Style over substance is very much the hallmark of Boris Johnson’s Government. I give you the National Flagship, the HBS Free(loading) Enterprise …


If the national flagship is to “showcase cutting-edge British design, engineering and green technology while boosting trade and driving investment” then it must perforce be British, through and through.

However, the ship “will be the first of its kind constructed in the UK”. Ergo, at least some of the capacity and competence to build the ship in the UK must be created here before it may be commissioned.

If, though, the ship’s primary function is to provide British business with “a new global platform to promote their products” then it need not been built wholly in the United Kingdom. In fact, as we have considered at some length, a new build might not even be the best option for a floating conference and exhibition centre.

This is a not a new argument. Does the Royal Navy, for example, exist primarily to support the delivery of the UK Government’s defence and foreign policy or provide jobs and a spur for investment and innovation in the UK shipbuilding industry?

If the former, then buying proven, sea-tested products out of a shipyard makes the most sense. Arguably, the contractors to the US Navy would seem to fit the bill.

Strategic did I hear you say?

The following are extracts from a BBC report about the Integrated Review, dated 21st March 2021:

“A new Royal Navy surveillance ship is to be built to protect “critical” undersea cables.”

“Hundreds of thousands of miles of undersea cables circle the globe, providing internet and communications links between nations and continents.

The Ministry of Defence said they are “vital to the global economy and communications between governments” and are at “risk of sabotage” due to “submarine warfare”.

The new Multi Role Ocean Surveillance ship will be fitted “with advanced sensors and will carry a number of remotely operated and autonomous undersea drones which will collect data”.

The vessel, staffed by 15 people and due to come into service in 2024, will carry out operations in both UK and international waters.

The MoD added it will also “be able to support with other defence tasks, including exercises and operations in the Arctic which will become an increasingly contested area”.”

The vessel is clearly designed to undertake an important role, but not one sufficiently important that it will be solely dedicated to it. Or may be the spooks have determined there is no imminent threat so a commissioning date of at least 2024 is acceptable and, thereafter, any credible threats to undersea cables will conveniently be detected when the vessel is available to handle them?

There does seem some confusion at the heart of Government. Defence Secretary Ben Wallace from the same BBC report:

“[The vessel’s] job is going to be to protect not only critical national infrastructure, but other things. It will be able to do other surveillance functions around the sea and everything else and I think it is really important that we invest in that because otherwise we are deeply exposed.”

Although not specified in the report, one imagines the howls of protest were the ship not to be at least partly built in the UK.

The MOD is, however, very much in synch with telling the world we are back on the high seas. So much so that when announcing the first tour of duty of the UK Carrier Strike Group, the press office listed a hunter killer submarine amongst the vessels making up the group. Not the done thing as the Commander of UKCSG proves by not making any reference to the submarine on Twitter and elsewhere.

It helps to keep a potential enemy guessing about the potency of your group (and it is a good idea not to let Vlad the Impaler know that you have one less naval asset for deployment in the North Atlantic to protect your vital undersea cables).

Style over substance is very much the hallmark of Boris Johnson’s Government.

We are hearing a lot at the moment about strategic industries from the Opposition, particularly a rehabilitated Ed Miliband, as well as from the Government.

Steel is a strategic industry. We must secure our steel industry, because we may not trust the Johnny Foreigners of the developed world to supply us with steel to order for, say, building ships.

However, we had to trust the French to provide us with the steel for the hulls of the new Dreadnought submarines, because no British company makes the steel required to resist the pressures to be experienced at the depths in which the submarines are to operate.

Hulls that might be crushed like tin cans at such depths are understandably not what the Royal Navy wants in a submarine.

There are, it seems, good commercial grounds, probably limited demand, for British business to not seek to compete with the French supplier of such specialist steel.

The Times and The Telegraph are the playthings of rich men. They do not have to turn a profit. Does Boris Johnson understand that other people not only have to work for a living, but without a generous subsidy or bung to keep them afloat?

We do trust other Johnny Foreigners (mostly of the developing world?) to supply us with the raw materials with which to make steel. We might, I gather, secure at least some of them by strip mining the Cotswolds and the Chilterns.

Steady on, old chap, I hear you cry. Green and pleasant land and all that.

Clearly there will be a limit to how far we are willing to go down the road towards full blown autarky.

The Prime Minister has said:

“This new national flagship will be the first vessel of its kind in the world, reflecting the UK’s burgeoning status as a great, independent maritime trading nation.”

We are still a great trading nation, set in a silver sea, but to trade in the 21st Century requires an acceptance that one cannot also be independent and aloof. One also has to buy as well as sell and sell what the world wants to buy.

As Mrs Thatcher once observed, although I suspect in another context, the world does not owe us a living. There is no point in conjuring up shipbuilding capacity in the UK to build a national flagship only to discover that there will be no overseas customers for such vessels. That the new industry will not be viable once the Government commission is completed.

We tried being above the fray twice in the last century and, on each occasion, we made significant contributions to the outbreak of a world war that weakened our economy, our power and our prestige.

How one may write a biography of Winston Churchill and not appreciate that beggars belief.


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