THE future of RAF Leuchars has been cast into fresh doubt after the government refused to set out plans for the base in the biggest shake-up of the army since the Second World War. Tory Defence Secretary Philip Hammond yesterday unveiled the government’s reorganisation of the army, in which Scottish units were not as badly affected than those elsewhere in the UK.
While 17 Welsh and English units are to be disbanded, all the Scottish names are to remain – provoking a wave of protest from Tory backbenchers who complained of a “grubby deal” to help the Unionist cause in the independence referendum.
The government had stated that RAF Typhoon fighter jets would be moved out of Leuchars, which would become an army base.
But former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell, whose North-East Fife constituency includes the base, claimed Mr Hammond had admitted the case for the army going to Leuchars was “flawed”.
Sir Menzies said it was clear the army did not want to come to Fife and would not need the base. He said sources told him the area could be “facing a nightmare scenario” of being abandoned altogether.
He said: “This announcement should put the last nail in the coffin of the proposal to transfer the Typhoons from Leuchars to Lossiemouth.
“The original decision was based on the army’s requirement for sufficient bases in Scotland to accommodate a Multi-Role Brigade including armoured units. Now we know that the Brigade which is coming to Scotland will not have the same basing requirements.
“There is no requirement for the army to occupy Leuchars, which is no doubt why no money is being spent in preparation for their occupation.”
Carroll Finnie from the Leuchars Taskforce called for clarity.
She said: “This has been dragging on for over a year now. We keep on hearing different rumours about what might happen but have yet to be given anything definitive.
“This is affecting local businesses, schools and doctors surgeries and the government needs to tell us its plans.”
Overall the army is to be reduced by 20,000 to 82,000, and although Scottish battalions are to remain at their current strength it is understood they will be reduced by up to 30 per cent in the future.
The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, which had been expected to be turned into a territorial army battalion, will be reduced to a company and moved from Canterbury to Edinburgh to perform ceremonial duties. The unit will be reduced to a company size of between 100 and 150.
However, the SNP suggested that the move was a “smoke and mirrors exercise” because soldiers serving in the Argylls, famous as the regiment of the Thin Red Line at the battle of Balaclava, will be drawn from the other four Scottish battalions.
Also saved is the fourth battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland, the Highlanders, despite having the worst recruitment rate in the UK, a quarter down on its full compliment.
The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, which as the Greys captured Napoleon’s imperial eagle at Waterloo, have also been spared despite being earmarked for the axe.
It is still uncertain where the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards and the Highlanders, both currently due to return from Germany, will be based.
Other surprise winners were the Scots, Welsh and Coldstream Guards, which had been under threat but all survived.
Tory MPs from England and Wales were concerned that Scotland been unfairly treated with leniency because of the forthcoming independence referendum. They pointed out that the Scottish battalions have some of the worst recruitment records in the army.
Conservative Basildon and Billericay MP John Baron, who served with the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, told MPs: “I’m sorry to say I think the government is making a very grave error.
“Not only does the decision to cut the army by a fifth smack of accountants running amok, the decision to axe the better-recruited English battalions at the expense of the more poorly recruited Scottish battalions smacks of a grubby, political fix given the advent of the Scottish (independence) referendum.”
Former British UN commander in Bosnia and Conservative Bob Stewart, MP for Beckenham, said the cuts had been “particularly savage” on English county regiments.
Welsh MP David TC Davies condemned the axing of the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Welsh.
He added: “We are very disappointed that the Ministry of Defence chose not to come and give evidence [to the Welsh select committee], but we have heard from independent experts who told us, based on proportionality, cost and recruitment considerations, they would cut several battalions of the Scottish regiments, and Gurkhas, and we are concerned this decision to cut a Welsh battalion may be at least partly politically motivated.”
But the SNP focused on what government insiders have said may be a cut of 30 per cent to the Royal Regiment of Scotland in the future to 450 per battalion.
SNP Westminster leader and defence spokesman Angus Robertson said the Scottish part of the army is now smaller than the Irish army.
He said: “The UK government has already acknowledged that defence personnel in Scotland have been cut disproportionately in recent years—more than 27 per cent in Scotland, compared with 11 per cent in the UK as a whole. Those cuts continue.
“Although the retention of cap badges is welcome, the Tories have broken their promise to restore the six Scottish infantry regiments.”
But Mr Hammond said: “It is one of the most under-recruited regiments in the British Army. It is no good his asking for extra battalions and more regiments, because it cannot recruit to fill the ones that it already has.”
Labour’s shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy said: “The Argylls are brilliant and fearless and there are real worries that they will be reduced to guarding castles and being photographed by tourists.”
Lib Dem Scottish Secretary Michael Moore who lobbied for the retention of historic regimental names in Scotland said: “This announcement confirms that the army will continue to maintain a significant presence in Scotland. It is a visible sign of our commitment to Scotland and to Scotland’s continued vital role in the defence of the UK.”