A visit yesterday, with three
American friends, to the Royal Naval Dockyard in Portsmouth,
known to British sailors as Pompey, served as a reminder of Britain’s
decline from world maritime hegemony. I
mention this not out of any sense of regret, merely as a reflection of the
relentless march of history.
Our first stop, inevitably, was a
tour of HMS Victory, Admiral Nelson’s
flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar. In
dry dock, bristling with cannon emerging from a hull built from imperishable English
oak, Victory stood proudly and
impressively as a well-preserved testament to Britain’s former naval
dominance. In that famous engagement,
which destroyed Napoleon’s ambitions for an invasion of these islands, the
British fleet was commanded by a genuine dashing military hero, Admiral Horatio
Nelson. He died at Trafalgar, but even
as he succumbed on deck to a sniper’s musket ball he preserved the unique
distinction of never having lost a naval battle. This and his other victories became
attributed to a virtue of his genius known as the Nelson Touch.
Hours before the fatal shot, he
had demonstrated his military genius (detractors might argue that it was more
an example of a reckless pursuit of glory) by driving his ships directly at the
line of the combined fleets of France
breaking it in two. It was a manoeuvre
that changed the rules of naval warfare as they were then, and the enemy had no
answer to it, scattering in confusion.
To English schoolboys of my era this
was stirring stuff, and so it has remained into nostalgic adulthood. But
yesterday, the spell was quickly broken.
After leaving Victory, we took a tour of the harbour,
which sailors from Nelson’s time knew as Spithead. There, out on the water, the new reality rudely
and visibly intruded. When I was a boy, of
perhaps fourteen, my parents took me to HMS Victory and a similar tour of that
famous stretch of water. The image I
retained from that day is of an endless line of warships – destroyers, cruisers
and a couple of aircraft carrier – stretching out into the Solent – symbols of Britain’s power.
It was, of course, illusory, because even
then, back in the Fifties, the power was waning.
Yesterday demonstrated how far
the decline had gone. Moored at the
dockside were one destroyer and one frigate.
Moored beside them was a pair of smaller vessels, impressive-looking and
obviously brand new. They had Arabic
letters on the bow. These, the commentator informed us, had been built for the
Sultan of Oman and would be delivered shortly. We no longer build ships for the world’s
greatest navy; we build them for smaller nations that were once our vassal
Also in the harbour were half a
dozen other warships – older, plainly the worse for wear. These, we were told, were destroyers of the Sheffield class, and they were being prepared for their
final journey, to the scrapyard.
“It’s a sad, haunting sight,” was
the verdict of one my companions, a former officer of the United States navy,
rank of commander, who had seen action in the Vietnam War. He added, “I wonder what the equivalent
harbour in China
Portsmouth had become a sad sight, I had to agree,
but nostalgia must always be submerged to reasoning. “We no longer need a navy,” I explained,
somewhat unnecessarily. “And soon this harbour will bristle not with guns and
armour-plated smokestacks but with very expensive apartment houses and
parks. Given the cause for which our
navy was deployed around the world – empire-building and slavery – maybe that’s
not so much a cause for regret as for celebration.”
I’m not sure my little speech
sounded entirely convincing, but I thought it would appeal to a citizen of a
country that was once a victim of both of those imperial impulses.
And at that point, as our tour boat
approached the jetty, it started to rain.
“Let’s find a pub and lift a glass to Nelson,” he suggested.
And so we did.
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