I am pleased that the Prime Minister, Theresa May has wasted no time in scuppering the notion floated by the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson and some newspapers that the former Royal Yacht Britannia, moored since 1997 as a tourist attraction at the port of Leith in Scotland, should be recommissioned for use in trade talks and in further assisting our industry and service based companies to sell British goods and services abroad. The curt yet useful statement from Downing Street which brings to an end sentiment hankering for a return to the past said that such a proposal “was not on the agenda and that no taxpayers money would be allocated”.
However, the Downing Street spokesman took the trouble to add that “what we are trying to do as a Government is to forge an ambitious plan to exploit the opportunities that leaving the EU represents” and that while “the ambition is to be a global leader on free trade” adding that “there are a number of ways we can go about doing that, but the recommissioning of Britannia is not on the agenda for that”.
While we are left to await further detail on what the Government intends to do in respect of exploiting more and better opportunities for future trade I suspect that one avenue under investigation is to make even better use of our armed forces in helping to sell Britain, what it is and what it stands for along with our desire to increase the amount of goods and services that we sell, abroad.
Last week the Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Fallon announced that the MOD will spend £800 million boosting innovation over the next ten years in order to help meet future threats. I will write on this matter separately in due course but I mention it here only to emphasise that if we better harness and capture innovation in the manner talked about here for defence this will, should we wish it to be so, eventually translate to our having more technology and sophisticated equipment to sell to potential customers abroad.
Back to the Britannia notion that has thankfully been quickly shot down in flames. While it is perfectly true that, when not in use by the royal family, Britannia proved to be a very valuable asset and tool in which British trade delegations could entertain prospective trade buyers and the like I am not sure in the world of today a ship that is not a warship as such would be considered as being the right vessel to use when attempting to sell Britain abroad. We need to turn the clock forward rather than backwards.
Britannia served her purpose very well but the honest view is that even if there was a remote possibility of the vessel being brought back to use which, with no propellers and having been at ‘rest’ for nineteen years, is just not feasible from a cost point of view, the world has moved on and away from sentimentality when it comes to doing trade.
The Royal Navy and indeed, the Royal Air Force too, have and continue to play a very important role in helping to sell Britain abroad. Leaving the defence diplomacy role aside, a Royal Navy ship visiting a foreign port on a goodwill visit and during that period perhaps being used to entertain foreign dignitaries, potential trade buyers and partners has and will continue to be worth its weight in gold.
Britain may well be dangerously short of fighting ships today, meaning destroyers and frigates, short of some of the highly skilled personnel and engineers that it needs but at least the nation will soon have the addition to the Royal Navy fleet of two new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers. All Royal Navy ships play a part in selling Britain abroad and in assisting the nation to increase the amount of trade that it does.
When a Royal Navy ship visits the port of a foreign country, it is not just the White Ensign that’s on show. It is also representing what Britain stands for along with the quality of British engineering and the very specialist high tech defence systems that we have designed and built for the ship. The Royal Navy instantly become our trade ambassadors as well in far flung corners of the world and increasingly it will, in my view, become even more of an instrument of national ambition, quietly underlining not just our military and economic credibility and prowess but also playing an increasingly larger role in helping to show off British innovation, British products and designs along of course with our specialist banking, finance, insurance and other service based trade opportunities.
As the current First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Philip Jones said in a speech last year in his previous role as Fleet Commander, “The Royal Navy’s ongoing recapitalisation will ensure our continued global presence. The centrepiece will be our two new aircraft carriers. The first, HMS Queen Elizabeth, was launched last year and is now fitting out. The second, HMS Prince of Wales, is catching up and is already 50% structurally complete. These 65,000 tonne ships – the largest we’ve ever built – will allow the Royal Navy to project power at sea and from the sea in a manner of our choosing, without having to wait or rely on support from ashore. But they are so much more. These flagships will under-line our global authority and they will embody our national ambition”.
It is not the job of the Royal Navy or the Royal Air Force to ‘sell’ British goods of course but in helping to promote British trade acting as ambassadors in foreign ports and allowing our ships to be used to entertain potential trading partners they are playing a vital role in the prosperity agenda of the nation.
The same is true of the Royal Air Force as well. Next week the Royal Air Force Red Arrows display team fly off to the Far East with visits and air displays planned in many countries including India and, for the first time, China. The Red Arrows are hugely important in terms of selling Britain and what it stands for abroad and in flying BAE Systems Hawk jets they are displaying a message that speaks the jet being yet another great of British success story. Each and every display done by the Red Arrows and indeed, other Royal Air Force jets such as Typhoons plays a part in sending a message to our friends, allies and those with whom we would like to do more trade that Britain is open for business and that we wish to better exploit opportunities to do more business.
CHW (London 22nd September 2016)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS