Are enormous and expensive aircraft carriers the best way for Britain to ‘make friends and influence people’?
The Americans have Route 66, the Chinese have the Silk Road and in the West of England we have the historic A303. The ‘303’ runs between Basingstoke and Exeter. Shortly after you leave Basingstoke, Popham Airfield is visible on the right.
We will call him Louis, after a famous aviator. A mild-mannered youngish man, he has invested in a microlight for leisure; it distracts him from his job as a civil servant working in defence procurement. Under the watchful eye of an instructor at Popham, this latter-day Icarus enjoys the strimmer-like sound of his modest aircraft, reminding him he is not working in the garden while aloft, he can muse on the destination of drivers on the 303.
One warm evening, after a few hours of soaring above Hampshire, our hero slips into an ancient Basingstoke pub that he had not hitherto noticed. Louis’s first pint had a traditional taste that was to his liking, so he orders a second. While serving, the barman nods towards two figures lurking in the shadows.
Louis has barely sat down again when these ruddy-faced operatives pull up a chair on either side. Friendly, they ask him about the logo of his flying club on his lapel badge. They buy him several more pints, stating he will not have to repay them, for after all, they are interested in flying.
“So what do you chaps do?” asks Louis as his head starts to reel.
“I wondered when ye moight ask tha’,” said the larger of the two removing his tricorn hat. “We err work for the Admiralty in Whitehall”. Right on queue the second adds: “Oh arrrrr”!
“Oh that’s interesting, I work in defence”, slurs Louis.
Next, he finds himself being frogmarched down a side ally.
“Tha’ last pint ‘ad the Queen’s shillin’, yer a proper seafaring man now, Mr Louis” was the last thing he remembered.
With a thumping head, poor Louis awoke in a hammock. He audibly moaned.
A red-coated soldier with three stripes appeared next to him “You in Portsmouth me lad, on board one of Her Majesty’s ships named after her very self!”.
“A soldier?” queried Louis. “I thought I was talking to sailors yesterday?”.
“I am no regular pongo soldier, I’m a bleedin’ Marine. To you sailors, Bloody Red Roses”. He put his not-very-handsome-face close to Louis’s head and bawled again:
“An’ when I’m not snipin’ at enemy aircraft carriers from the riggin’, it’s my pleasure to keep pressed men like you in order, understand?”.
“I do”, moaned Louis.
His next visitor was calmer and female. Covered in scrambled egg she sported a naval officer’s hat.
“Good morning Mr Louis. I am First Sea Lady Horatia Nelson”.
“Hello” groaned Louis.
“I will come to the point. My, er, ‘recruiting party’ are detailed to target people with flying skills. You are a pilot we understand?”.
“Yes…..ma’am – but only of a microlight”.
“Can you fly the new American F-35B Joint Strike Fighter jets then?”.
“I can try”.
“Good Man”. And turning to the sergeant she said:
“Get Mr Louis a tot of rum, hair of the dog is required I fear…”.
Louis rapidly took to naval life. The bonhomie of the American pilots charged with upgrading his microlight skills was helpful. At his first 360o staff appraisal (by Horatia Nelson, who else?), he was quietly told that:
“Our own pilots are unavailable as they moonlight as taxi drivers, anyway there aren’t enough British fighter planes. This fine ship is none other than the newest of our two brand, spanking new aircraft carriers. HMS Queen Elizabeth comes in at a cost probably exceeding £3bn. Touring the world, the objectives are to extend British influence and strike fear into the hearts of our adversaries – who will naturally wish to trade with us”.
Given how he entered the Royal Navy, the port name Shanghai had a hollow ring for Louis as he saw it approaching. Once more, on deck, the charm offensive was in top gear. He recalled the ship’s cricket team defeat by a side from the Sydney Opera House dressed as kangaroos. And the ball kept going into the drink. This time, with China in sight and replete with rum-infused cake made to a Mary Berry recipe from his breakfast, Louis dodged the high-kicking Morris dancers to parade with his fellow pilots.
Once British gunboat diplomacy worked. The Chinese also remember the conflicts of the 1840’s when the Royal Navy attacked China. The noble objective then was to get the Chinese population addicted to opium. Never mind, if the welcome this time proved to be frosty, the Royal Netherlands navy vessel alongside the ship maybe could help? Surely some crew members came from Amsterdam?
Louis heard a cry from the crow’s nest where the Royal Marines sergeant dropped his gun.
“Cap’n we’re heading for the fekkin’ rocks. Captain Mackintosh do somefin’ …”.
The reply from the Bridge was audible:
“Och, but it solves a wee problem….wi’ these nukes on board the beggers wouldn’a let us back in Faslane anyway…”.
Louis woke up suddenly in his own bed. What a dream! Heading downstairs he made coffee and opened his emails.
The inbox included a summons from the Human Resources Department at work, and to quote:
“Dear Mr Louis,
Following your recent staff appraisal, we would like to invite you to the Career Development Board to be held on 31st June 2021. You should report to Reception at Admiralty House in Whitehall at 1900hrs.
You should expect to be away for some time.”