There is some disquiet in Wiltshire about the Defence Review whose conclusions were published by the Government this week. The new realm of ‘sub-threshold’ conflict (everything short of shooting, including cyber attacks, political interference, and criminality) demands a savvier set of capabilities than just soldiers with tanks and guns. Moreover, even when the shooting starts our soldiers need more than tanks and guns. The lesson of recent wars, our own and others’, in Libya, Syria and the Caucasus is that troops and armour are vulnerable to high-tech, increasingly low-cost kit. If a £500 drone can take out a £5m tank, we have a problem.
This is why I support the focus in the Defence Review on Artificial Intelligence, space and cyber. Yet I also share the disquiet of some constituents, including those with recent experience at senior ranks in the Army, that we risk sacrificing the crucial assets of scale and mass - numbers of soldiers - in pursuit of a technological will-o-the-wisp. The cut in the size of the Army is small in practice - down from the current 76,500 to 72,500 - but it represents a significant reduction in the recruitment target of 82,000. We don’t know what the armed forces will be required to do in the years ahead - they probably didn’t think they’d be called in to help manage a pandemic last year. But we do know that it is a lot easier to reduce the size of the Army than to build it up in a hurry.
These anxieties aside, I am delighted the Defence Secretary has managed to chisel an extra £24 billion out of the Treasury over the next five years. I spoke to a number of serving and former soldiers this week, from our local Armed Forces Champion (and ex-Royal Engineer) Councillor Chris Williams, to the Chief of the Defence Staff Sir Nick Carter. All recognised the absolute centrality of soldiers’ welfare, and especially the pressure on families, in the success or failure of the Army. £3 billion of the new funds will go on accommodation and childcare, which is welcome. I also had a plaintive appeal from one serving officer based at Bulford to improve ‘cooking in the block’ - the self-catering facilities in the Single Living Accommodation. I hope this will be addressed.
It’s not just the Army that’s overstretched as usual. Wiltshire Police, as the Chief Constable explained in my call with him on Friday, have issued 821 Fixed Penalty Notices for breaches of Covid rules since the pandemic started, with an additional 1,437 warnings (including 213 ‘No Mask Interactions’ and 277 ‘Large Group Interactions’). The sooner that is all behind us the better. I accept the necessity for these rules (and I voted for an extension of the Coronavirus Act, which gives far-reaching powers to the police, this week - as I explained here) but my goodness I detest them.
Even after lockdown the police have a busy summer ahead. The very first night of freedom on 21 June, being solstice, is likely to attract extra crowds illegally partying at Stonehenge. Then, in addition to managing the exuberance of a liberated population heading en masse to the pub, the police face a summer of protest from our friends in Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter, including around the G7 and COP26 summits, which apparently may wash up in Wiltshire. All in all, it’s a good thing the Government is investing in new coppers (20 more were sworn in to Wiltshire Police this week).
I had a useful meeting with the steering group driving the bid for a new train station and the lead officers from Wiltshire Council who are involved in the scheme. Devizes is the largest town in the county without access to the train network and a new station could be transformative. Government is supportive so far and I’m confident we can show the enormous demand and the enormous opportunity a new station represents.
The other crucial connectivity we need is better broadband. The country is quickly getting faster internet - gigabit broadband coverage has grown from less than 10% to 50% since Boris Johnson became PM - but we have persistent pockets of poor service and that’s where we need to focus. I held an online public meeting this week with over 20 households dotted across the constituency - many of them with ‘video off’ to conserve bandwidth and enable them to take part - and heard a chorus of woe about patchy connections, terrible upload speeds in particular (the internet isn’t just for downloading TV these days, it’s now for sending your own voice and picture to online meetings), and an indifferent bureaucracy at the monopoly provider of fibre, which I’m not mentioning by name in case their online bots spot the reference and complain. (I am of course in touch with the unmentioned company and actually find them perfectly courteous and keen to help).
The good news is the Government is shortly unveiling the details of its voucher scheme which will give £1500 to each household, and £3000 to each business, in internet cold spots which they can use to club together and buy better cabling. The problem is this may not be enough for the most remote hamlets (‘rurality’ and ‘sparsity’ being, as ever, the factors that national funding formulas don’t consider properly) - or not enough for the monopoly provider. I suspect the answer is in more competition.
Did I mention my pride and delight in helping secure 250 new volunteer drivers for the Wiltshire LINK scheme? Thanks to the great generosity and civic spirit of Gaigers, TH White and Wadworths - all family businesses, note, with long roots in Wiltshire - there is now no shortage of drivers to take people to their vaccine jabs. The good news was covered in the Gazette and Herald this week.
The British Army has been exercising on Salisbury Plain since the Napoleonic wars but until the 1890s they came, like pastoral herdsmen, only to camp in the summer months. Then they bought Tidworth, and settled for good. I like to tell my colleague Leo Docherty, MP for Aldershot (and the proud possessor of the finest sideburns in Parliament), that Tidworth-Bulford is the true home of the British Army, despite what it says on the gates of Aldershot. It is a great honour to represent this area and all its people, and the ghosts of all the soldiers who have passed through it. The American First Infantry Division was based here in World War II, and the hokey-cokey was invented at Tedworth House in 1943.
Have a great Easter.