The Navy Lark


Admiral Sir George Michael Zambellas KCB DSC DL First Sea Lord


HMS Pinafore…

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.





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41 thoughts on “The Navy Lark


  2. Thank you for an incisive, witty and informative view which sharply contrasts with the flotsam and jetsam swirling around today on the subject of Independence and Scottish Defence

  3. Not forgetting that the choreographed manoeuvrings around the West of Scotland this week, organised and coordinated by the Westminster anti-independence machine also included the Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland and a certain Mr Darling.Today, so we are told, Philip Hammond, UK Secretary of State for defence Is to emphasise the values we supposedly share across the UK. Count me in amongst those not sharing his values, or the values evident in the policies and performance of the three main Westminster parties. The main thing of value in Scotland to Mr Hammond and his political fellow travellers, apart from the black stuff under the North Sea, is a store and delivery system for their weapons of mass destruction. It’s time to move on from their power games and control, and realise our different set of values.

  4. Fabulous.

    Good to see you’ve chucked in the towel in trying to convince the undecided Scots in this debate.

    Far more fun (and far more profitable) to play to the gallery…

    • ‘Good old Grahamski! Let’s hear it for the poor bloody infantry!

    • Grahamski if what you say is correct then Derek has unwittingly left a gap in the undecided market place. A man with your mastery of political cutting-edge thought, influence and writing skills will no doubt be filling this gap.

      You must be enjoying increasingly massive hits on your blog.

    • Good to see you’ve also chucked in the towel Grahamski. By the way, is Grahamski short for Graham Skinner or Graham S Kidd?

  5. dennis mclaughlin

    Who the dickens is in charge of strategy in Camp BT ?,
    This is getting more farcical by the day…..
    where is our National Media in all this mire ?; giving it’s “balanced” perspective of all the stour & shitstirring
    ..maybe they’re trying to totally scunner us all in the remaining 5 months…..gawd save us all 🙂

  6. Please, can just one interviewer ask the question : “Will you give up your seat in the House of Lords in the event of Scottish Independence ? “

    • We have a simple solution nobody resident in Scotland after independence will be allowed to sit in a foreign legislature.

    • Dr JM Mackimtosh

      I do not think the Scottish Lords have to give up their seats after Independence. That is one of the “advantages” of having an unelected second chamber.

      Of course there will be the issue of who pays for them (not us) and why they should legislate over rUK policy.

      I think we should just let the rUK sort that out in their own time.

      They may eventually realise that they do not need (or cannot afford) the House of Lords and similarlyTrident and its replacement.

  7. Is it me or is the UK starting to look and sound like the Duchy of Grand Fenwick? Leased nuclear weapons, Aircraft carriers with no aircraft to carry & part subsidised by the French. Special dispensation to pull out of Nato naval patrols, reduced patrols for the Commonwealth. A conventional military almost reduced to a shadow of its former self through costly military action in the Middle-east and the cut backs.

  8. majormacbloodnok

    And Derek, I hope you saw BBC Scotland’s contribution to this week’s defence scare story. You’d think the assault on our intelligence was all planned and coordinated, or something…

  9. It is posturing on the high seas, willy-waving to the French. British Establishment could never envisage a situation where the Americans would consider the French a more important ally over themselves. That’s what they will be thinking if rUK has to give up on Trident which leaves the French as the only western European military with nukes. That I think would be the real sense of loss, not Scotland (ergo the First Sea Lord would be seething at the thought of having to ask permission for his Type-45 to sail through Scottish waters after independence).

  10. The F35 is a right dog’s breakfast of an aircraft.

    • It’s an absolute dog of a plane. The Australian airforce took part in an international military exercise in Hawaii using F35’s up against Russian and Chinese fighters and the F35’s were a disaster – they were all shot down. Lucky the exercise was in simulator’s !

      One Australian pilot described the slaughter as ‘taking a club to a baby seal’.

      Yet Phillip Hammond believes that this aircraft has ‘incredible capability’, so much so that the UK has signed up for an initial 14 aircraft at a cost of £2.5bn. That cost will rise hugely as other international air forces pull out of the project.

      In a Dutch TV interview an American defence expert was asked what his message would be to the Dutch Prime Minister regarding the F35’s. He said ‘Run’.

  11. Speaking of John Reid, in todays Telegraph, Benedict Brogan writes another hopelessly out of touch piece about how England should love the Scots.

    Anyway, among other gems is a line which informs us that ‘John Reid sulks in his tent like Achilles, in a huff because he wasn’t asked to lead the No campaign’.

    John Reid! That sh#t stirring little toe-rag! Being likened to Achilles!

    Well I suppose they have one thing in common: by the end of their respective campaigns, both were very much yesterdays men.

  12. Hi Derek … the carriers are now priced at £6.2bn, twice the original cost (6 Nov 2013 col.255 Hansard).

    And the F35B aircraft are now costing (with support costs) £178m EACH!

  13. Now that project fear’s scare stories have all been thoroughly debunked,the Westminster establishment is left appealing to our better nature.
    “Look what will happen to us if you leave” etc etc.
    And of course,the debate is solely a matter for us Scots.

    • majormacbloodnok

      “Dare to leave us, Scotland, and we will no longer be able to sit at the top table feeding you the scraps (should there be any). Nor will we be able to punch above our weight (particularly the faces of defenceless brown people), providing our brave yet expendable Jocks the opportunity to be maimed for Queen and Country. Do you want that on your conscience? Do you? DO YOU?! Your desire for democracy is over-rated for we are Better Together.”

  14. Two little stories about the good Baron Robertson this week.
    Story 1 was from a retired lorry driver who worked out of Faslane in its early days, driving in to Faslane, he had to run the gauntlet of protesters lying in the road. One of those being forcibly removed was CND activist George Robertson.
    Story 2. On his recent appearance on Scotland Tonight to be interviewed on his controversial speech to the Brookings Institute, he refused to speak directly to Stewart Maxwell (too lowly!) and would only deal directly with the STV interviewer. Apparently a complete arse all round.
    How times change! From protest to patronage, from lieing to lying!

    • Doesn’t surprise me! LORD Robertson campaigned in 1979 and 1980 to have the House of Lords abolished, along with LORD Foulkes no less. Bought and sold like the cheap meat they are.

  15. Henry Dundas First Lord of the Admiralty 1804-1806. Suspicion had arisen, however, as to the financial management of the Admiralty, of which Dundas had been treasurer between 1782 and 1800; in 1802 a commission of inquiry was appointed, which reported in 1805. The result was the impeachment of Dundas in 1806, on the initiative of Samuel Whitbread, for the misappropriation of public money; and though it ended in an acquittal, and nothing more than formal negligence lay against him, he never again held office. This was the last impeachment trial ever held in the House of Lords. Another reason for his retreat could have been Pitt’s death in 1806. An earldom was offered in 1809 but declined. So we trust the Lords of The Admiralty. Not!

  16. smiling vulture

    House of Lords–zombie parliament—enjoyed that

    • Yes, “and a care home for subsidised has-beens.” Derek, you’re back in form! The short break in Argyll has refreshed your spirit.

  17. Problem is the fact that successive Westminster government’s always want to project military force rather than do what they can actually afford which is having armed forces for purely defensive purposes only, which is why they are always stretched to the limit.

    In addition to that the UK has a massive defence equipment industry that successive Westminster governments are trapped into buying defence equipment from even when it is of poor quality and questionable effectiveness.

    In short Westminster is trying to do too many things without having the resources to do any of them properly.

    There was a story circulating in U.S. newspapers last year that the Pentagon was so concerned about the weaknesses in the U.K.s conventional defence forces that they were secretly hoping that the U.K. would give up its nuclear weapons and redeploy the money thus saved to bolster U.K conventional forces.

    Independent Scotland will have an absolutely clear purpose for its armed forces which is to provide a credible home defence for Scotland and its territorial waters within the NATO umbrella. In doing independent Scotland will actually be in a far better military defence position than the rest of the UK which will continue to suffer endemic military overstretch unless its reins back its military ambitions to a far more realistic and affordable level.

  18. I have to disagree with you regarding John Reid; he is and always was “a bad man gone worse.”
    Anyone who signed up to the New Labour deal back in the days knew exactly where they wanted to go and the potential for feathering pockets and climbing greasy poles. John Reid was/is one of the worst examples of a self serving politician ever seen. He had a choice at every stage of his career not to take the next step on his way to being yet another Establishment stooge, but, through his own free will he chose not to. He can still prove me wrong by rejecting his peerage and apologising for his political misdeeds, but I doubt that will happen.

  19. “Left hand down a bit…” and put X in the box marked Yes.

  20. What he was trying to say was…

    If you stay only Scotland suffers
    If you leave we all suffer

    Grahamski – have you ever heard the tale of King Canute?

  21. roddymacdonald2014

    I do hope that the First Sea Lord checked on Twitter MacNimrod that there were more RN than Russian ships off our coast today.

    The Admiral and SofS for Defence coming hard on the heels of BBC Scotland’s execrable “Defence? De man wid de nails am comin’ to fix it” presentation on Sunday Politics, and then tonight BBC R4’s Today programme doing a feature on the (English) North East hard on the heels of Johann Lamont’s lamentable speech there could almost make one wonder at the level of collusion between the Unionist Establishment and the State Broadcaster.

  22. I have a vague recollection that a couple of weeks ago the Better Together Miserablists gave the impression that they were going to change their strategy. Somewhat naively I thought they were going to cheer up. Little did I realise that the proposed change was to add a hefty dose of completely barking to the gloom to spice it up a tad. A Private Fraser and General Melchett double act.

    Who would have thought a small pleasant wee liberal democracy could unleash the Forces of Darkness, push the starving millions into the abyss and undermine the defence capability of superpowers.(well wannabes at least).

    It is a funny old world.

  23. Let’s hope that this Ruler of the Queen’s Navee’s condescending and pompous drivel has brought a little closer the fulfilment of Hamish Henderson’s vision of a cosmopolitan and just Scotland –

    “Nae mair will our bonnie callants
    Merch tae war when oor braggarts crousely craw
    Nor wee weans frae pitheid an clachan
    Mourn the ships sailin doun the Broomielaw
    Broken faimlies in lands we’ve hairriet
    Will curse ‘Scotlan the Brave’ nae mair, nae mair
    Black an white ane-til-ither mairriet
    Mak the vile barracks o thir maisters bare”

    (1960 by Hamish Henderson, (1919 to 2002))

  24. John Reid was never a good man ,givinggoose sums him up well as a self serving epitomy of a gravy train labour politician .

    But I do hope Lord Reid takes part in bitter together ,there are some jucy scandals to come out

  25. Its unfair to suggest that Grahamski is not knowable about military matters ,he was after all an aide to Major Joyce, and I believe driver as well

  26. Derek. I have never had a comment of mine under moderation before. What was wrong with mine at 5.22?
    For that matter, when did moderation start?

  27. Who knew Scotland was such a great and necessary geo-strategic asset? You might think that such an asset would be well defended? With major air, sea and land assets protecting our coastlines, the oil and gas installations and patrolling the Iceland Gap.

    Instead there are NO surface ships based here.

    There are NO maritime patrol aircraft based here.

    Precious few land forces are permanently based here, many might rotate through on training but that is not the same.

    They are downgrading air assets and closing bases. The troops promised to be based at the soon to be defunct RAF Leuchars are now several years away. So that’s Leuchars’ economy down the toilet in the interim. That was despite firm promises from Westminster when the base closure as an RAF base was announced.

    We can’t do much worse than this after Independence and as a result the rUK’s northern approaches will be better protected and patrolled than they have been for a couple of decades.

  28. Ouch, two targets in one post Derek. Can’t wait to get rid of that bunch in the HoL, or, rather, get rid of the HoL full stop.

    As far as the navy’s concerned, I felt a wee bit sorry for our Admiral of the Fleet there, having to pretend that he’s still got a navy to sail. Here’s a picture of a proper navy, back when the queen was crowned in 1947:

    Flicking through the White Paper, I think we’ll have a decent-sized navy for doing proper sea patrols in a few years around Scotland, with the new vessels built on the Clyde. What’s not to like?

  29. Ok, I meant 1953. Think she was married in 47. See how much of a royalist I am? 😉

    • Admiral Sir George Michael Zambellas KCB DSC DL First Sea Lord.
      The picture says it all. The epitome of pompous and circumstances. What he and his ilk will miss most is the dressing up in their ruritarian style union jackery outfits while appearing on the ‘world’ stage; and I mean stage.

      Had a quick look at his naval career, and HMS Pinafore has it 100% right about the Admiral. The only actual action he has seen was helping at a refugee evacuation in Sierra Leone. The rest of his career has been spent behind a desk and doing the usual ‘whitehall thing’.

  30. Sorry faolie my comment was meant to be a new comment not a reply to yours. The page seemed a bit mixed up.

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