Speech in the Scottish Parliament debate
20 April 2017
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.
Labour will support the Scottish Government’s motion at 5 o’clock.
Our amendment recognises “the crucial economic and social contribution of military bases in Scotland” through both the direct spend by armed forces personnel and the multiplier effect on local businesses.
One need look no further than Fort George and its effect on the economies of Ardersier and Inverness.
I am happy to give way to Stewart Stevenson.
Stewart Stevenson: Is Mr Stewart aware of the perverse effects of the Capita contract that the Tories have let for recruitment? To meet the targets in the contract, Capita has to divert people who come forward in Scotland wishing to join Scottish regiments to regiments that are based elsewhere in the UK, decisively damaging that very valuable connection between local communities and people who have historical and emotional connections to local regiments but are no longer being permitted to join them.
David Stewart: I endorse Mr Stevenson’s excellent point. In fact, I read about that very point in Hansard earlier today.
Our amendment “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.”
When we debated the issue of RAF Kinloss seven years ago, I pointed out that Highlands and Islands Enterprise had commissioned an independent economic impact analysis that showed that the two RAF bases in Moray at the time supported more than 5,500 full-time jobs—16 per cent of all full-time employment in Moray—and that the economic impact of closure would involve the loss of more than £155 million a year.
The report concluded by saying:
“It is clear that the economy and population of Moray is heavily dependent on the RAF, probably more so than any other region of the UK.”
There is much that we can learn from the closure of RAF Kinloss and from the situation in the US, where the Government takes responsibility for rebuilding and rebooting local areas when defence bases close.
That is a practical form of social covenant with the local community. We are calling for that kind of social covenant for Scotland.
When military bases are scheduled to close, we must use all available economic levers to attract inward investment, stimulate local business initiatives and offer redundant military and civilian staff retraining and support.
We would seek to draw down more European Union funding and consider relocating Scottish Government posts and agencies to affected areas.
The loss of any military base is a blow for the local area. In my region, losing Fort George after losing RAF Kinloss will be a body blow.
I believe that we must honour the covenant with our armed forces, but there is also a social covenant with communities that are plunged into economic uncertainty and instability by the closure of bases that have become central to their existence.
We must say no to the cavalier and unfeeling dismissal of those communities’ concerns and ensure that everything possible is done either to prevent the closures by changing the minds of Government or to commit the necessary resources to mitigate the damaging impacts of closure.
To paraphrase the late Canon Kenyon Wright, what if the UK Government said “Yes, Fort George should close, and we are the Government”, but the Highlands said “No, and we are the people”?
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.”