those who want to see Fort George stay open are effectively chirping from the sidelines—I am not sure whether I am included in that—but the last time that I looked that was called democracy and campaigning.
That minor point aside, I would be happy to sign up to Mr Mountain’s working party if he could arrange it.
Graeme Dey made some excellent points about the long-term plans for Condor, as he is worried about the constant chipping away.
Maurice Corry, another member with experience of Army service, spoke with authority about getting a more efficient defence estate and looking at regular and reserve forces.
I promise that next Christmas I will give Mr Corry a watch, because he is not very good at keeping time.
Finally, I want to mention Christine Grahame, who talked about the armed forces scheme being set up in the Scottish Parliament.
I strongly endorse that.
She made excellent points about Glencorse and its facilities and about the importance of the partners who are involved in the business support group.
She finished by saying that it is a disgrace that the base is closing.
As always, I will give Christine Grahame the last word.
I normally do not get the first word either.