Empire of the Deep by Ben Wilson: When Britain ruled the waves

Britain was designed for maritime power. Stephen Taylor reviews a sweeping history of Britain's naval prowess that covers the great commanders but finds little space for the seamen who served them.

Empire of the Deep: the Rise and Fall of the British Navy
Ben Wilson
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 720pp, £25
 
It is an image embedded in our history – the body of a naval hero brought home to a state funeral, his legacy a sea victory that had stunned Europe and secured Britain’s command of the oceans once and for all. Yet the hero was not, on this occasion, Horatio Nelson. Robert Blake’s triumph came at the battle of Santa Cruz in 1657, almost 150 years before Trafalgar and close to 70 years after another victory – over the Armada – that had supposedly obtained the same end. If there is one consistent aspect of Britain’s historical perspective, it is that we were always winners at sea.
 
That view has been refashioned by a new generation of naval historians, such as N A M Rodger, who have brought subtlety and social insight to what had been a fairly bland and triumphalist field. Successes, we now know, were set about with blunders, failures and weaknesses. Rodger is working on the third and final volume of his magisterial series covering this story from 660 to the present day. Now, fresh to the field but first to the line, comes Ben Wilson, with a single book covering the same period.
 
Starting in an age when no one, least of all Britannia, ruled the waves, he explains the mythology that grew up around our shores. There was no navy to start with but the Vikings helped to foster piracy and Henry IV licensed seafarers to destroy enemies of the kingdom and “keep the seas”. So pervasive was this tradition that only in 1856 did Britain formally renounce the licensing of privateers to capture enemy ships.
 
Foreign resources always came in handy. Danish mercenaries served in Edward the Confessor’s navy, when Anglo-Saxon sea power was at its height, and the Atlantic was opened up by that great Englishman Giovanni Caboto of Genoa, also known as John Cabot. From there, it was a short step to unleashing adventurers such as Francis Drake and John Hawkins to plunder the Spanish empire. With so much treasure at stake, it is not surprising that they fought one another almost as ferociously as they did the enemy.
 
Britain was designed for maritime power. It is a compelling truth and though Wilson strives to emphasise the setbacks, they were always of a lesser order than the triumphs. As Pitt the Elder said, the lesson of history is that when exerting power by sea, we become “the dread of the world; when by land, the contempt of it”.
 
This epic is peopled by vividly described national types. Hawkins is one, a dashing roughneck who used the sea – as did Drake and many others – to haul himself up the social ladder. Another is Frederic “Johnnie” Walker, the U-boat killer of the Second World War, whose grit and coolness arguably turned the tide in the battle of the Atlantic.
 
The British love a great ship almost as much as a great commander. Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire is the nation’s favourite painting and the Victory is a shrine. In 1418, Henry V launched the Grace Dieu, a colossus. Ultimately, she was the Bismarck of her day, an empty symbol that ended up on the bottom before she could do significant harm.
 
Wilson tackles this formidable canvas with zeal and spirit. He is strong on strategy and analysis, yet also throws himself into the great battle scenes, of which his account of the battle of the Nile in 1798 is particularly effective. Nelson’s preparations in the years leading up to Trafalgar are shown to have been as important as his battle plan, along with his meticulous care for the fleet’s health. “It is easier,” he said, “for an officer to keep men healthy than for a physician to cure them.” Yet there was so much more to the navy than battle. It charted oceans – then gifted this knowledge to other seafaring nations – and opened the world to scientific discovery, as well as trade and commerce. Among its most heroic yet least sung endeavours was the 60-year campaign to stamp out the African slave trade with vessels of the Preventative Squadron.
 
Covering so vast a subject was bound to require selectivity, even in a volume as hefty as this. Wilson acknowledges that ending slavery was one of the navy’s most noble battles, yet he finds scant space for it and fails to mention that it took the lives of almost 17,000 British seamen, mainly by disease. (The number killed at Trafalgar was 459.)
 
More seriously, he fails to examine in any depth a thread running through the narrative. The navy may have produced great commanders and ships but they would never have stirred from port but for the common seaman. British hands, Wilson notes, developed a habit of victory. After Trafalgar, a French captain was surprised to see that whereas his men were “either drunk or disabled”, the English worked with as much order as ever: “We were amazed, wondering what the English sailor could be made of.” Jack Tar’s contribution to naval supremacy is barely addressed here.
 
Stephen Taylor’s “Commander: the Life and Exploits of Britain’s Greatest Frigate Captain” is published by Faber & Faber (£20) 
Smoke on the water: a boy watches a panorama of the Sebastopol siege during the Crimean war. Photo: Igor Starkov/Anzenberger/Eyevine

This article first appeared in the 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

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The Autumn Statement proved it – we need a real alternative to austerity, now

Theresa May’s Tories have missed their chance to rescue the British economy.

After six wasted years of failed Conservative austerity measures, Philip Hammond had the opportunity last month in the Autumn Statement to change course and put in place the economic policies that would deliver greater prosperity, and make sure it was fairly shared.

Instead, he chose to continue with cuts to public services and in-work benefits while failing to deliver the scale of investment needed to secure future prosperity. The sense of betrayal is palpable.

The headline figures are grim. An analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that real wages will not recover their 2008 levels even after 2020. The Tories are overseeing a lost decade in earnings that is, in the words Paul Johnson, the director of the IFS, “dreadful” and unprecedented in modern British history.

Meanwhile, the Treasury’s own analysis shows the cuts falling hardest on the poorest 30 per cent of the population. The Office for Budget Responsibility has reported that it expects a £122bn worsening in the public finances over the next five years. Of this, less than half – £59bn – is due to the Tories’ shambolic handling of Brexit. Most of the rest is thanks to their mishandling of the domestic economy.

 

Time to invest

The Tories may think that those people who are “just about managing” are an electoral demographic, but for Labour they are our friends, neighbours and the people we represent. People in all walks of life needed something better from this government, but the Autumn Statement was a betrayal of the hopes that they tried to raise beforehand.

Because the Tories cut when they should have invested, we now have a fundamentally weak economy that is unprepared for the challenges of Brexit. Low investment has meant that instead of installing new machinery, or building the new infrastructure that would support productive high-wage jobs, we have an economy that is more and more dependent on low-productivity, low-paid work. Every hour worked in the US, Germany or France produces on average a third more than an hour of work here.

Labour has different priorities. We will deliver the necessary investment in infrastructure and research funding, and back it up with an industrial strategy that can sustain well-paid, secure jobs in the industries of the future such as renewables. We will fight for Britain’s continued tariff-free access to the single market. We will reverse the tax giveaways to the mega-rich and the giant companies, instead using the money to make sure the NHS and our education system are properly funded. In 2020 we will introduce a real living wage, expected to be £10 an hour, to make sure every job pays a wage you can actually live on. And we will rebuild and transform our economy so no one and no community is left behind.

 

May’s missing alternative

This week, the Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, gave an important speech in which he hit the proverbial nail on the head. He was completely right to point out that societies need to redistribute the gains from trade and technology, and to educate and empower their citizens. We are going through a lost decade of earnings growth, as Carney highlights, and the crisis of productivity will not be solved without major government investment, backed up by an industrial strategy that can deliver growth.

Labour in government is committed to tackling the challenges of rising inequality, low wage growth, and driving up Britain’s productivity growth. But it is becoming clearer each day since Theresa May became Prime Minister that she, like her predecessor, has no credible solutions to the challenges our economy faces.

 

Crisis in Italy

The Italian people have decisively rejected the changes to their constitution proposed by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, with nearly 60 per cent voting No. The Italian economy has not grown for close to two decades. A succession of governments has attempted to introduce free-market policies, including slashing pensions and undermining rights at work, but these have had little impact.

Renzi wanted extra powers to push through more free-market reforms, but he has now resigned after encountering opposition from across the Italian political spectrum. The absence of growth has left Italian banks with €360bn of loans that are not being repaid. Usually, these debts would be written off, but Italian banks lack the reserves to be able to absorb the losses. They need outside assistance to survive.

 

Bail in or bail out

The oldest bank in the world, Monte dei Paschi di Siena, needs €5bn before the end of the year if it is to avoid collapse. Renzi had arranged a financing deal but this is now under threat. Under new EU rules, governments are not allowed to bail out banks, like in the 2008 crisis. This is intended to protect taxpayers. Instead, bank investors are supposed to take a loss through a “bail-in”.

Unusually, however, Italian bank investors are not only big financial institutions such as insurance companies, but ordinary households. One-third of all Italian bank bonds are held by households, so a bail-in would hit them hard. And should Italy’s banks fail, the danger is that investors will pull money out of banks across Europe, causing further failures. British banks have been reducing their investments in Italy, but concerned UK regulators have asked recently for details of their exposure.

John McDonnell is the shadow chancellor


John McDonnell is Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington and has been shadow chancellor since September 2015. 

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump