The shallow briny waters of the Arabian Sea lap gently on the shores of the Indian state of Gujarat. There, Alang is the graveyard of ships, where once mighty vessels are broken down with the welder’s torch and readied to be turned into motorcycles.
That is the fate now undergoing the hulk of HMS Hermes, once the flagship of the Royal Navy, an aircraft carrier that was supposed to be decommissioned in 1981. It was saved from the scrapyard then to lead the United Kingdom’s task force to the South Atlantic, leading the mission to recover the Falkland Islands from Argentinian military forces.
The Brits eventually decommissioned her in 1986 but Hermes dodged the breaker’s torch for a second time when the Indian government purchased her and renamed the carrier INS Viraat. The ship was in service again for more than 20 years but now there is little chance of her being saved from her from the acetylene torch.
Few Britons today could likely point to Gujarat on a map. Fewer in 1982 could point to the Falklands either, even though it was a minor British territorial possession in the middle of the South Atlantic sitting in waters rich in fish and likely petrocarbons too.
At the time, with the UK led by a hugely unpopular Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, unemployment was touching three million, the deep divisions within British society were viciously exposed nightly on the evening news and bitter social unrest was manifested in riots and strikes — all under the suffocating blanket of a deep economic malaise. Opportunity to go to war was not to be missed.
Hermes led the task force that was waved off at Plymouth. Within four months the Falklands were reclaimed, the Belgrano sunk and British pride restored. Maggie easily won re-election in 1983 and again four years later. And yes, Britain did rule the waves in the psyche of its citizens.
Since 1588 and the defeat of the Spanish Armada in the English Channel — the majority of the 130 ships were actually lost at sea in a vicious spring storm, maritime time that don’t suit the historical narrative — England or Britain and the UK as it evolved, has been drawn to the use of its gunboats as an arm of its statecraft. You don’t get to colour a quarter of the 18th and 19th Century maps pink without naval power, after all.
But Allied victory in the Second World War, the end of the Empire and the decline in Britain’s global power are well documented. The Falklands campaign but a last hurrah to the legacy of Nelson. I have no doubt that he and most other historical figures would be supporters of the Brexit project and no doubt be wondering how indeed it did come to Britain having to join the European Community in the first place.
Navigating the waters
Nearly five decades on from admission to that club, navigating the waters of extraction is proving to be far more politically vexing that the current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, and his coterie of Brexiteers had ever imagined. Deadlines have been made and broken and still the Brexit talks carry on — with both London and Brussels now set on a course that will bring about a deal on Britain’s future trading relationship with the European Union.
Brussels is a place that thrives in compromise and political pragmatism. Sure, the transition period will end on New Year’s Eve and there’s every likelihood the anticipated deal won’t be formally ratified by every government that needs to do so by then. Instead, all will carry on regardless, simply going by the current status quo until — I’ll hazard a guess here and say March 1 — the new deal formally takes effect.
For outside observers, these past few weeks have been more than interesting when it comes to how indeed so much has changed in the psyche of the EU, and how so little has changed in the British mentality.
In normal times — and no, I’m not referencing here how coronavirus has changed so much — when the Prime Minister of the UK picks up the phone and calls the President of France or the Chancellor of Germany, one might indeed expect the holders of two key offices of Europe to answer. But these are not normal times.
A united Europe
Last week, in an effort to try and move the Brexit talks along to his liking, Johnson did indeed place calls to Paris and Berlin. And neither President Emmanuel Macron nor Chancellor Angela Merkel took the call. Any attempt to sidestep the European Commission — responsible for the negotiations — wouldn’t be brooked: The commission does the talking. Indeed, that has been the hallmark through this process. The EU has and remains fully united with a singular purpose in securing its strongest deal by playing its strongest hand.
The second telling moment in this protracted negotiating process had been an announcement that the Royal Navy is to ready four frigates for deployment to protect the UK’s territorial waters and fish come January 1. There were raised eyebrows within Britain that the Johnson government was making such a move during the ongoing talks even if fishing is a key sticking point.
The attitude in Brussels was one of disbelief, not that they were suddenly fearful of the ships’ arms but more so that the move showed once more that gunboat diplomacy was alive and well on the other side of the English Channel. In effect, it simply showed that the British may have missed the whole point of the EU in the first place — building a prosperous, peaceful and secure Europe in the aftermath of two devastating World wars.
Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News Foreign Correspondent based in Europe