MUCH of Britain’s history has been written in the sea, the command of which enabled the Empire to be constructed, various foreign threats to be seen off, and manufacturers to sell their goods around the world.
But this global reach is now so shrunken that it seems the country cannot answer properly an SOS in home waters.
Questioning by Angus Robertson, the SNP MP for Moray, has revealed that the Ministry of Defence is unable to list vital aircraft for search and rescue operations. Mr Robertson has also discovered that in the last 18 months, the UK has received only one international call for maritime assistance, from Ireland. It may be that there has been no other incident to occasion such a call, but it is also a strong possibility that other countries and major shipping lines know that there is nothing at the end of the telephone line.
Mr Robertson has an acute interest in this matter. His constituency contains the now-closed RAF base of Kinloss where the now-scrapped squadron of Nimrod surveillance aircraft was based. Rather appallingly, when a Russian aircraft carrier group showed up unexpectedly in the Moray Firth recently, the best that the MoD could do to keep tabs on what they were up to was to send a frigate from Portsmouth.
This lack of aerial surveillance capacity has come about because of the cancellation of the replacement aircraft for Nimrod by the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government as one of its first acts. This was because, ministers claimed, the programme had already cost £4 billion, no aircraft were yet ready to fly and a further £2bn would have to be spent before just nine of the 21 aircraft originally planned would be available.
Now it seems, according to Mr Robertson’s research, that not even the Hercules aircraft, which as a lumbering transport plane was always a pretty poor substitute for the Nimrods, is available to take up surveillance duties. And of the mooted purchase of American planes to do the job, there is not a sign.
The cancellation of the Nimrod replacement always seemed like a panic move by a government which was caught in the headlights of the debt crisis, unable to think of much except cutting big-ticket items. The previous Labour government can always be blamed for letting defence procurement costs run out of control.
But such recriminations do not answer the much more important question of what would happen if there was a major incident at sea. What if, heaven forbid, an oil tanker was in a collision during severe weather? And what would happen if an offshore oil installation was attacked by terrorists?
Having aerial reconnaissance is an essential to save lives, but Britain no longer has it. Instead, it would have to be begged or borrowed from smaller neighbours which, as Mr Robertson points out, are the models on which an independent Scotland and its defence forces would be based.
SNP sets some independence puzzles
Sometimes the SNP is bizarrely two-faced about the demands it makes. With one face, it tells the world it wants the UK government’s writ to stop at the Border between Berwick and Gretna. But with another face, it demands that the UK government should be dispersing its workforce across the whole of Britain, which presumably means Scotland should be included in this share-out.
Why on Earth do SNP ministers imagine that UK ministers will agree to send their civil servants to work in what will become, according to the SNP, a foreign country after 2016? An answer, we suppose, might be that the UK government has already decided to site its Green Investment Bank in Edinburgh, so sending some more bureaucrats northwards should be no problem.
But the UK government did that, it said, because it believes the SNP will lose the independence vote. Is the SNP implying by this job dispersal demand that it agrees with this assessment? It does not make any sense.
The same applies to the context of the demand. This, according to the SNP, is that the UK government’s plan to introduce regional pay disparities is “a wrong-footed move”. But independence means that a Scottish government would be taking charge of civil service pay, and Scottish civil service pay could be different from UK pay rates. Maybe an independent Scottish government will set its bureaucrats’ pay according to UK conditions. This seems to be the implication of its denunciation of different pay for different places.
So what is independence about, then?
Christian values must stretch further than symbols
Easter, for many people these days, is about chocolate and holidays. Actually, it is primarily a religious commemoration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ after his death by crucifixion. But how many children, as they roll eggs, know that this is meant to signify the rolling away of the boulder which sealed his tomb?
The Roman Catholic Church’s response to this creeping secularisation of Easter seems, through the messages of Cardinal Keith O’Brien and Pope Benedict XVI, to seek a more assertive faith. To summarise, perhaps a little crudely, Christians should be allowed to wear the cross prominently as a mark of their faith because God’s message is being obscured in darkness which hides important values.
A reminder of missing values comes from a survey which says that an alarming number of Scots do not know who their neighbours are, never mind love them. This, however, is not necessarily a consequence of the decline of religion, but rather the withering of basic social relationships.
A problem for all churches is that much of society no longer learns their values from Christian teaching. Maybe churches, if they are to restore their moral leadership, should work at improving the substance of values like neighbourliness, as well as demanding prominence for the symbols of faith.