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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Wine Club update

A quick word about the Wine Club. It’s had an impressive start with members from the west coast of Australia to California, from the Channel Islands and the length and breadth of Scotland. I don’t know where we’re going to hold our first wine tasting…Hong Kong? Thanks to you all. Time now to order the membership cards and get them posted.

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Road to the Isles

First, a word about Argyll. It’s unfashionable to link something as seemingly banal as landscape to issues of politics. Politics is supposed to be about the government, about process and rights and we separate it from sentiment because emotion has no place in our judgment about the way we want our society to work.
Well, as I’ve said before, I don’t agree with this cold reading of our affairs, firstly because it’s not the way I feel but mostly because it isn’t true. Almost every lesson of psychology when it is linked to decision-making betrays the truth – that we all follow our heart when asked to decide. We are more likely to support people we like and will seek ways of justifying our decision against logic if necessary. We want what makes us feel good, not necessarily what is good for us. (I may be bastardising David Hume a bit).

These sentimental reasons reinforce our opinions and explain why an optimistic campaign is trumping a negative one. It is a major element of my politics and was never stronger than in the weeks before the 1997 general election when I travelled around Scotland to produce a light-hearted on-air diary about the campaign going through our deprived inner-city areas, down to Berwick and the Border, over to Ayr, Aberdeen and up to Portree. It was in seeing Scotland as it really is, with its the breadth of physical landscape, watching towns come to life in the early morning and speaking to the shopkeepers and customers, office workers and cleaners that I got a rounded view of our country. We all have our own Scotland, our individual little bit, but it was in seeing it on a universal scale that my eyes were opened. From the high rise flats in Springburn to returning via the north of Skye with its rock towers I had a powerful sense of belonging and a conviction that no matter how varied the environment, we are one.
The A82 out of Glasgow always brings a shiver of excitement, up through Glencoe, and the Corran Ferry drops us in Ardnamurchan. When I first went there 25 years ago it was a revelation – single-track roads, sheep wandering in front, tree-topped rocks and miles of bogland. Much remains of course but every mile or so there is development…new houses, many wood-fronted, Scandinavian-style brightly painted with porticoes and balconies, an attractive new primary school, there is the distillery newly-built and a new store expected in Acharacle by the summer. There has been upgrading at the Salen Hotel, at the Community Centre in Kilchoan and the Post Office Team Room in Archaracle. There is a sense of activity and vibrancy.

As well as traditional voices, there are many English accents as people relocate for a different way of living. European money is funding some of this and EU rules affect business. When we met Fergie Macdonald, the Ceilidh King, at Mingarry, he showed us around the family venison business that looks like a hut by the side of the road but inside, as European rules demand, is as scrubbed and organised as an operating theatre. He’s a man of some character and could be the advertising front man for Ardnamurchan and Moidart. Anyway, I left with two steaks and a set of antlers.
If anything encapsulates the bleakly beautiful and unyielding nature of the West Coast it is, for me, Castle Tioram on Loch Moidart. It sits stubby on the rock promentary, totally exposed and defiant, broad-shouldered and built for defence without compromise except for the addition of two upper floor turrets from the 17th century, like earrings on a shaven-headed thug. This is an ancient keep, not a crenelated fairy tower – a no-nonsense, fuck off Scottish castle. It makes me proud just to look at it.


For some reason though it is being allowed to crumble into the sea having been judged bizarrely as too valuable a ruin. Couldn’t the work along the coast at Mingary Castle be used as a model. The Trust there has a 999 year lease and is returning it to its proper condition and will add tourist facilities, if the money can be raised.
By the way the distillery is the work of Better Together donor Donald Houston who owns the Ardnamurchan Estate. He seems to be very active in developing the business side of the estate from what I saw. I’m not sure myself how a man who can afford to put £500,000 into a political campaign needs £1.8m in taxpayers money for a business venture but HIE will know the answer to that. There’s no missing Donald’s proud British loyalties when you visit Glenborrodale Castle, his luxury lodge overlooking Loch Sunart – he has a giant Union Jack up the flagpole on the front lawn…how we laughed.
Donald’s doing his bit locally no doubt but I recall on my first foray to the far west, the same estate was owned by General Accident. Yes, a London insurance company, cash-rich from the Thatcher boom, owned tens of thousands of acres of our country as a wilderness hideaway for its busy executives and their clients. It’s only a question of money, not of entitlement or of rights, that’s what determines who owns Scotland. Today it’s Donald Houston and in ten years time? Let’s hope the next Scottish government gets serious about land reform and opens it up to more democratic approaches instead of leaving the lives and employment of so many in the hands of the laird. (Do you think this may be a reason Donald is so keen for Scotland to vote No?)
Our journey west was a reminder of what a magnificent country this is and why it is a ridiculous farce that we don’t run it for ourselves. With independence we can be even more enterprising and add fairness and equality to economic development.

And thanks to our hosts Susan and Kenneth at who have shown how one of our key industries in earnings and employment – tourism – is so successful.

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Cameron Backs Yes Vote

There is one option left to the No side as far as I can see and they won’t take it. It is Reversion. They must rewind, undo, start again and admit everything that went before was a mistake.
They must apply the air brakes, screech to a halt, burn rubber and come to a juddering stop. Dead weight – Darling, McDougall and co – must be jettisoned and the whole Better Together convoy turned around and headed in the opposite direction.
That route takes them on to the same road as Yes but with a slightly different destination. It leads to maximum devolution with virtually everything the Yes side demands included in the deal and a commitment to a restructuring of UK powers clearly heading for federalism. It would be led by the Prime Minister because only he can deliver and must be wholly backed by the other parties.
An unequivocal commitment to cede powers over all areas of taxation and spending including oil and a deal on currency would transform the meaning of a No vote. The entire British government papers on independence would be wiped out, a public promise to support Scotland over entry to the UN, EU and NATO given and an apology for the wrong-headed campaign of degradation issued.
It would of course be humiliation and split his party, but it has at least a chance of saving the Union. If they do want to save it. It’s always been in the government’s grasp to save the Union, it was only a question of what they would sacrifice to achieve it. And I think we’re now getting the answer.
As you no doubt realised while reading the above paragraphs, they don’t actually care enough about it to take the steps necessary. If the support for Yes continues, it is likely to overtake No before voting but it seems they are prepared to risk all rather than enter into a mature dialogue. Why? They’ve gone too far down the road now to turn back and would rather face the consequences of losing than admit they have been wrong, another admission that the Union itself doesn’t really matter enough.
And I think the deeper reason is that they know they can live with the result. It remains in their hands after a Yes vote to dictate much of what follows and they can fashion that to their interests. The argument that it is the end of a long friendship will be revised to say it isn’t the end of anything, just the beginning of a fruitful new relationship. It wasn’t what the government wanted but the bedrock of the Union was always democracy and London respects Scotland’s wish.
“And you don’t get away so easily”, he will say. “Sovereign or not, the Scots will continue to share with us a language (mostly), an economy, joint institutions, a currency, a monarch, our family links and friendships, our military through NATO, the EU with our increased representation, shared diplomatic facilities, democracy, a desire for peace and of course, whisky.”
He will cite the Edinburgh Agreement as the basis for the friendly deal which includes a joint memorandum of understanding that the question of nuclear arms is not in dispute between the nations for the purpose of entry to NATO. It will be resolved bilaterally from within the Alliance.
Every effort will be made to present as close to a united front to the world as possible. He will publicly demur about losing Labour seats and easing in future Tory governments, while his aides will brief furiously Tory delight at the voting coup. The Conservative Right will be grimly satisfied to get rid of the troublesome Scots who have at least taken a fair share of debt with them and allowed their exports to shore up the balance of payments.
Britain’s global image will be enhanced, he will say, by the democratic ethos behind a legally binding referendum, an acceptance of the result, despite the closeness, and the immediate decision that there should be no formal frontier between ancient friends. “I think this shows the world how even countries with disagreements can work together in enlightened self interest if the democratic will is there.”
The hideous No campaign will be deemed a mistake that Cameron allowed to be led by Labour – Darling is already taking the flak – and was against Cameron’s own instincts. Didn’t he make the Don’t Leave Us speeches?
He will also agree to set up annual bilateral Heads of Government meetings in Edinburgh and London to keep relations cordial. He will attend openings of Parliament in Edinburgh.
“Any man can re-write history,” he will say. “But no man can stand in the way of the future. With this deal, we keep a neighbour AND we keep a friend. Only next time we come calling, we must remember to knock.”

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A Big Boy Dun It And Ran Away

Looks like word has gone out around the Better Together network to report anything that can be sexed up into a cybernat scandal to feed to the media. Today’s story about a Labour MP having to hide his face in the street and undergoing threatening behaviour in his constituency office looks like a version of this tactic.

It is being conflated by Darling with criticisms of bosses telling their staff how to vote based on dodgy information to construct what the lawyers call a tissue of lies to defame the Yes movement.

It is the clearest sign that they have lost the argument and have nothing to stop the inexorable – we hope – rise in the Yes vote. I thought Cameron’s claim to be more interested in the outcome of the next election than the referendum played into the Yes hands too. It contradicts his earlier statements about fighting with every fibre for the Union, it makes it easier for him to refuse to debate with Salmond and, crucially, may be the first indication that losing the referendum isn’t such a massive deal for him after all – he’s preparing the ground for defeat.

I saw Darling on the Marr programme when he was asked a perfectly fair summing-up question about us all being Scots together when this is over. It is what every constitutional politician should regard as a gift – a chance to be conciliatory and statesmanlike. Darling failed. He struggled to sound reasonable and couldn’t stop himself suggesting that could only happen if everybody was reasonable and the nationalists weren’t. It is was a pitiable performance that sounded like the words of a bad loser.

But I think the question – a great way to rise above the acrimony – threw him because he’s already in the next stage of the BT slander game. They are now using the media to denigrate the reputation of what is one of the most respectable and democratic movements we’ve ever seen with hundreds of thousands of activists from every walk of life and every political hue engaging with their communities in a great national cause. To Darling and his propagandists they are cybernats. This process, of identifying and denigrating will take off big time, I suspect as voting day nears.

The MP didn’t have the guts to stand up to intimidation by naming himself. But given that he has been careful to make sure the rest of the story is publicised, the result is it smacks of smear to me. If someone is shouting at him and his staff and issuing warnings, what is the evidence it is someone connected to the SNP or Yes? This individual sounds like a nutcase to me, not an activist. (I’m sympathetic to the idea that an MP’s staff must be protected but 1) I can’t see how not naming him helps when the abuser knows where they are and 2) a chat with any MP’s staff will elicit all sorts of stories of weirdoes who turn up. This perpetrator sounds like he will be easily apprehended. Perhaps then we’ll find out if he has a connection to the campaign…and who the MP is who is afraid to walk up the street without covering his face! God help us from the heroes of today’s People’s Party.

Darling hasn’t yet apologised for the pantomime complaints of Ian Murray who tried to whip up anti social feeling about a sticker on his window. Murray’s attempt to claim it as vandalism is another example of what we must watch for. The position appears to be that no Yes person can criticise or condemn anyone from the No side for saying something detrimental to their country’s independence or else they are threatening cybernats. This may play in a pliant media and with Marr’s English audience but, like the rest of the BT case, it will do nothing but turn Scots off. It simply isn’t true that cybernats run the Yes campaign anyway. The blinding truth is that it is people driven in a way that is beyond the comprehension of No.

I’m away to threaten and abuse the people of Argyll now for a few days in my secret holiday hideout  and I intend to inform the police if I see any of those Yes stickers that are so frightening.

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