This defence review announcement is much worse than we expected, with savage tory cuts meaning the defence footprint will be cut by around 20% in Scotland. This follows months of us asking whether Fort George and other bases were under threat, and nothing but silence from the MOD. I long suspected, this silence was, in fact, an attempt to avoid hearing our case for Fort George and other Scottish bases. This announcement only confirms that. The fact that the announcement was leaked to the press before a statement to MPs in parliament, is exactly the “respect agenda” we have become accustomed to from this Government.
Indeed, throughout this entire process, the Tories have been disinterested, disrespectful and disgraceful in their handling of this decision and, in their unwillingness to listen and engage with our communities.
Perhaps the only thing they have been steadfast in, is their stony silence. Even after finally agreeing, belatedly, to a meeting with me. I invited the Leader of Highland Council, Margaret Davidson – the Council’s director for Development and Infrastructure, Stuart Black and – Highlands and Islands list MSP, Maree Todd, but even then, the Minister, Mark Lancaster offered no value, no insight and no further discussions. Worse than that, it emerged during the campaign to save the base that Ministers have even refused consultation with the Scottish Government. Veteran’s Minister Keith Brown MSP confirmed – despite many attempts by the Scottish Government to broker a meeting, there has been no discussion on the social or economic impact of base closures in Scotland, nor a single discussion on the Fort itself.
Meanwhile, we had the Tory’s man in Scotland, Secretary of State for Scotland, David Mundell flatly refuse to heed all calls for him to question his Governments plans for Fort George. Accusing us of “scaremongering” Even rejecting any consultation, until “after the review reports”. Consultation after a decision has already been made, is no consultation at all and it is utterly disrespectful to the people we serve. He has attempted to hide behind the the excuse of poor state of facilities but this is something they have had decades to sort – and easily still could – at the tiniest fraction of the cost of Trident nuclear weapons. It has always been their responsibility.
I make no apologies for using strong terms to describe the impact that closing Fort George will have on the Highlands and directly on the communities in my constituency – especially Ardersier and Inverness. Economic assessments carried out, estimate that 750, non-military, jobs will be affected. There will be a disproportionate impact on the school rolls, especially at Raigmore Primary and the loss of around £16 million per year to the local economy will be devastating. This is a big deal, a very big deal.
Attempts to sugar-coat the announcement, with the suggestion of a “run down” of 15 years just doesn’t wash. Just a few years ago, the UK Government savaged our historic regiments, combining them in to one, The Regiment of Scotland. There was, rightly, a huge public outcry, particularly over the Black Watch regiment. This historic regiment had served the UK Government when called to serve all over the globe, with distinction and honour. Regardless of how righteous – or how very wrong – the political imperative for military action, Black Watch soldiers did their duty. They have always been renowned for their teamwork, commitment, selflessness and deep sense of honour in their regiment and wore their cap badges with pride. Recruitment benefitted by the attraction of serving with such a prestigious regiment and this was seen as a great advantage to their Commanders. The army counted on this for decade after decade. So when the regiments were to be merged, the “sweetener” that the Ministry of Defence applied then was to say that Fort George would become the permanent home of the Black Watch.
So you will excuse me for not swallowing yet another, promise, a sugar coated pill in the form of a long run down. The UK Government is, as I have pointed out, no stranger to breaking its promises and running away from its responsibilities and whilst 750 jobs and a £16 million loss to the economy might be nothing to the city of London, it will be devastating to the Highland communities I serve.
It is about time the UK Government to live up to its responsibilities to the Highlands, the families who would be affected and to the historic Black Watch. Instead we are all left footing the obscene £167 billion bill for this Tory Governments obsession with obsolete weapons of mass destruction.
For, whilst, our 250 year old garrison had very grim beginnings, the base has transformed from a symbol of dominance over the Highlands, into an important part of the fabric of our local communities. So one thing is for sure, this battle has only just begun. The fight for Fort George goes on.