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Black Watch Regiment Axing - More Than Just A Name And A Badge?

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It's been covered at length in the Scottish media and less so by publications elsewhere, but the possible axing of the historic Black Watch army regiment in Scotland has led to a mounting political row in Edinburgh, and it won't be long before it blows up at Westminster.

On Wednesday the Scotsman reported that under troop cuts the Black Watch and Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders are to be brought together. It followed an admission by defence secretary Philip Hammond in an interview with The Telegraph on Tuesday, in which he signalled that some regiments would be merged.

The issue was due to be raised in the Commons on Thursday, as part of Hammond's statement about the U-turn on Joint Strike Fighter. But Hammond apparently managed to get the terms of his statement narrowed to just about the UK aircraft carrier capability. On Thursday night three Scottish National Party MPs tabled an Early Day Motion and Labour looks set to be critical about anything that dilutes the history of the Black Watch.

The potential demise of the regiment is part of the Basing Review into troop numbers and regiments, taking place this year and due to report sometime in 2013. We can expect a reduction in regular troop numbers by up to 19,000 - that has been in the public domain for more than a year, and even the previous Labour government accepted that there would be a reduction.

But the revelation that the cuts will lead to historic regiments with proud traditions being merged has provoked widespread anger, and not just in Scotland. The Telegraph was deluged by letters following their interview with Hammond, and Tories north of the border have come under attack by Alex Salmond for their colleagues in London showing apparent disregard for military tradition.

Michael Codner, Director of Military Sciences at RUSI told HuffPost UK that the loss of several historic badges was inevitable - but that there will be more rows like the one now surrounding Black Watch. "When you start to look at cavalry, when you start to reduce the number of tanks you're going to see whole regiments going. That will be quite political when it comes to the Household Cavalry.

"There will be a lot of regional defences at keeping the regiments, and that's understandable. The objective disadvantage of getting rid of cap badges is where they relate to specific areas. It's how the regiments relate to the rest of society. That is quite important."

But Codner says the Army is going through substantial organisational change, and while that will be painful, there will be benefits. He said: "They are moving towards a "super-garrison" concept, which makes sense because spouses don't get moved around so much and can get jobs. But this moves the regiments away from their historic associations.

"When it comes to emergency response and domestic security, if the Army isn't so spread around the country then units will not be so available in the case of a terrorist attack or some natural disaster like flooding. But you can't necessarily keep the army dispersed around the country just for that purpose without it being costed," he says.

"The disadvantages are that army lose the relationships from the nations and regions they are based, but a new generation of soldiers won't be so concerned. In 10 years time a majority of the soldiers in a regiment will either no longer be in the military or will have been promoted to a point where a cap badge is not so relevant."

There is a lot of politics involved here, though, and Scottish independence has a lot to do with it. Polling data from Scotland suggests that while most Scots want total control over health and education, fewer people accept the case for full control over defence and foreign affairs. That much was outlined by Professor John Curtice from Strathclyde University in March, during a Parliamentary inquiry.

Alex Salmond is painting the possible demise of the Black Watch as brutal Tory cut that flies in the face of a distinguished regimental history. But the suspicion must be that he sees the changes as a potential boon to convince sceptics of Scottish independence.

Dr. Phillips O'Brien from the Centre for War Studies at Glasgow University told HuffPost UK: "When it comes to defence the SNP have a big problem, which is the NATO membership. The party leadership wants to stay in NATO but the activists don't. They're trying to use anything to distract attention from that.

"The SNP has had a very bad year on defence - their policies haven't gone down terribly well and since then have tried to be quiet on the issue. About three or four weeks ago they started leaking the story that they're about to change their NATO policy."

"A lot of the people in these regiments are not actually Scottish but the MoD refuses to release the data on how many actually are. Those Scots who are in them tend to be more unionist by nature, so whether they'd want to remain as part of an independent Scottish army is an open question."

"But the real question is whether the regimental system maintains esprit de corps - or morale. I think it's a contributory factor, but not an essential one, as the US army has shown."

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