by Political Correspondent
The political bombshell in UK naval circles in recent weeks was an alleged leak of a move to switch the 11 remaining Devonport-based frigates to Portsmouth. The claim that this was about to be announced came via the BBC in Southampton, not an organisation with a great reputation for reading the runes properly. It was, after all BBC Southampton that declared 16 years ago that Rosyth had won the bitter battle for Trident submarine refit work. The reverse was the case and Devonport Dockyard secured the £5 billion contract. MPs in the Portsmouth area have been cock-a-hoop at the latest naval asset to be stripped away from archrival Plymouth, especially as the preferred - and some would say still the wisest - option a few years ago was a rapid scaling back of Pompey.
MPs in Plymouth were their usual supine selves, rolling over and pulling up the white flag while one MP was blathering about the Devon maritime city having a ‘defence anchor’, whatever that is. It subsequently transpired that means using the UK’s finest naval dockyard workforce to make more Armoured Fighting Vehicles for the land war in Afghanistan and conducting wrecking tasks in Europe’s biggest, and most urbanised nuclear submarine scrapyard (Labour’s preferred alternative to building and running a Navy big enough to meet the nation’s true defence needs). While Portsmouth is seemingly blessed with forward-leaning MPs who actually show signs of knowing about, and being enthusiastic for, the Navy, the motley crew of Parliamentary representatives Plymouth is cursed with have over the past few crucial years mainly displayed apathy, ignorance, and simultaneously acting in a servile fashion, begging for Government crumbs. They always get angry and make a fuss when it’s too late and they lost the battle, and, indeed the war, for survival long ago. Devonport’s future was decided when the Astute Class submarine base port was switched to Scotland and the politicians of Plymouth bought into the Portsmouth-driven ‘three naval base’ idea. HM Naval Base Clyde was never under threat, but Portsmouth was until its main rival for survival swallowed the ‘three bases’ idea hook, line and sinker. Bravo Portsmouth - it showed pride in the Navy and its warships (you won’t ever hear a Pompey MP saying a frigate is an obsolete ship, but one particular Plymouth MP stood up in Parliament and proudly declared it a few months ago). Plymouth MP Linda Gilroy finally found some grit last month when she told the Armed Forces Minister to “get his finger out”, but, of course, only to (sort of) beg for the bullet sooner, rather than later! You couldn’t make it up. Oh for the halcyon days when politicians of calibre and fighting spirit put Devonport’s case, including Michael Foot, David Owen, Alan Clark, Robert Hicks and David Jamieson. They were titans compared to the political pygmies one of the greatest naval cities in the world has to rely on today for a voice in government. The frigates story reeked of the usual kite flying that happens when somebody comes up with what looks like an idea of genius to save yet more money in the Royal Navy’s ever-decreasing budget. Put all the frigates in one place and that will cut down on duplication of support infrastructure etc etc etc. However, as a senior officer confided to this magazine a few years ago, any sane analysis of such a move shows that it would cost more financially and in personnel retention terms to move the frigates, plus their sailors and, in many cases, their families, too. So, what has changed? Some might say the move to concentrate frigates is industry-driven. The private firms that run Portsmouth Naval Base and its ship construction facility need the work on the frigates during Fleet Time to keep their people employed until the Future Surface Combatant programme starts. They will probably aim to do most work there and prevent Devonport from getting any surface warship work. It’s dog eat dog in the private sector. There was a time when the Navy was run to defend the nation. It isn’t industry’s fault or the Navy’s that a move like switching all the frigates to Portsmouth is being considered - it is the Government’s.
Industry is in the driving seat because the defence of the UK is not run on a basis of what is needed strategically or tactically but on the grounds of cost alone. And the grudging former Treasury boss turned Prime Minister - who last month visited a warship yard in Glasgow, which was saved from closure to ensure Labour didn’t lose a vital Parliamentary seat - regards Defence as a drain on funds needed elsewhere. Prime Minister Brown has never visited Devonport’s naval base or dockyard, for why would the man who has done so much damage to the Royal Navy want to visit the scene of the crime? The primary question for Labour is not what size of Navy do we need, or what will ensure its sailors and marines have the right conditions of service and will commit to a career - thus returning the investment in training? Labour’s overriding concern is: How cheaply can we get away with making it look like we give a damn about having a proper Navy? Therefore, with a two billion pound shortfall in the defence budget, the Navy is forced to make cuts again, or, more importantly, employ smoke and mirrors to make it look like it is instituting change that will save money. Meanwhile, the industrial partners get tied into tightly budgeted contracts which they willingly sign, provided the Navy plays ball by concentrating all its surface ships conveniently next door to the very support facilities they run. But, what of the sailors themselves? What of the body and soul of the Navy without any Devonport-based ships? What would happen to the football league if Manchester United players were told their team had to merge with Arsenal and move to London? The ‘Pompey’ and ‘Guzz’ divisions of sailors are an integral part of the fighting spirit of the Royal Navy, engendering pride and a healthy competitive edge. The most important recruiting grounds for the Navy are in the West of the UK, from the South-West itself, up through Wales, Liverpool, Manchester to Glasgow. Today, while many senior ratings live close to the base ports, in fact a lot of the younger generation sailors and marines still live in the neighbourhoods they come from. For those in the West of the UK, the trek to Pompey, and worse still, being asked to live in the South-East will be a disincentive to joining the RN. That’s why the Navy is organised as it is. Not only that, but the settled communities of Type 22 and Type 23 ratings will move to Portsmouth only because they have to, in order to keep their jobs in a recession. They are already overworked, with very few shore billets these days and angry at having to spend months standing by ships in refit in a foreign country - for that is what Scotland is to the majority of RN people, who are English - at Rosyth. And what if they switch Devonport’s submarines to Faslane? That move will be similarly unpopular among the people who actually operate the submarines. Recession or not, many key people will wrap in their hands, even if some ambitious officers are looking forward to spending their entire careers in the South-East. To justify the alleged move to Pompey there has been a lot of rubbish talked about it being driven by the need for the ships to be next to Fleet HQ or ‘the electronics firms’. Obviously these people have never heard of modern telecommunications or the fact that the Plymouth area is home to the ratings training school, the officers college, the operational combat training organisation, the Royal Marine commando brigade, the submarine school, oh, and the biggest naval dockyard in Europe with a well-established reputation for sending battle fleets to sea. A retired Rear Admiral observed in the wake of the frigates switch claim that Devonport and Plymouth will wither to virtually nothing as a naval centre if the frigates move. He got that wrong. It is not Plymouth and Devonport that will wither, it is the Royal Navy which will, with one unwise decision forced on it by a sea blind government, discard the only means for it to revive itself as a true global force, with enough critical mass to wage war against the nation’s future enemies. Big stakes. The smug MPs of Portsmouth should bear that in mind when playing pork barrel politics with the nation’s first line of defence. And it is time Plymouth MPs woke up and started fighting for their home city, the navy and the nation. They should have told ministers to get their fingers out and ensure Devonport is a warship base many years ago.
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