Do You Know Who I Used to Be?

Zero Mostel’s classic line from The Producers had special resonance this weekend. Despite the weather and Philip’s hospitalisation, the jubilee seems to have gone off well and those many enthusiasts well pleased with events. I tried to watch the concert but it became increasingly surreal, with the Welsh (in the shape of Tom Jones & Birly Chassis) blowing the rest of Britpop royalty off the stage.

Most touching was the Thames pageant of over 1,000 boats, for which Pageantmaster Adrian “Canute” Evans had managed to get the Thames Barrier closed for the day so that they didn’t have to contend with 5-knot runs and the 7m rise and fall that a spring tide visits on the Pool of London and all who sail on her.

It was touching because of the variety and enthusiasm with which the huge flotilla had been brought together. But it was also touching in a wistful way because of the glaring absence, for which this flotilla acted as a colourful distraction. Because this was the first jubilee in which a Spithead Review did not figure at all—let alone prominently. For the many pacifists among the readers, allow me to explain.

Since Trafalgar (over 200 years ago) Britain has been able to rely on its dominance of the seas to allow its global trade to pass unhindered. While gunboat diplomacy is now rightly a thing of the past, we still rely on ships to carry 93% of UK trade with the rest of the planet. As evidence of that power to control the seas, a feature of every jubilee has been a gathering of Royal Navy power in the Solent off Portsmouth for the celebrating monarch to review.

The most memorable was Victoria’s 1897 jubilee, equivalent to this one. Some 21 battleships, 44 cruisers and over 100 other ships gathered in serried grey ranks appearing to pave the entire Solent. That was even before HMS Dreadnought was launched and an Edwardian arms race of bigger, faster, greyer battleships culminated in WW1. The RN’s fleet had shrunk dramatically by the silver jubilee of 1977 but was still third-biggest (behind United States and Soviet Navies). Two aircraft carriers, including Ark Royal, two cruisers, one assault ship, 17 destroyers, 18 frigates, 14 submarines and dozens of minor vessels attended. The 18-or-so foreign ships present were dwarfed.

For this Queen’s golden jubilee a decade ago, a review (of sorts) was held but barely 20 RN ships of any size could be scraped together and the biggest warship there was French: the 35,000 ton aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle dwarfed anything the RN could deploy, and still does.

It turns out that all senior naval staff have been asked to stay shtum about the lack of any review for this jubilee. It’s not that we don’t have any ships (couple of assault ships, 20-ish destroyers and frigates, a dozen subs and many small craft and auxiliaries—about 70, all told), it’s just that they’re all busy. As a demonstration of force overstretch, it could hardly be bettered. Whether the monarch misses the review or might even prefer to go boating on the Thames has not been recorded.

But, as the MoD & Royal Navy still see fit to deploy 28 serving Admirals of varying stripes, the real question that must be asked: how we can afford to pay so many when they now outnumber the ships they have left to command?

About davidsberry

Local councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Stood for the Scottish Parliament 2011; lost by 151 votes.
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