Navy and Nation

Last week I attended the ‘Navy is the Nation’ conference at the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth naval base. Despite being held against a backdrop of intermittent storms sweeping in from the Solent, this proved to be a very enjoyable affair, superbly organised by Simon Williams and Matt Chorley. I was one of the speakers, using my talk to try out some of the ideas that’ll be appearing in my next non-fiction book, Britannia’s Dragon: A Naval History of Wales. This seemed to go down very well – I always attempt to leaven my talks with plenty of humour, and I got a gratifying number of laughs. (‘Whenever I tell people I’m writing a naval history of Wales, I tend to get one of two reactions. One is “there wasn’t any”; the other is that people tell coracle jokes. Stealth coracles. Nuclear powered coracles. That sort of thing.’ There was also a good response to my suggestion that Wales provided arguably the most reviled name in British naval history – not Bligh, not John Byng, but Sub-Lieutenant Christopher Leyland, the man who gave the world that scourge of suburban gardens and source of endless arguments between neighbours, the dreaded Leylandii.)

Of the other speakers, most of the attention inevitably focused on the opening keynote address by the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, particularly his throwaway line that decommissioning HMS Ark Royal and doing without aircraft carriers for a decade was ‘taking a punt’ – which, as he half-admitted, had been made to look rather silly by the events in Libya and the re-emergence of what he called ‘the obvious exception’ to the strategic assumption of being able to rely on other nations’ carriers, i.e. tension over the Falkland Islands. However, as one would expect there were also weighty contributions from some very eminent naval historians. The ever-entertaining and provocative Professor Eric Grove weighed in against the media’s lazy conflation of the terms ‘army’ and ‘armed forces’, now effectively seen as synonymous, and emphasised how the navy had a serious PR problem caused by its association with seemingly old-fashioned ways of warfare and with the controversial legacies of the British Empire, not to mention the fact that it had lacked a serious friend in Cabinet since A V Alexander in Attlee’s ministry. Eric rightly pointed out that despite their rhetoric in opposition, Conservative governments have always been far less friendly to the navy than Labour ones – contrast the large number of warship orders placed by the Wilson/Callaghan administration of 1974-9 with the Nott defence review of 1981, let alone the rather more recent precedents. (Wearing my hat as chairman of the Naval Dockyards Society, I might add that all closures of major dockyards and naval bases in the 20th century took place under Conservative governments.) Eric was in a ‘double header’ session with Professor Geoffrey Till, who made an impassioned plea for the UK to invest in its navy or sink into irrelevance; as he emphasised, the future is going to be maritime because of the shift of global power to the east (this decade will be the first time in 400 years that the Far East will spend more on naval defence than Europe). Instead, the last decades and the priorities of the present government could be summed up in Till’s brilliant phrase, ‘Engage the enemy more cheaply’.

Other talks had less immediate political relevance but were nevertheless of great interest to naval historians. It was good to see and talk to Professor John Hattendorf again, having not seen him for some twenty years or so; he delivered a fascinating survey of the complex relationship between the Royal Navy and the United States Navy. There was also an interesting talk about aspects of Tudor seapower from Andrew Lambert, the Laughton Professor of Naval History at King’s College London, whose professorial lecture on the war of 1812 I’d attended a couple of days earlier, in the process getting hold of a signed copy of his new book The Challenge (a title which could refer equally to the US Navy’s challenge to the mighty British fleet in 1812 and to Andrew’s own challenge to the orthodoxy about the naval war that holds sway on the other side of the pond). Andrew also provided a nice ‘trailer’ for one of my themes in Britannia’s Dragon by focusing heavily on John Dee, the Welsh mystic who largely conceived of the concept of the ‘British empire’ in Elizabeth I’s reign; equally useful for me were James Davey‘s material on the importance of popular perceptions of the Matthews-Lestock case in 1744 (Matthews was from Llandaff) and Duncan Redford‘s analysis of geographical warship naming from the late 19th century through to the 1970s, which showed that Welsh names were surprisingly well represented, especially in comparison with Scottish ones.

So all in all, it was a very enjoyable and productive conference, one which was coloured by frequent barbs against a whole range of ‘panto villains’ ranging from our esteemed Prime Minister to President Sarkozy via Sir Winston Churchill (virulently anti-navy in later life, which I hadn’t realised) and of course the RAF. The real highlight, though, was the conference dinner in the wardroom of HMS Nelson. I’d eaten there before, some twenty years ago when serving as a Sub-Lieutenant RNR (CCF), but had forgotten quite how splendid a room it is, adorned with great murals of Trafalgar, the Glorious First of June and so forth, along with the coats-of-arms of British naval heroes from Drake to Nelson. It’s a shame the public hardly ever gets to see it; but if governments continue to cut back the navy and eventually sell the now unfeasibly large wardroom building, perhaps one day it might!

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