[Note: those not interested in naval stuff, or in a good old-fashioned rant, can look away now, watch repeats of The West Wing or Jeremy Kyle on daytime TV, and come back next week instead.
On the other hand, if you’re not interested in naval stuff or good old-fashioned rants, what the heck are you doing here in the first place?]
So the first Type 26 frigate, the first major British surface warship to have been named for at least nine years (and has there ever been such a long hiatus in the entire history of the navy?) will be called HMS Glasgow.
Enter, stage right, the cynics, who inevitably christened the new ship Frigatey McFrigateface; enter, stage left, perhaps the last thalasso-historically literate* journalist in the United Kingdom, who rightly points out the illustrious historical pedigree of the ship name in question.
Now, regular readers of this blog – hope the straitjackets aren’t too tight, folks – will know that I’m distinctly interested in the subject of warship names, and have previously blogged about it here and here. Oh, and an entire chapter of my new book Kings of the Sea: Charles II, James II and the Royal Navy, based partly on three other posts on this site, is devoted to the subject. So I hope you’ll forgive me if I venture into the fray once more, because at the current rate of ordering new warships, I may never get the opportunity to do so again.
So first, the good news. Making the new frigates a ‘City Class’ at least gets us away from the utter insanity of alphabetical naming (so no temptation for our current government to seek private sponsorship for a new E-class, thus giving us HMS Easyjet), and of naming major warships after the descendants of the illegitimate children of King Charles II.
Now, the bad news. Obviously, there’s no political motive whatsoever in giving the name Glasgow to a warship about to be built in, umm, Glasgow, a city which has voted overwhelmingly (and more than once) in the recent past for the SNP, at a time when talk of a second Scottish independence referendum is still floating around in the ether. Equally plainly, there’ll be no political motive whatsoever in naming subsequent ships of the class after cities which have significant numbers of marginal constituencies. Anybody take odds against a new HMS London, HMS Plymouth or HMS Sheffield? No, thought not.
Actually, though, none of this is very new, because for over 300 years, geographical names have always been a surefire giveaway sign that those responsible for ship naming are playing safe. Although there had been earlier examples, the first great age of geographical naming was the 1690s, when the navy first acquired such ultimately iconic names as Cornwall, Devonshire, Dorsetshire, and the only very recently retired Torbay, although that had specific political connotations at the time. In an age of profound political division, geographical names were largely uncontroversial, and ever since, they have always been the first resort of administrations desperate to prove that the navy is connected with the nation as a whole, particularly in eras of austerity. Witness, for example, the decision to give county names (and almost exclusively rural counties to boot) to the principal class of heavy cruisers built between the two world wars, to name classes of frigates built in the 1950s and 1960s after holiday resorts – off whose beaches they could anchor as obese sunburned tourists floated past them on pedalos – and to allocate geographical names to all but six of twenty-eight destroyers ordered between 1960 and 2017, and all but eight of thirty-one frigates ordered between 1975 and 2017. True, really big surface ships and submarines have always been named to different criteria (and thus have much more interesting names), but as the numbers of both have got smaller and smaller, so the proportion of geographical names in what some still euphemistically refer to as ‘the fleet’ has got larger and larger.
What all this means, of course, is that unless there’s a serious change of heart at some point, many of the great names of the Royal Navy’s history are very unlikely ever to sail again. There’s clearly no desire to name ships after great admirals any more (heroes, after all, only appear in blockbuster movies these days), so farewell Blake, Hawke, Howe, and all the rest. Classical names have evidently gone out of the window now school curricula ensure that most officers, let alone ratings, probably only associate Virgil with Thunderbirds and Homer with The Simpsons, so vale, Leander, Bellerophon and Minotaur. Battles, of course, run the risk of offending pretty much everybody we need to do post-Brexit trade deals with, so don’t even think of mentioning Agincourt, Armada, Matapan, or even Amethyst. (A reminder that we exchanged live fire with Communist China within living memory? What could possibly go wrong?).
All of which leaves us with safe, boring, predictable geographical names, or at least, those safe, boring, predictable names that happen to make each successive cut as a new class is named. I doubt if any Ships Names Committee will ever be as bold as that of the 1960s which suddenly introduced brand new names in Glamorgan and Fife, but is it too much to hope for some names to accurately reflect modern Britain, rather than pandering to political agendas and lobbying from old shipmates who served on the last HMS Whatever and are determined to get a new one at all costs? It’s a curious fact, for example, that the most important city outside of the capital in Scotland now has the fourth major warship to be named after it in the last 100 years, whereas the most important city outside of the capital in Wales, Swansea, has never had a British warship named after it, and as for Northern Ireland and the nightmarish implications of reviving the name Londonderry…
(Actually, Northern Ireland demonstrates the flaw in the logic of using ‘City’ names, unless the DUP’s deal with Theresa May included a promise to name a frigate HMS Newry; after all, Belfast can’t be used for obvious reasons, while Antrim isn’t a city. So how, exactly, is the new class going to acknowledge Northern Ireland’s place in the Union?)
Finally, then, with nods to my good friends Drs Steven Gray, Sam McLean and Duncan Redford for ‘borrowing’ some of their ideas in this post, here’s my top ten of Royal Navy ship names that will never, ever, be used again – although we could certainly add Londonderry to it.
10. HMS Stayner (Sir Richard Stayner was a great captain of the period I work on, but even in 1943, how on earth did anybody think it was a good idea to name a ship after him?)
9. HMS Trollope (ditto, with apologies to the heroic Captain Sir Henry Trollope)
8. HMS Cockchafer
7. …and while we’re on the subject…HMS Cockatrice
6. HMS Daisy
5. HMS Grinder
4. HMS Buttercup
3. HMS Pansy
2. HMS Spanker
1. HMS Fubbs Yacht
And before you boggle at, or criticise, the number 1 on my list, let me ask you this one question.
What, exactly, are the circumstances in which you think a present-day Royal Navy Ships’ Names Committee would name a new warship after the reigning monarch’s mistress’s bum?
(* And before anybody thinks of pinching it, I’m copyrighting that expression.)