The British are a proud island nation, so we are told, and in that sense the sea is all important to their identity, if only because without it they would no longer be an island nation. I am not sure that being surrounded by the sea makes them prouder, or prouder islanders, but there are many other places in the world that are proud, islanders or otherwise, prouder perhaps, but this pride is not a guarantee of success. You can’t make things happen just by being proud. When looking for a new direction, as the UK is doing now after Brexit, the sea has suddenly become all important aspect of their new identity.
Imagine a lighthouse keeper who after spending many years polishing the lightbulbs and lenses opens the door and sees the sea as if for the first time, and suddenly realises both the reason for and the challenges of his particular place in the world. So it is with the UK, whose government now finds that the sea is about more than drilling for energy, and for keeping unwelcome foreigners out, or for getting into fights with their neighbours about fishing, but the UK also has a deep and powerful maritime history, in a sense without it their presence makes no sense. They were the first and for a while the best at management, crewing, owning, designing, trading, financing, insuring, the law and even shipbroking. This is without mentioning shipbuilding, naval architecture, marine engineering – rather obvious perhaps – but also remember the innovations and importance of Admiralty charts, agents networks and everything else that still exists. But having ignored and neglected this business for so long on their doorstep, and the importance of merchant shipping in general for so long, the UK can perhaps be forgiven when their exceptionalist view of history, grandiose at the best of times, can lead to some unfortunate mis-steps.
I am the first to put a positive spin on a hopeless situation (I am a shipbroker after all), but the recent idea of creating a new ‘Flagship’ for the nation is poignantly bathed in irony upon irony. Hope dies last, never truer for Britannia, Land of Hope and Glory, but someone really should tell the UK government that the sun set on the empire some time ago, and that other countries have ruled the waves of the oceans for some time without much need of their assistance.
The Flagship in question is a new yacht. I was going to say Royal Yacht, but the royal family, who it appears do have a sense of history and tact, are keeping well away from the project. The last Royal Yacht Britannia was commissioned in 1954, and was used by Queen Elizabeth II until 1997 when one of her last voyages was to sail out of Hong Kong as the British gave back the territory to the Chinese, a fitting end to a long career. This was the end of a long line of royal yachts, 83 in fact since Charles II acceded to the throne in 1660 after the English Civil War. In 1997 it was decided – in times of more humble self-assessment – that a new Royal Yacht was not in keeping with a lower key monarchy and Royal Navy. This was also the time of Princess Diana’s death; Diana was no stranger to yachts of course, but had no need to make use of Britannia. The world had moved on since those times in so many ways.
The idea for this new yacht is for it to become a floating embassy, trade delegate venue, exhibition and conference centre, as it goes from one coastal capital to another, promoting global Britain, as well as being a showcase for British expertise, design and technical prowess in shipbuilding. The price tag initially floated was 150 million pounds, but although a fairly decent sum of money, this is nothing in the world of super yachts, so this has changed to 200-250 million pounds. This still looks a bit like small change to me.
The announcement for the tendering of this project was made Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace in the Painted Hall at Greenwich, east of London. It is a spectacular room, and indeed Greenwich is at the emotional heart of naval Britain. Greenwich Mean Time, the Royal Observatory, the Cutty Sark sitting in permanent drydock next door, all these point to Britain as a maritime power at the cutting edge of innovation and science.
And Mr Wallace indeed alluded to the setting although did not mention the Observatory, or Greenwich’s status as the centre of the world, at least as far as cartography and time is concerned. Perhaps he didn’t know about them. He did however use the example of the tea clipper Cutty Sark: she was one of the fastest sailing ships ever built, built and launched in Scotland and 1869 and delivered to the owners in 1870, designed for the China run via the Cape of Good Hope. It should be noted that 1869 was also the year that the Suez Canal opened for traffic, greatly favouring the new technology of steamships, especially those in iron hulls – another British innovation it has to be said – which were to push sailing ships first onto the longer routes and then into obsolescence. Beautiful though the Cutty Sark is, and famous though the whisky is, she is not the most appropriate of examples for a project showcasing innovation, because however advanced a sailing ship she was at the time, it didn’t change the fact that she was still a sailing ship. By the time the ship was delivered, the world had changed.
Mr Wallace tries his best. He wants a floating embassy, a prestigious showcase for UK skills and expertise. He ticks all the boxes for the current trends: “leading technologies in power, propulsion and practice. Making the most of digital systems and autonomy… The greenest ship of it’s kind, environmentally and ecologically advanced, maximising the use of sustainable fuels and materials.” He must have been reading Lloyds List.
He wants the National Flagship to be the ‘jewel in the crown.’ (India used to be known as the jewel in the crown of the British Empire). He wants this ship “to be as green as possible, as beautiful as this hall itself and as inspiring as Nelson.” (Nelson for those of you who don’t know, was a famous admiral in the Napoleonic wars, and has a column in Trafalgar Square, named so to commemorate his greatest battle and where he met his poetic death.)
Now to the main terms of the deal. There will be a competition that will run until October, with the winners announced in December, with the intention to begin construction – “in a British shipyard” it goes without saying – at the beginning of next year and to have a ship in the water by 2024 or 2025. He wisely omits to say when he hopes sea trials will be completed and the vessel is actually delivered to the new owners. Recent history has not been kind in this respect. Being in the water is an ambitious enough target.
And the money? “Subject to working through bids, competition, and technology, I aim to commission the ship for between 200 and 250 million pounds on a firm price.” Apart from wisely putting a subject in, I have no idea what he means. All I know in my world is that ‘a firm price’ is another way of saying ‘it looks expensive to me.’
I am trying my hardest not to be cynical or an unpatriotic ‘remoaner’ but this mixing up of schoolboy history and a matching juvenile desire in a project that seems to have no real point makes me almost cry with frustration. How many shipyards in the UK exist that can take on this project and have space available to design and build on such an ambitious schedule without harming their normal business? Who will judge the design? Who has the expertise to vet the designs and cost them? Ambition is good, but it has to be based on a sound basis of competence and expertise which the government does not seem to have, in this regard at least.
I am very pleased to see that the UK government has woken up to realise that they are indeed a maritime nation with a long and impressive history. Unfortunately they are not looking at the right history. Vague references to Nelson, India, sailing ships, whilst seemingly unaware about the real history of our maritime experience – where Isambard Kingdom Brunel should take pride of place in any shipbuilding narrative – smacks of political opportunism combined with any depth of knowledge of British maritime resources which still exist today.
The money would be far better spent in a few more unfashionable areas:
– Education and training on shore and at sea
– Research – technical, economic, financial, sociological, even historical – in universities
– Crew academies
– Public awareness campaigns
But rather than just throwing money around, policies could be formulated to bring together the still existing clusters of expertise in the following areas, together with meaningful and long-term subsidies, as well as using tax breaks to develop something like a shipping industry and trade policy:
– Marine engineering, naval architecture and environmental engineering
– Banking, insurance, broking and legal services
– Flag and taxation policy to attract foreign investment
I could go on, but it’s difficult, because real effective policy is difficult to put in place and carry out.
Rather than take wild, spirited shots at glory, Britain should adjust to the realities of an island nation in a competitive world, and fight for the right to compete against other, more powerful, better informed nations. Dare I say it, I kind of admire the ambition, but it’s misplaced and speaks to the politics of empire, an empire that no longer exists, rather than trading, and I use the word purposely, on what the UK already has, and bringing them together. A maritime policy is not just about ports, or fishing rights, or logistics, it’s also about ships and the sea, and the business of moving them around with cargo on board, and getting paid for it.
I mentioned above that Mr Wallace used the word “muster” in trying to get shipyards to compete for this dubious project. Mr Wallace was a captain in the Scots Guards, a British Army regiment also with a long and proud history, and indeed one can muster the troops on the battlefield. However in shipping at least, the muster station is more associated with life-boat drills and abandoning ship. Rather than mute his, or the Prime Minister’s new-found ambition and enthusiasm for the sea, I would suggest that they quietly abandon this particular idea and this particular Flagship, and aim for something more worthwhile to the nation: a national maritime policy that benefits people’s lives, and shows the UK is serious about being a global trading power. As an island nation, they should be aiming a little higher than just one luxury yacht with excellent conference facilities. They should be thinking in terms of fleets owned by independent enterprises that will more than pay them back for that extra effort to think about it a little bit more, and put policies in place that benefit the many, and improve the standing of Britain in the world. Better to invest brains and enterprise in this than endeavour than in a one-off drop in the ocean.