David Calling

Farewell to the British Navy

The end of the Royal Navy has provoked little or no interest. Of course, it has been a long time since Britannia ruled the waves and Britons were never, never, never to be slaves. All the same, Britain is an island. In 1940, the last time invasion was a likelihood, the Royal Navy was at least as significant as the air force in holding the Germans off. At that same moment, the Royal Navy had to destroy large parts of the French navy anchored at Mers el-Kebir to prevent it falling into German hands.

David Cameron is consulting at present with French president Nicolas Sarkozy on ways to merge the navies of the two countries. The British have got themselves into the ludicrous position of building two aircraft carriers with no planes to go on them. What’s more, there won’t be any planes until 2020 — in other words, don’t look to that area for defense. The French do have an aircraft carrier, but it has technical troubles and, with apt symbolism, happens to be out of service right now. In the first Gulf War, moreover, that carrier was deployed but the French government refused to allow on board its Super Etendard aircraft, thus prompting Jean-François Revel to make the memorable quip that the Blue Belle girls should be sent to dance on the empty deck. Political postures trump everything else, and always will.

The minister nominally in charge of defense is Liam Fox, also nominally a Conservative. He has evidently folded. Ministers have underlings to ghost their articles, and in the Sunday Telegraph a really creepy ghost-written specimen has been published under Fox’s name. You’d never know from this article that cuts to the defense budget have put national security at risk. This apology for the end of the Royal Navy opens with the staggeringly nonsensical assertion that “defence must be a sovereign, and therefore an inter-governmental issue.”  How, pray, is sovereign to be inter-governmental? Another equally staggering contradiction follows: The British and French navies are to train together and cooperate in acquiring equipment, technology, and information, but this has nothing to do with the EU. In fact, it marks the moment when navies cease to be national, exactly as Brussels would wish.

By coincidence, I happen to be reading a classic, Robert Southey’s life of Admiral Nelson. In these sad times of degeneracy and closure, the recall of the past is about the only stand-by available. Southey was a leftist, a Jacobin enthusiastic about the French Revolution, who came to see how mistaken he’d been and turned his literary talent to patriotism. Nelson was an anti-Jacobin, with the imagination to understand what defeat would entail, and the genius to achieve victory. Southey records how Nelson once gave junior officers the advice they would need for their careers in the service: They were to obey orders implicitly, to consider as an enemy every man who speaks ill of the king, and finally, “You must hate a Frenchman as you do the devil.”

Pure escapism, of course.

David Pryce-Jones is a British author and commentator and a senior editor of National Review.

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