David Campbell Bannerman is a Conservative MEP for the East of England.
As an island nation whose whole history (economic, trading, and military) has been shaped by the sea, why are we so depressingly inept at preserving our naval heritage – as the proposed scrapping of HMS Illustrious illustrates?
Whilst on first reflection it seems we do preserve some important ships – HMS Victory, SS Great Britain, the Mary Rose, Cutty Sark, HMS Belfast, HMS Cavalier, and recently HMS Caroline, for example – the underlying reality is that many of these preservation schemes happened with too little forethought, or were subject to near disaster.
Rescued ships have too often been happy accidents in a sea full of tragedies. For example, Cutty Sark was only properly rescued after it first started to fall apart, and then suffered a major fire during a limited restoration. The ‘City of Adelaide’ has had to be rescued by its Australian namesake from a Scottish museum.
Other nations treasure their heritage ships as revered national memorials. Many are British-built. Why is this not the case here? Are our ships wound up in post-imperial guilt; an embarrassment?
The Japanese have the Barrow-built Dreadnought battleship Mikasha from 1905 Russian battles; the Poles, the Cowes-built destroyer ORP Blyskawica with its impressive war record, and the Australians modern warships, such as British Daring class HMAS Vampire. The Canadians made Newcastle-constructed destroyer HMCS Haida a ‘National Historic Site of Canada’; the Indians are preserving the former Falklands command ship HMS Hermes, latterly INS Viraat, as a luxury hotel, and the Argentinians have the wonderful 1897 Birkenhead-built ARA Presidente Sarmiento.
The sad reality is that Britain is more interested in conserving ships if they have been sunken for at least 50 years; ideally 500. We recently rushed to protect the wreck of a World War One armed trawler, and we celebrate bare bone wooden wrecks. But it is not a great conservation policy if the educational benefits are confined to those in goggles.
Naval ships are large, need imagination to preserve, and sometimes finding the space needed for visitor attractions is challenging. But are they really so different to the large country houses the National Trust excels in?
After all, museum ships don’t need to be working. The stilled engines of Britannia and the Queen Mary in Los Angeles are open to public inspection. Hulls can be protected from erosion by a cathodic protection system, and ships are designed for all weathers. Britannia has maintained the highest standards.
Look to the US for inspiration. They have a larger museum fleet preserved than our entire Royal Navy: some nine battleships, five aircraft carriers, and flotillas of cruisers, destroyers and submarines, despite having a smaller navy in World War Two. Groups of US veterans restore old ships they served on with the help of attractive tax breaks.
As the Government now turns its focus to delivering Brexit, I believe this is the perfect opportunity to reassess our national identity, heritage and legacy as part of that national renaissance; and to celebrate British engineering excellence again.
The latest tragedy is the announcement that the Ministry of Defence plans to send the last of three Invincible Royal Navy aircraft carriers, HMS Illustrious, to a Turkish scrapyard in the midst of both a steel crisis and a Turkish military coup – and all for a paltry sum of £2.1 million, just one fiftieth of the cost of a new F35 jet.
We do not have a single post-World War Two grey warship preserved in this country – despite all those sacrifices made to liberate the Falkland Islands at a serious loss of lives and fellow ships. The sole Falklands representative, HMS Plymouth, which happily received visitors for 15 years, was evicted by a major Merseyside property developer, who then shamefully sold her for Turkish scrap.
Illustrious bridges a war service that included the Falklands, Cold War, the Balkans and Gulf War. The scrapping decision breaches an inspired Government policy – that “in recognition of the service given by these ships in protecting the UK over the last 30 years, it is our preference to see HMS Illustrious preserved intact as a lasting tribute to the service personnel who served on all three of the carriers… as a legacy to the work she, Invincible and Ark Royal have done to protect the UK over three decades”. Whilst bids were invited, there was no real seriousness or part funding to make bids viable.
Unless saved immediately, Illustrious will be towed to Turkey in October, like Turner’s ‘Fighting Temeraire’. It will then be roughly beached and pulled apart for scrap, with its fluids pouring into the ocean and making a mockery of the EU environmental regulations it claims to meet. Allegedly, whole chunks of ships are moved around these yards once environmental inspectors have left.
But this doesn’t have to be. There is a break clause in the ‘recycling’ contract for heritage.
I urge the Government to use it to preserve HMS Illustrious as a national Falklands memorial. As, say, an Imperial War Museum ship it could display a rich variety of relevant Falklands and other aircraft. The carrier could offer some airshows and community events. It could be used for MOD helicopter landing training, and in sea skills in partnership with local universities.
As at US museums, accompanying ships could sit alongside it, such as surviving submarine HMS Conqueror, which sank the Argentine cruiser Belgrano, and a surface warship such as the floating classroom HMS Bristol, the last serving survivor of the Falklands Task Force.
Just 0.5 per cent of the net Brexit savings of £10 billion annually could be allocated to a new National Memorial Ship Fund, overseen in the same way as other bids by the Heritage Lottery Fund/National Memorial Heritage Fund. Surely such a proportion is a justifiable and sensible new investment in British economic development, tourism, culture and history.
I also urge the Chancellor to introduce the kind of US tax breaks that have helped preserve US naval ships so successfully. It is vital that we preserve our British heritage for future generations and, as Britain embraces Brexit and a new patriotism, there has never been a better time to do so.