A Verse from ‘Pinafore/ explains it all’

As I set off on holiday two weeks ago, it still seemed possible that the Iranian detention of 15 British sailors might be the stuff of grand operatic tragedy. Even if Faye Turney was patently no Aida - perhaps opera's most famous female prisoner - there was still a chance that she and her comrades might languish a long time in Oriental captivity.

By the time I returned home last Tuesday, however, tragedy had given way to farce; grand opera to opera buffa. HMS Cornwall, the namesake of a ship that won battle honours at the Falkland Islands in 1914 and the Dardanelles in 1915, had degenerated into HMS Pinafore.

Fans of Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta will object that the sailors aboard the latter vessel were "...smart and sober men, / And quite devoid of fe-ar" ("In all the Royal N. / None are so smart as we are"). The same could scarcely be said of Turney & co. "Let me be absolutely clear," Captain Christopher Air of the Royal Marines declared after his release: "From the outset it was very apparent that fighting back was simply not an option. Had we chosen to do so, then many of us would not be standing here today."

I have some sympathy with Capt Air, who has at least resisted the temptation to flog his story to the tabloids and Trevor McDonald. But can you imagine a Victorian naval officer talking this way? "Our rules of engagement stated," Capt Air explained, "that we could only use lethal force if we felt that we were in imminent danger of a loss of life." That's certainly how I would have characterised their predicament, surrounded as they were by RPG-toting members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard. "In addition," added Capt Air, "any attempt to fight back would have caused a major international incident and an escalation of tension within the region." Whereas being taken prisoner by the Iranians didn't cause these things?

It was different in the days of HMS Pinafore. The very year it was first performed, 1878, the fleet was sent east to prevent a Russian carve-up of the Ottoman Empire. In the music halls they sang: "We don't want to fight, but, by jingo, if we do, / We've got the ships, we've got the men, we've got the money too." Gilbert and Sullivan provided the sailors of HMS Pinafore with a highly topical chorus:

A British tar is a soaring soul, As free as a mountain bird, His energetic fist should be ready to resist A dictatorial word. He never should bow down to a domineering frown, Or the tang of a tyrant tongue.

Read, mark, learn and inwardly digest, Captain Air.

Yet in one important respect, our world is not so different from the world of HMS Pinafore. The principal butt of the operetta's humour is the First Lord of the Admiralty, Sir Joseph Porter, a political hack who has no naval experience whatsoever:

When I was a lad I served a term
As office boy to an Attorney's firm.
I cleaned the windows and I swept the floor,
And I polished up the handle of the big front door.
I polished up that handle so carefullee
That now I am the Ruler of the Queen's Navee!
Of legal knowledge I acquired such a grip
That they took me into the partnership.
And that junior partnership, I ween,
Was the only ship that I ever had seen.
But that kind of ship so suited me,
That now I am the Ruler of the Queen's Navee!
I grew so rich that I was sent
By a pocket borough into Parliament.
I always voted at my party's call,
And I never thought of thinking for myself at all.
I thought so little, they rewarded me
By making me the Ruler of the Queen's Navee!

If that sounds familiar, it's because it's uncannily like the curriculum vitae of Defence Secretary Des Browne. Having risen through the ranks of the Scottish legal profession, Mr Browne was handed the safe Labour seat of Kilmarnock and Loudon in 1997. His area of expertise - as befits a man who is "the Ruler of the Queen's Navee" - is child law. He has come into his lawyerly own in the row over who authorised Faye Turney to sell her story.

It is, of course, a great English-speaking tradition to undervalue military experience in politicians. In the days of Gilbert and Sullivan, frock coats were supposed to out-rank brass hats. Countries where the opposite was true - such as Prussia - suffered from "militarism".

Yet there is a lot to be said for militarism where military matters are concerned. The besetting problem of both the United Kingdom and the United States before 1914 and again before 1939 was the tendency to leave decisions about grand strategy to hacks like Sir Joseph. Neither Stanley Baldwin nor Neville Chamberlain, the architects of appeasement, had served in the Armed Forces. The same was true of their American counterparts, Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt. Their legacy was a near-fatal unreadiness for the greatest conflict of all time.

It was a different story in the Cold War. All but two prime ministers from Winston Churchill to James Callaghan had seen active service before entering politics, as had every president from Harry S Truman to Jimmy Carter. Significantly, five of them (Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Carter) were naval officers. That helps explain why both Britain and America were able to maintain such a high level of military preparedness throughout the years from 1945 until 1989 - sufficient to deter the Soviet Union from all-out aggression.

Unfortunately, with the end of the Cold War we have lapsed into our old ways: politicians with no military experience whatever (Clinton, Blair) or, in the case of President Bush, military training without the hard test of combat. The effect on the Royal Navy has been especially disastrous. Anyone wondering why there was no fighting spirit - no vestige of the Victorian sense of honour - among Capt Air and his colleagues need only consider how the Senior Service has fared under New Labour.

Since 1997, defence has been the poor relation among the public services in the eyes of the Treasury. Its share of national income has slid from 3 per cent to little more than 2 per cent, and next year the defence budget will fall still further in real terms. With public attention largely focused on the Army's role in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Navy has been an irresistibly soft target. Between 1997 and 2006, manpower has been slashed by 13 per cent, the number of frigates by a quarter, the number of destroyers by a third. Last January it emerged that 13 out of the Fleet's 44 warships are in a state of "reduced readiness", with another six to be mothballed this year - among them none other than HMS Cornwall. Soon Britain's active service fleet will be about the same size as Belgium's.

Yet the review of maritime strategy currently under way in the United States is demonstrating that naval power is as important in today's age of globalisation as in the first age of globalisation a century ago. The threat posed by terrorist organisations operating in failed states or with the support of rogue regimes remains real and, whether we like it or not, will certainly necessitate future interventions in remote regions. Natural disasters requiring seaborne assistance may well become more frequent if the pessimists about climate change are right. Piracy is on the increase. Meanwhile, China's rise as a sea superpower is gathering pace.

Without state-of-the-art maritime capabilities - like the mobile "global fleet station" envisaged by American strategists - we shall have no way of responding to such challenges, save increasingly anachronistic nuclear deterrents like Trident.

But the real tragedy is that, without some battle-hardened political leaders (and John McCain is the only one I can think of), we may not grasp this until it is too late.

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