National Maritime Debate

Time to answer questions on Renewal Britannia

Lloyd’s List – Quarterpoints
By Captain Richard Woodman

Despite being a devoted listener to BBC Radio 4 there are a few programmes that I dislike. One is Any Questions? because I am old enough to recall the ‘chair’ had the grace not to manipulate the debate. Leaving aside the utter absurdity of taking over a perfectly respectable common noun describing an inanimate object and applying it to a human being – all in the interests of political correctness at the expense of clarity – I find the present incumbent irritating. Not listening to Any Questions? naturally debars me from harking to its Saturday sequel, Any Answers?

A couple of weeks ago, however, my wife alerted me to the fact that I ought to have tuned-in to Any Answers? There had been a bold and well articulated response in which I would be interested. Prompted by this I dutifully booted up the computer and sought out the ‘Listen Again’ facility and discovered the nugget my wife had insisted nestled within the programme. The nub of this particular listener’s response concerned the aspiration of this country’s elite to continue our foreign policy as if we were still a great power, or at least a very influential second-class one. Why, he submitted, could we not be content to be a team-player, taking part as one of several nations in UN-inspired initiatives, doing our bit but in a less expensive, up-front and less doctrinaire manner? The question of the existence of the Royal Navy was raised – in connection with the two new aircraft-carriers delivery of which had been confirmed a few days earlier – but specifically asking what was the navy’s purpose? The responding listener stated in clear and unequivocal terms that the Royal Navy’s job was to protect the Merchant Navy and, as we no longer had a Merchant Navy as such, the Royal Navy was redundant.

No weasel words there, then; a clear and unambiguous statement of absolute clarity. Of course the question of whether we have a ‘Merchant Navy’ or merely a mercantile marine is a debatable one, but the sense of the responding listener – clearly an informed person – was plain enough: we no longer have the kind of merchant fleet that rallied to the flag in 1939, or even 1982. Indeed both Gulf Wars, although they posed no direct threat to the economic day-to-day life of the country in the sense that the German war on trade did, were conducted with little help from merchant ships flying the red ensign. One senses that if this country were ever to face a threat of old-fashioned economic blockade owners currently flying the red ensign would soon swap it for a more congenial and less risky flag.

As for the Royal Navy, there is a subsidiary argument that were it to be run on more commercial lines, it would not insist on regularly turning out a lot of expensive senior blokes who take post barely long enough to come properly to grips with the task in hand. As a scaly-mate with intimate connections to the Grey Funnel Line tells me, the wheel is often reinvented even when he and his other long-service colleagues protest that ‘we have tried this before and it doesn’t work…’

Now I am not knocking the Royal Navy. Far from it; but I do think that the announcement that we are to have two new aircraft-carriers is an excellent opportunity for us to seriously review our national commitment to a proper, holistic maritime policy in all its ramifications. The notion that we ought to be a bit-player in a bigger game might not appeal to the establishment, but the example cited as a national ideal by the responding listener in Any Answers? was that of Denmark which, as every reader of this newspaper is aware, is a pretty impressive international maritime cargo-carrier.

Our new Prime Minister is keen to utilise and encourage trade as a bridge out of indigence for poor countries, and while there are many complex issues attaching to this wishful statement, it would not be out of place for Great Britain to re-assume some of its old maritime zeal for keeping the seas safe. It could be our contribution to re-establishing some sort of order in an increasingly lawless world and would have many benefits, not all to us alone and not the least of which would be a modest and well-intentioned contribution to international security that might restore our good name in places where it currently stinks. If a reinvigorated Royal Navy carried out blue-water patrols where necessary, piracy would decline and the climate would be less favourable for other illegitimate acts of aggression aimed at the innocent. A strong flag-image backed by a carrier-led task-force operating over a wide sea area and capable of a variety of responses might encourage the resurrection of a more permanent mercantile marine than our present fragile entity, while an active navy is automatically well-trained and kept up-to-the-mark; being seen to do something of vital use to humanity would ensure its future too. By your deeds shall ye be known.

Come on, Mr Brown; we’ve had Rule Britannia and Cool Britannia, perhaps now is the time for Renewal Britannia. Otherwise I feel that responding listener’s point might be painfully cogent.