Nearly a quarter-century after the Cold War ended, Defence Secretary Philip Hammond this week announced detailed plans for the withdrawal of British forces from Germany (along with the £600 million annual injection into the German economy that they represent). The Army’s presence there dates from the Second World War, nearly 70 years ago. We may like to think we have flexible armed forces but much of the time their basing is determined by the availability of facilities constructed decades ago in a quite different world from that of today.
Bringing the troops home is therefore a logistical headache. Where to put them all? Hammond’s rationalisation of the defence estate is planned to accommodate a smaller army, but in fewer, better places. So an overall run-down is a run-up for Wessex, with Aldershot and Salisbury Plain identified as key bases. Is that good news, or bad?
Good, according to Wednesday’s Western Daily Press, which focused on the economic benefits of more public sector employees in our region. Curiously, an increase in civil servants would doubtless have been seen as a drain on the economy and a worrying sign of state-dependency. The difference lies in the fact that soldiers, by themselves, aren’t going to force up local wage rates. They spend money, but they don’t ‘distort’ the labour market. They are, in a very real sense, ring-fenced.
There is a down side. The move to Salisbury Plain will mean building homes for more than 3,000 extra soldiers and their families, in a fragile environment already under huge pressure from private housebuilders. Those who welcome the injection of cash should bear in mind that the cash came out of their own pockets before it went into soldiers’ pay. If the London regime would now hand it back, it would do more good giving it to the parish councils to spend on things that are actually needed. Even before the payroll costs are counted, £850 million is planned to be spent on MoD infrastructure in Wiltshire and £100 million in Hampshire. But we somehow ‘can’t afford’ to spend that sort of money on anything useful…
The Army came to Salisbury Plain in 1897, considering the then ‘forlornly desolate’ farmland ideal for practising cavalry charges. As it turned out, the very last cavalry charge in its history came the following year, but it held on to its purchase. No permanent camp was intended. That changed the following year too. Since 1897 the area the Army controls has more than doubled. Sometimes land is taken over as an emergency expedient that by degrees solidifies into a permanent policy. Remember Imber. Army commanders will miss Germany, with its wide open spaces. Its training areas are vastly bigger than anything our crowded region can currently offer. Will we see more of Wiltshire compulsorily purchased to compensate? Time will tell. (In 1872 the Army did acquire temporary training rights over half a million acres stretching all the way to Somerset but that appears to have been just for one big exercise, and was well before the era of mechanisation.)
Hammond proposes seven key bases, or ‘clusters’, across Great Britain. One in Scotland, one in Northumbria, two in Mercia and one east of London. The two in Wessex have already been mentioned. The Scots are disappointed to be getting only 600 more soldiers when they’d been promised 7,000 by Liam Fox in 2011. Never mind. It’s all grist to the independentist mill.
By 2020 the 15,000 troops based at the Salisbury Plain Super Garrison will be twice as high as the number at any other British base. Wessex is, by tradition, among the most militarised parts of Britain, with whole shires economically dependent on the London regime’s generosity with our money, and so firmly bound in their loyalties to the politics of centralism. (The military is the largest employer in Wiltshire.) Electoral fraud? You might very well think that.
With the population expected to grow fastest in the south of England there is, in terms of recruitment, some geographical logic to this emphasis. There are also sound reasons for grouping certain units together where facilities can be shared, while still not keeping all the eggs in one basket. Nevertheless, it helps to know what the recipe is before you decide how many eggs you need. And that underlying question still hasn’t been answered. What exactly is the Army FOR?
In terms of its primary military role, there are three possible answers. To keep the peace at home. To defend the realm against attack. And to launch retaliatory, or even pre-emptive strikes against other countries whose rulers have upset Her Britannic Majesty’s Government.
The first of these functions shouldn’t be under-estimated. In an economic crisis, with bankers turning the screws and police budgets squeezed, a bit of back-up on the streets could be very handy. Ultimately, the law that is upheld is not the law arrived at by rational debate but the law arrived at by decisive violence. Ireland furnishes several proofs that that isn’t automatically in the gift of governments.
The second function would appear to be the main reason we have our armed forces. To prevent others storming up the beaches. In truth, the threat of invasion has never been more remote. We are certainly vulnerable to attack, but not as we know it. The further we travel into the digital age, the more critical our region’s energy and communications infrastructure becomes. It’s at risk from hostile governments, from terrorists and even from criminal gangs. But conventional weaponry isn’t an effective deterrent or an effective reaction in most cases. Let alone Trident.
So is the MoD really a Ministry of Defence? Or of War? Is it us that it’s defending, or itself? The top brass. The bureaucrats. The contractors. All have a reason to keep the show on the road. The third function allows them to do just that. And our economic model makes it unavoidable. The UK imports over half its food and raw materials. It has to keep open the lifelines of trade and take a dim view of anyone who would disrupt them, no matter how laudable their political ambitions for their country. Remember Suez. The old imperialist slogan, used to justify colonialism, was ‘trade follows the flag’. Today the flag follows trade wherever trade directs it to go. Which is why any move towards greater regional self-sufficiency is a move away from international tension.
With a new scramble for Africa opening up, led by the Americans and the Chinese, it’s not a good time to be locked tight into any global system, economic or military. It is a good time to be thinking ahead for once, not about short-term prosperity but about long-term survival. Greater freedom for Wessex is a good thing, for us, but it’s a good thing for the rest of the world too.