My feelings have seldom been as mixed as when I watched Queen Elizabeth’s great Diamond Jubilee pageant on the Thames — about 1,000 small boats, including a number of Dunkirk veterans, dragon-boats, steam-tugs and as a centerpiece the Queen’s great gold and crimson-embellished barge, Spirit of Chartwell, made a stirring spectacle.
The fact that more than a million people turned out in freezing rain to watch from the riverbank, as well as countless others who attended street parties all over Britain, said something about how much the monarchy is loved.
The Queen, aged 86, and the Duke of Edinburgh, aged 91 (in five days), stood in that same rain in a rocking boat as it proceeded up the Thames for those four hours to wave to the crowd as well. That was inspiring. No wonder a noisy handful of Republicans were shouted down and apparently driven away.
But there was one glaring absence — the Royal Navy. Though several of the members of the Royal Family wore naval uniforms, the only naval vessels to be seen were a couple of relics from World War II, a single small escort and a few small boats, including one from the now hulked former Royal Yacht Britannia. There was also, oddly, a Chinese junk from Hong Kong, which Britain handed back to communist China with a cascade of somewhat nauseating Unfreedom Celebrations in 1999.
Previous great Royal occasions such as coronations and jubilees have been marked by Naval Reviews, with a good part of the fleet drawn up at anchor off Spithead. Although this is only the second Diamond Jubilee ever, there is no naval review because there is virtually no navy.
The Daily Telegraph quoted one Naval Officer to the effect that the Ministry of Defence made it clear that no comment was to be made in public on the subject. “It would have been just too embarrassing,” he said.
Lord West, a former First Sea Lord, the professional head of the Navy, said an attempt to stage a review would result only in national humiliation. “Because the number of ships has reduced so dramatically the event would be too small to make a meaningful and sensible fleet review.”
The Telegraph published a photograph of the Queen’s Coronation Review in 1953, when Britain’s Gross National Product was a quarter of what it is now. The lines of aircraft carriers, cruisers, and destroyers stretched to the horizon — 300 ships and 100 aircraft took part. Others were away at the Korean War and at bases all over the world.
This time there was none, for the navy has, under Prime Ministers Blair, Brown, and Cameron, been cut to a mere 19 frigates and destroyers and two small helicopter carriers. Some of these are supporting operations in Afghanistan and the Falklands have to be watched.
Amid the rejoicing it gave a dreadfully hollow sound to the singing of “Land of Hope and Glory” (“Wider still and wider/shall thy bounds be set/ God who made the mighty/ make thee mightier yet”) and “Britannia Rules the Waves.” One could see something Ruritanian in the glittering, bemedalled uniforms of the admirals with no ships. Because of the weather, there was no fly-past by jet fighters — the Royal Navy no longer has any, in any event.
“A fleet review is an opportunity for the Queen to see her ships and sailors and for the men of the Royal Navy to pay their respects to the monarch,” said Steve Bush, editor of the naval directory British Warships & Auxiliaries (now a very short book indeed). “It is an event of great tradition and spectacle. The Trafalgar review of 2005 saw more than 100 ships mustered but almost half were from overseas navies, the biggest being the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle.”
The official line is that the ships that compose the surviving remnant of the navy are in fact much more capable than their predecessors. This is true, but other navies have become more capable too. India, China, and Russia, for example, are expanding and modernizing their navies for all they are worth. China’s new navy includes aircraft carriers and sophisticated long-range missiles. India, not even a maritime nation, last year put on a Presidential Review for which it assembled considerably more ships than are in the whole Royal Navy. The Telegraph article concluded: “Britain, a maritime nation dependent on the sea lanes, has allowed its blue-water navy to melt away. The reckoning awaits.”
Men become Prime Ministers because they seek a place in history. Will Blair, Brown, and Cameron be remembered by history as dastards who betrayed their country?
One can only hope that those crowds who stood for hours in the cold rain are a hint that the spirit that made Britain great is not entirely dead.