We must stop tinkering with our Armed Forces right now

The injuries suffered by Staffordshire Moorlands soldier Anthony Lownds are a grim reminder that, on a daily basis, somewhere in a foreign field there is generally a British serviceman or woman risking life and limb for Queen and country.

The 24-year-old Grenadier Guard was caught in the blast of an improvised explosive device (IED) planted by the Taliban.

He is currently receiving treatment at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham and has so far had four operations for injuries to his right hand and legs.

My thoughts are with Anthony and his family and friends and I wish him a speedy recovery.

While most of us have been enjoying the patriotic fervour generated by the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and, to a lesser extent, the Olympic Torch Relay, Anthony and his comrades have been unable to relax and join in the celebrations.

As we settle down to watch England’s exploits in Euro 2012, spare a thought for the almost 10,000 members of the British Armed Forces who are demonstrating incredible bravery and commitment day-in, day-out in Afghanistan.

To date, since 2001, 417 British personnel have been killed in operations in the place they called the ‘Graveyard of Empires’.

It is a total that, heart-breakingly, is as sure to rise as the sun over that troubled land.

There are, of course, some who would argue that we should never have sent troops to Afghanistan in the first place – in the same way that we should have kept our noses out of Iraq’s business.

But Britain’s Services personnel don’t have that luxury and always deploy and do their duty, regardless of any personal misgivings they may have, which is what makes them such remarkable people.

That is exactly what they are doing right now in Afghanistan and we should be immensely proud of their efforts in the most difficult of circumstances.

But I wonder how Anthony Lownds and his mates felt when they learned a few days ago of more proposed cutbacks to the regular Army?

Defence Secretary Philip Hammond spoke of ‘difficult decisions’ ahead as the standing Army is reduced from 102,000 personnel to just 82,000.

If you know your military history then you will know that this is significant because an Army used to be defined as being 100,000 strong. Anything less than that figure wasn’t considered an Army.

While the regimental system will not be abolished, Mr Hammond said it was inevitable that some units would be lost or forced to merge.

If the national papers are to believed, one of those units could be our own 3 Mercian – or the Staffordshire Regiment in old money – along with such prestigious names as The Coldstream Guards.

I have to say that, for me, enough really is enough.

For years now I have watched Defence Secretaries slash and burn as they have wittered on about making our Armed Forces more ‘mobile’ and ‘adaptable’.

Always the end result is the same: Fewer boots on the ground; Less hardware; More reliance on reservists or other nations; And, ultimately, less ability to react to crises around the world.

Britannia once ruled the waves. Now we will have to hope we don’t need an aircraft carrier until 2020.

The RAF was once the only thing preventing the whole of Europe from falling under Nazi occupation.

But in Afghanistan it was a chronic shortage of helicopters which actually added to the number of UK casualties.

I could go on. The bottom line is that penny-pinching at the MoD over the last two decades, at the behest of various administrations, has significantly undermined the ability of the UK’s Armed Forces to do its job.

This has happened at a time when the actual number of global conflicts involving British Services personnel has risen.

Where is the logic in that?

Whatever we think of the so-called ‘War on Terror’, there is no denying the world is becoming a more dangerous place – with revolutions and the rise of extremism fanning the flames of conflict.

Add to this the ever-increasing economic uncertainty and inevitable shortage of natural resources such as fuel, food and water in the coming years, and you have a recipe for decades of instability.

So what does Whitehall do? Continue to reduce the number of Army, Navy and RAF personnel.

This is madness.

I believe caution should be the watch-word with regard to the future of our military. We only have to look to history for guidance.

Infantry battalions that were mothballed after the end of the Cold War had to be reconstituted for service in Northern Ireland.

Having scrapped Harrier Jump Jets and the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal we realised both would actually have been quite handy for the Libyan crisis.

Yes, times are tough and each Government department has to make savings and each will plead it deserves protection.

But the MoD really is a special case involving tens of thousands of special people who do a very special and specialised job.

The UK’s Armed Forces personnel are our ‘go-to’ guys and gals at home and overseas for everything from industrial unrest and disaster relief to frontline warfare and their importance simply cannot be over-stated.

I firmly believe that for Britain to remain safe and secure and for our country to retain its position as an effective, relevant and respected player on the global stage then we must stop tinkering with our Armed Forces right now.

Their England is not one I either want or recognise

The flag of St. George.

The flag of St. George.

I’ve often heard the movers and shakers in the Potteries wish that Stoke-on-Trent had a similar profile to the likes of Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Nottingham.

At the weekend that wish came true, after a fashion, when Stoke-on-Trent followed in the footsteps of those cities and endured its first English Defence League (EDL) protest.

There were 17 arrests, six police officers were injured and city centre traders were left seriously out of pocket at a time when they can ill-afford it.

It could have been worse. Much worse.

All in all it was an expensive farce which prevented thousands of Potters going about their business up ’Anley.

However, it wasn’t the end of the world and no – it doesn’t mean that our city has suddenly become a pariah.

After Saturday, it would be easy to tar all the EDL demonstrators with the same brush and label them yobs and fascists.

But, as The Sentinel’s own reporters discovered, the inconvenient truth is that far from being entirely composed of shaven-headed Nazis and unemployed louts, the protesters on Saturday were a mixed bag of locals and outsiders, teens to people in their fifties from all walks of life.

Whatever their reasons for being in the city centre on Saturday no-one could possibly argue that they were all there seeking violence or indeed that they are all fascists.

It would be a bit like arguing that because a certain football club has a few followers who enjoy a ruck then all its supporters are hooligans.

While it is absolutely fair to say that elements of the EDL showed themselves up to be bigoted morons bent on provocation and confrontation, it seems a large number of the protesters were simply disaffected, disillusioned and misguided – none of which are crimes.

Whatever their motivations, these kind of people have every right to hold a peaceful public protest.

Sadly, a peaceful protest is not what we got.

“Saturday made me ashamed to be English,” wrote one reader on The Sentinel’s website, somewhat melodramatically.

Well it didn’t make me ashamed to be English because the EDL doesn’t represent me and it is not campaigning for an England that I either want or recognise.

If the EDL genuinely wants to affect change in this country then I would suggest to its leadership that there are far better ways of doing it – such as becoming a legitimate political party or lobbying decision-makers.

Bringing a busy shopping town to a standstill on a Saturday afternoon, intimidating the locals and wearing scarves and masks while shouting “ban the burkha” is patently not the answer.

The fact is the organisers of this gathering knew there would be trouble and that’s exactly what we ended up with.

Unfortunately, as our economy continues to struggle and the mainstream political parties shy away from tackling the thorny issues of immigration and the UK’s membership of the EU and its ramifications, these kind of demonstrations will continue – along with a growth in support for right wing parties.

To use a word popular with modern soundbite politicians, many ordinary people feel disenfranchised by the mainstream parties and are looking elsewhere for someone to give them a voice.

The EDL should have done its homework, of course. Stoke-on-Trent has a proud history of tolerance and integration and a few placards and a bit of lairy behaviour one afternoon is hardly likely to shake our city to its foundations.

This year we mark the centenary of the Federation of the Six Towns and we have plenty to celebrate.

In a few weeks’ time the Staffordshire Hoard comes to the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery and over the coming months we will all be enjoying numerous events to coincide with the 100 years which will put our city on the map for all the right reasons.