Thatcher makes plea for armed forces: Rosyth greets latest round of defence cuts with 'stark despair'. John Arlidge and Patricia Wynn Davies report

BARONESS THATCHER made a strong plea for no further cutbacks in the armed forces yesterday, insisting that Britain must be prepared for the unexpected in an increasingly unsure international scene.

The intervention came as union leaders met in Glasgow to plan an 11th-hour campaign to halt closure of the Rosyth Royal Navy base in Fife. It is due to be rubber-stamped by the Cabinet next week.

After opening the pounds 1.6m Carrier Exhibition at the Fleet Air Arm Museum, Yeovilton, Somerset, the former prime minister told of how she twice had to meet 'the unexpected' - in the Falklands and in the Gulf.

'On both occasions we had all the requisite trained armed forces, all the requisite equipment and means to get them there and the resolve to do it,' she said. 'It is a very good recipe.'

She told an audience of senior naval officers that carriers and their jump-jet aircraft and helicopters had been vital to the Falkland Islands' liberation. While Britain had 50 during the Second World War, only three were now actively deployed.

Lady Thatcher's plea is unlikely to relieve the impending agony over Rosyth or the other cuts in the pounds 2bn package agreed by a Cabinet committee last week.

Workers at the base said yesterday that they were resigned to closure. Some of Rosyth's 1,200 civilian workers gathered at the ex-servicemen's club as news of the Government's decision spread, and they spoke of 'stark despair' at the prospect of redundancy in a region which already suffers the highest level of unemployment in mainland Scotland.

One supervisor, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals, said: 'This place will become a ghost town with people heading south for work.'

Workers expressed fury that ministers, who two years ago gave assurances that the future of Rosyth was secure, had 'signed the yard's death warrant'. John McCudden, 42, accused Conservative MPs of victimising Scotland. Scots Tories such as Malcolm Rifkind, Secretary of State for Defence, had failed to stand up for their own backyard, he said.

Graham Tran, a senior shop steward at Rosyth, said: 'Without doubt the base can still be saved. We've been fighting for years and the fight will not be over until the gates are shut.' The strategic and economic case for retaining the naval base was 'overwhelming'.

Workers from Rosyth, Portsmouth, Devonport and Faslane on the Clyde will join a lobby of Parliament next Tuesday.

The decision to shut the base is the most politically sensitive development north of the border since British Steel announced the closure of the Ravenscraig steel works in Motherwell in 1992 with the loss of more than 3,000 jobs.

The Rosyth complex - of the Royal Navy base and the privately run civilian dockyard - is Scotland's biggest employer. Some 4,000 people face redundancy at the base and in support industries if closure goes ahead.

Bill Walker, Tory MP for Tayside North, warned of 'difficult, if not impossible, times ahead' for Scots Tories.

Lord Younger of Prestwick, the former Secretary of State for Defence, and Sir Nicholas Fairbairn, MP for Perth and Kinross, joined the criticism by signing an open letter to John Major calling for a reprieve.

Managers at the civilian dockyard said they were disappointed at the prospect of the closure, but insisted it would not affect their business since less than 5 per cent of the yard's work came from the naval base.

(Photograph omitted)

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