Bagpipes skirl again, but British regiments fall in battle of budget

October 20, 1991|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau of The Sun

LONDON -- Will the Beefeaters quit the Tower of London? Who will be left to troop the colors? Will there always be an England if no one is left to change the guard at Buckingham Palace?

Listening to this week's heated and heavy debate over plans to reduce Britain's armed forces by some 40,000 men, one might have thought that all the flash and glitter, all the tradition and glory accumulated over the years by British arms, was about to be thrown over as a consequence of the peace dividend flowing from the end of the Cold War.

The most passionate opponents of the manpower cuts, both inside and outside the House of Commons where the debate was held over two days, were the more ancient regiments, especially the Scottish units, with long traditions and glorious martial histories.

A number of their representatives showed up early in the week in a skirl of bagpipes outside Westminster Palace. They wore kilts and dirks and tam-o'-shanters and brought some 800,000 signatures protesting the defense cuts, ordained by Tom King, the Conservative Defense Minister.

Mr. King has argued that the collapse of the Soviet threat justifies reducing Britain's armed forces. He has promised a "smaller but better" military and a defense budget that would shrink progressively over the next three years.

Specifically, he proposes to reduce the forces from 155,000 to 116,000, and consolidate the existing 55 battalions, mostly undermanned, into 38 battalions at full strength.

The Scots, and many others, objected to the cuts not only because they felt that they would weaken the armed forces to an unacceptable level, but because they found offensive the idea of merging various regiments and battalions, each of which has its own peculiar traditions.

The same objection exists for older English regiments. Ann Winterton, a member of Parliament for Congleton in Cheshire, said she wanted to keep the Cheshire regiment in her constituency from merging with the Staffordshire regiment. A spokesman in her office said, "It's all about maintaining tradition, about not losing your identity."

Most current British army units are the product of earlier amalgamations, which merged centuries of traditions and provoked protests every time, most recently about 10 years ago.

Even the royal family, in a rare open intrusion into a debate on government policy, has gotten into the act.

Prince Charles, colonel-in-chief of the Gordon Highlanders, which to be merged with the Queen's Own Highlanders, let it be known he thought the cuts came too close to the bone. Queen Elizabeth II is said to be particularly distressed that two regiments for which she feels a personal attachment -- the Life Guards and the Blues and Royals -- would be merged into a single unit.

Buckingham Palace hinted the reductions might necessitate curtailing some of the more colorful functions carried out by the armed forces, such as guarding the Tower of London.

The Duke of Wellington, formerly the commander of the Household Cavalry whose ancestor defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, wrote a letter to the Daily Telegraph arguing that the manpower reductions could indeed reduce the ornamental activities of the forces in London.

It is not entirely surprising for the royals to engage on an issue such as this, since their existence here is reflected in the ceremonial functions of the armed forces. The Duke of Wellington, in his letter, put his finger on the bottom line imperative with regard to the fancy units surrounding the monarchy:

"Our Guards regiments have always carried out their operational roles to the highest standard, and at the same time performed their ceremonial duties which are a part of the tradition of our monarchy and nation. This military pageantry earns from visitors to this country many times what the regiments in London cost the nation. . . ."

Since Britain gained nearly $13 billion on tourism last year, and almost that much the year before, and since many visitors expect to be able to take pictures of the men in the red tunics and bearskin hats, the continued deployment of the ceremonial soldiers at the various palaces around town is assured. But that may be as far as it goes. Despite the appeals to nostalgia and tradition, the numbers-crunchers in the Defense Ministry won out in the end, when the defense reductions were approved midweek by a vote of 324 to 66. Seven of those negative votes came from Conservative MPs in revolt against their own party.

They vowed to continue the fight.

Said Hector Monroe, the member for Dumfries in Scotland: "We're not giving up, not as far as Scotland is concerned. Our best course will be to show our arguments were right, to show that the battalions are overstretched and won't have enough to do the job in Northern Ireland."

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