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.

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God save the Queen! A serene and graceful, reassuring presence

Well I did my bit for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations.

Granted, I didn’t MC the pageant on the Thames but entertaining 180 four to seven-year-olds for a couple of hours is surely worthy of a mention in despatches.

I was the DJ at a disco at the school my daughters attend.

The assembly hall was resplendent with bunting, balloons and the obligatory Union Flags which we had put up the night before.

To cap it off there was a huge picture of a smiling Her Majesty and two Corgis (who may or may not have been smiling) on the projector screen.

It was almost as if the Queen was watching over proceedings with wry amusement as the youngsters – drunk with excitement – jigged about to tunes from One Direction and other bands I’ve never heard of.

Many were dressed for the occasion in red, white and blue and so I had suggested we get them all together for a souvenir photograph.

This involved yours truly, wearing a Captain Britain T-shirt, presumably breaching Health & Safety rules by climbing on to the school roof – much to the amusement of everyone in the playground below.

The teachers tried valiantly to herd the children into the shape of a ‘6’ and a ‘0’ to mark the Jubilee but, in the end, the ‘o’ in the six sort of vanished so the picture is rather ambiguous in that it could be read as ‘Go’.

Still, I suppose it’s the thought that counts when you are hundreds of a miles away from the capital.

At one point during the disco I sat on a little bench with one lad from the reception class.

“Have you had a good day, mate?” I asked him.

Cake crumbs round his mouth and icing oozing through his teeth as he smiled, he replied: “This has been the best day of my life.”

When a five-year-old says that to you, it’s hard to argue.

So while many of the children may not have fully appreciated the significance of the Queen’s milestone, they knew she was reason we were celebrating and they had a damn good time nonetheless.

I’ve still got my Silver Jubilee mug and coins (or rather, my mum has) and I’ll make sure my Lois and Mina keep souvenirs.

Between the Olympic Torch Relay, the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, the European Championships and the Olympics proper, I reckon we’ll have flag fatigue come the end of the month.
But for now, at least, the sense of occasion is carrying us along.

That is what prompted me to pitch a gazebo up in the rain at the local park and join scores of families for a Diamond Jubilee picnic.

Card-carrying monarchist that I am, I defy anyone to say these celebrations haven’t generated a genuine collective pride – a coming together only usually associated with wartime or great sporting triumphs.

This IS something special. There has been a real frisson in the air – a sense of history in the making.

The monarchy may cost taxpayers millions of pounds each year but I believe we are infinitely richer – both financially and culturally – for having one.

For the Queen’s reign to have lasted 60 years is remarkable in itself.

But what is far more remarkable is the way in which Her Majesty has conducted herself during those tumultuous six decades.

For me, the Queen has been a serene anchor of the establishment while many other institutions have fallen from grace.

While other royals have embarrassed themselves, while MPs have been ripping us off or getting into bed with media moguls and/or the police, Her Majesty has remained serenely aloof – untainted by these many scandals.

Time is indeed a great healer and the time served by Queen Elizabeth has papered over some of the cracks which could have irrevocably damaged the House of Windsor.

Whether it be the state opening of Parliament, the Trooping of the Colours, the hosting of U.S. Presidents or the Christmas Day message on TV as we all slump on to sofas stuffed with turkey, Her Majesty is a constant, reassuring presence.

She is, in many ways, our final link with the dark days of the Second World War and, with her ultimate passing – and that of a very special generation – I think we lose something very precious.

Social commentators have talked endlessly in recent days about Britishness and what it means to live in, or come from, these relatively insignificant islands which have ever been a cultural melting-pot.

I would suggest that to be British you must be able to moan about having things which people from many other nations would give their right arms for right now. Like the Pound.

With a referendum on Scottish independence looming, the future of the Union – or Britain as we know it – is far from certain.

By the same token, Her Majesty is now 86 and so who knows how many more years we have to cherish a monarch of supreme grace and integrity? Who knows what will happen to the royal family with her passing?

Whatever the future holds, I dare say people will look back on the reign of Queen Elizabeth II with great fondness because you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel