hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Blackadder Builds Aircraft Carriers

Back in London. Another sunny, spring day. Does it ever rain here? Getting used to Britain as a tropical island is taking some doing, but at least the wine is good. Another high-level meeting (yes, I know, all my meetings are ‘high-level’, as opposed to the ‘what on Earth am I doing here’ meetings I often find myself at).

This one again concerned the HMS Highly Unlikelys – those benighted British aircraft carriers the construction of which resembles an episode of Blackadder Goes Forth. You know the episode. It is the one in which ‘Bob’ Parkhurst says, “I want to see how a war is fought, so badly”. To which Blackadder replies: “Well, you've come to the right place, Bob. A war hasn't been fought this badly since Olaf the Hairy, high chief of all the vikings, accidentally ordered 80,000 battle helmets with the horns on the inside”. As Prince Philip once famously said; “What a way to run a railway?”

This was London at its Whitehall goldfish bowl worst with politicians and officials swimming around in an ever-diminishing pool of fratricide and carrier-cide as though the real world beyond had nothing to do with them. Sorry, it has.

The only defence of the Whitehallers is that this incompetence is passed down from generation to generation. The story goes something like this. First, there is an over-ambitious statement of over-strategy, normally to correct a previous statement of under-strategy. That is followed by a period of over-engagement in which plucky British servicemen daily defeat an entire Wehrmacht division armed with a piece of chewing gum, an umbrella and a square jaw. The ensuing disaster is then followed by a hopelessly under-strategic review run by the Treasury which a) pretends that British taxpayer’s money actually belongs to them; and b) which states that for the next four hundred years nothing nasty is going to happen. When it does we then expect the Americans to sort it out...and call it burden sharing. This is where we are today.

The sad fact is that Britain will need those ships because the world will not leave Britain alone, and the Americans will rightly expect at least a bit of a global effort.  Indeed, the two ships will serve at the core of Britain's future military effort for much of this century.

For me the saddest aspect of this sorry saga is the opportunity being missed to tell a great British story. The construction of these ships represents world-beating innovation. If we were Yanks we would have made at least ten hollywood blockbusters by now. With a British people desperate to feel proud again it is a story that desperately needs telling. But no, according to the Illuminati sections of society apparently would not like the fact that Britain at least retains some pretentions to the ambition that once made this nation great. Sod them – get on with it!

As a testament to poor political and bureaucratic leadership there can be no peer. There is one episode of Yes, Minister in which Sir Humphrey describes the Byzantine methods employed by civil servants to kill projects they dislike. First, they add on bells and whistles that inflate the price and make the whole process hideously expensive. Second, they delay the project so long that by the time it is ready it is time to scrap it. Third, they cut the numbers to make the development costs look absurd. Finally, they talk only of cost and never of value, and use their media chums to distort the message to a disbelieving public. Well, something along those lines. That is precisely what the out of control bureaucrats are doing to HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales. Where is the Prime Minister in all of this?  Leading from the rear, as ever.

For me the saddest spectacle is to witness the utter strategic vacuum that this debacle represents. Inside the Whitehall goldfish bowl politicians are obsessed with dodging any bullet that can possibly harm them, leaving strategy-hating bureaucrats to out-manoeuvre the under-political military chiefs - lambs to the slaughter.

The key issue? Not the future strategic influence of the United Kingdom, oh no, but rather how to ensure one’s fingerprints are not found at the scene of the forthcoming crime. Nor can the military chiefs absolve themselves. They are too often too busy fighting each other over their bit of a small cake that is rapidly becoming a small tart. It is an appalling spectacle the result of short-term, narrow behavior from people who really should know better. It is quite simply pathetic!

Thirteen years into this project it is still under review. Thirteen years into the project those responsible for it wake up each morning not knowing if they still have a project at all. Thirteen years into this project no-one actually knows the cost. Thirteen years into this project no-one is actually sure what will actually fly off them.

I am off to Paris today for another meeting, another speech. At least I might get some common sense there, but not here in this Whitehall Village of the Damned.

Whitehall; grow up, get your act together and start putting Britain’s strategic interests first. If not, history (and me) will condemn you all.

One final thought. Why not put horns on the inside?

Julian Lindley-French

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