Admiral Sir George Michael Zambellas KCB DSC DL First Sea Lord
Be careful to be guided by this golden rule
Stick close to your desks and never go to sea
And you all may be Rulers of the Queen’s Navy…
…Gilbert and Sullivan’s jolly satire of the professional military commander, the man who rose with nothing more to commend him than money and contacts, poking fun at the Royal Navy and the English obsession with social status…
Now I do a disservice to Sir George who has indeed served and done his duty and been decorated. But I think there is a problem associated with military commanders festooned in braid, gold buttons, badges and medals which resonated in Victorian times and does so today. There is a position so elevated, so veneered by establishment polish, that the rest of us can’t see beyond the flummery – and, linguistically, the plummery – and we recognise only the stuffed shirt. They are, as the anthem says, born to rule over us, or so they would have us believe. Admirals and generals like the assortment of superannuated retirees who wrote to the Telegraph (where else?) this week represent a strata of society which the rest of us struggle to identify with. Sir George, by the way, was educated at Stowe College and is a governor of Harrow. He has sons and my guess is that they may be among the senior officers’ offspring currently being educated at top public schools at taxpayers’ expense as a perk of the job.
He is responsible for guiding the navy on behalf of the country at large and has a totally legitimate public role in talking about defence capability. But, like business leaders before him, his remarks on the importance of keeping the navy together by voting No, have merged into the warnings of retired officers and coincide with the arrival of the Defence Secretary to remind us of our duty to Britain. Is it coincidence? Or is Sir George playing exactly the game described by W S Gilbert in his biting lyrics from 140 years ago? To any military strategist this looks like a coordinated campaign in which our most senior naval officer is playing the role of stooge. “Right, chaps…you co-sign a letter to the Telegraph. George, you spell out the problems and Phil will lead from the front by heading north with the artillery.”
Shouldn’t we expect more from our commanders than blatant politics and when are the British going to realise that this be-medalled brigade of industrialists and admirals and arms dealers simply don’t deserve the automatic respect they did in the 1950’s? People have seen how the banks robbed them of prosperity but yet are fawned over by the Westminster toadies; they know that the same political time-servers genuflected before Murdoch and his cronies; they sit in silent fury as a cartel of energy companies systematically rips them off; then remember how MPs – Alastair Darling included – tiptoed through the rulebook to get their hands on more taxpayers’ money; they recall the barefaced lies of Tony Blair and his troop over Iraq; see corruption in the Metropolitan Police and watch as another batch of crawlers, having done their time on the green benches, are shuffled through the door onto the red ones.
What we are witnessing now is the naked truth about the way Britain works. It is summed up by the intervention of George Robertson, a once avuncular and clever Labour operator who outmanoeuvred the Tories over Europe. Like so many of the others, Robertson, as we must call him since his ‘elevation’, has risen far above mere politics – in his own mind. He appears to have garnered with the ermine an unshakeable sense of entitlement. He saw nothing wrong with accepting £500,000 from Cable and Wireless and offers himself as a corporate front man for pretty much anybody with the lucre. I’m sure he does charity work too, it’s just that the image is of a sad figure shrunken from the robust Labour activist into the corporate groveller as far removed from the concerns of ordinary Labour voters as any Tory grandee.
Many would be happy to accept their MP, ministerial and NATO pensions and live a quiet life, perhaps helping others. On the other hand, I admire someone who still has the drive (at least for the cash) to create a new career. If that’s bluffing around the directors’ table, good for him, just please don’t patronise us by also playing the politician. How these old farts need a sense of self-awareness, be they Robertson, Liddell, Lang, Forsyth or Foulkes, to realise what a ragbag of losers and on-the-make spivs they have become.
Out here in the real world, the House of Lords is seen as the most twisted example of a self-serving, class-ridden Britain and a care home for subsidised has-beens. It is a zombie parliament. (Which is why I loved the idea that war-monger John Reid, another good man gone bad, and Foulkes, everybody’s favourite buffoon, would be brought in to ‘boost’ the No campaign! Let’s start an online petition…)
Every ghoul and bag of bones from the constitutional ghost train that is the ‘Upper House’ epitomises the cracked and crumbling edifice of Old Britain. What a shame that the handful of honest, clever and decent citizens who very occasionally get a look in – Doreen Lawrence would be one – have to share the ermine-lined coffin.
No doubt Sir George will duly step inside on retirement. Heaven knows what Britain’s defence will look like by then, Scotland or not. For what the Admiral is trying to tell us, that if we leave defence will suffer, is exactly what is happening now. Here’s the Chief of the Defence Staff: ‘Britain is in danger of being left with hollowed-out armed forces, the UK’s top military officer has warned. Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nicholas Houghton, said this would be with “exquisite” equipment but without the personnel needed to use it. In a speech, he said training levels were being squeezed and manpower was increasingly seen as “an overhead”. The British armed forces are due to be significantly reduced in numbers by thousands of personnel by 2020. The Army will lose 20,000 soldiers, the Navy 6,000 personnel and the RAF 5,000. Gen Houghton emphasised that if the UK wished to stay in what he called the Premier League of smart power, then it must invest in armed forces that could generate credible hard power capability and deterrence.’ Oh dear.
Then: ‘Unattended, our current course leads to a strategically incoherent force structure: exquisite equipment, but insufficient resources to man that equipment or train on it.This is what the Americans call the spectre of the hollow-force. We are not there yet; but across defence I would identify the Royal Navy as being perilously close to its critical mass in manpower terms.’ Has Sir George spoken to his colleague?
Indeed, even without the Scottish question it seems Britain is doing fine ruining its own defence force. The Commons public accounts committee described the multibillion-pound aircraft carrier contract signed by the previous Labour government ‘not fit for purpose’ and warned it needed urgent renegotiation if projected costs are not to rise further.
In 2007, the cost of building the ships was put £3.65bn. It is now estimated they will cost more than £5bn. The cost of developing the short-takeoff and vertical landing (Stovl), F35B version, of the US- made Joint Strike Fighters to fly from them has more than doubled and is now put at more than £60m a piece.
In fact, didn’t the MOD try to cancel the carriers but discovered it would cost more to do so than to built them. Then we only plan to use one while ‘mothballing’ the other. Sir George has asked for both to be in full use – well, he would, wouldn’t he? – AND for a full replacement for Trident. Somehow I don’t think Sir George is on the same wavelength as majority opinion in Scotland.
Here’s what he said: ‘Our strategic direction will be re-defined as our nation emerges from recession, blinking into the sunlight of global opportunity. We must argue relentlessly that if we want to be a credible nation, then we need a credible Navy.’ By having weapons of mass destruction to play with?
What flaming use we might ask has Trident or the Navy been to the emerging trouble in Ukraine? Was it that special security intelligence that encouraged the west to talk up an effective coup in Kiev while missing the fact that Putin was building up his forces in Crimea ready to take over? The west is now exposed as weak and incompetent threatening sanctions – wow, really scarey. What is Lord Robertson of Nato’s solution now?
Laughably, Philip Hammond says today: ‘The combination of our scale, our critical mass and our reputation allows us to punch above our weight in security terms and enables diplomacy that is second to none.’ Eh, no, Philip, it’s actually second to Russia right now, and that’s happening under your very nose. What an absurd claim to make when we may be on the brink of a disastrous war.
As for the claim that Britain must ‘remain in the Premier League’, doesn’t it give the game away that this isn’t about defence at all but about political posturing and competition between nations to look tooled-up and ready to do America’s bidding whenever asked. The best quotes are from Angus Robertson, mainly because the issue he raises was left completely unmentioned by Hammond or Sir George. Here is the reality of operational defence in Scotland: ‘Scotland is a maritime nation but we have no maritime patrol aircraft. They used to be based here until they were all scrapped by the UK government. ‘We are a maritime nation but we have no maritime naval patrol vessels.’
I wonder what Gilbert and Sullivan would have made of that.