Greenwich must be more than a mere millennium

We need a history of Britain as a seafaring nation that looks beyond the peaked caps of the Admiralty

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An important aspect of the history of Britain during the past two centuries has received little attention. This was the conclusion of a lecture given at Churchill College, Cambridge last week by one of Britain's leading historians, Professor Paul Kennedy, best known for his influential book, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000, published in 1988. He started his lecture with the arresting statement that, as the United Kingdom approaches the new millennium with its focus here on the Greenwich meridian, there is far less public and political interest in things naval and maritime than has been the case since the end of the 15th century.

The study of modern naval history itself - only a part of "things maritime" - has nearly disappeared from British universities. This may be because the sea plays a much smaller part in our lives in this country than it used to - on the other hand, the same marginalisation has occurred in the United States which is the world's leading sea power. Academics are generally uncomfortable nowadays with the study of power; and they like to look inwards on social groups, class, the family rather than outwards as maritime history requires.

But Professor Kennedy also blames historians of naval affairs themselves for having worked within boundaries which have been too narrow. These experts have concentrated solely on the history of Admiralty policies towards shipbuilding programmes and fleet depositions; in other words, they have limited themselves to studying the official mind, "confidential, aloof, imperial, comfortingly far from the vagaries of everyday life".

As soon as Professor Kennedy referred with admiration to the French historian, Fernand Braudel, as an example, I knew the sort of history he meant. Braudel's The Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II is a masterpiece which will remain for ever in my mind just as a great novel does. Here we learn how long in the 16th century it took for a cargo ship to work her way from Alicante to Alexandria, how much it cost to send a special courier from Madrid to Paris, and what happened in great cities like Venice, Naples or Constantinople when plague or famine arrived.

By page 26 of the first of the two volumes we are treated to a disquisition on snow in the Mediterranean. Snow or snow water was viewed as a remedy for various ills in Egypt, where it arrived from Syria by relays of fast horses. Snow water was offered by Saladin to Richard The Lionheart and drunk to fatal excess by Don Carlos in the hot month of July 1568 when he was imprisoned in the Palace of Madrid. And so on. Imagine this approach to Britain's history as a maritime nation. What a wonderful and illuminating book it would be to read.

Such an approach would connect what the Admiralty was doing or was planning during the 19th and 20th centuries with life in the great cities of the United Kingdom. All of them stand where they do or prospered because they had ready access to the sea or to waterways. How can the history of London be understood without constant reference to the sea? The offices of The Independent are now at Canary Wharf in Docklands, as maritime an address as you could find. Even Birmingham, the least seafaring of places imaginable, is well served with canals.

In a marvellous passage in his lecture, Professor Kennedy took as his example the Tyne, where he was brought up. The maritime history he wishes to read - and which he may indeed have to write if nobody answers his call - would observe that on the Tyne the social structure was simple. Apart from the doctor, the schoolteacher and the clergy, everyone was working-class and lived in terrace houses next to the sea. As for politics, Tyneside was first Liberal and then Labour but pacifism never took hold. It provided the bedrock for "patriotic Labour". And in place of Braudel's remarks about snow, there would be a brief study no doubt of various pub names in Wallsend - The Ship, The Nelson, Trafalgar, The Anson, The Mauretania (built at Wallsend), the Admiral Collingwood (born locally), the Galleon, Admiral Benbow, The Gibraltar Rock and the Victory.

History like this - ambitious, intensive, complicated as it would need to be - would undoubtedly be worth writing for its own sake. But Professor Kennedy didn't stop his argument right there. He went on to say that Britain's present circumstances reminded him of the 1920s. Then the questions were whether there would ever be a major war again, would there be fighting in Europe or only in "brush-fire" situations overseas, would Britain always have allies in battle and who would the next enemy be: the Bolsheviks, the French, Japan, Germany? And rather than spending money on the nation's defence, it was also asked 70 years ago, would it not be better to balance the budget, and to invest instead in education and improve the social fabric? These discussions of the 1920s do indeed have a familiar sound today.

But today it is much harder to make the case, as Professor Kennedy does, for maintaining or even enhancing our naval power. This is his second reason for having a proper maritime history - it would help the argument for a big navy. At this point I part company. Since the Second World War, the United Kingdom has spent a significantly higher proportion of her national wealth on defence than most other comparable industrialised nations. We do it out of habit, because it has bought us a bit of influence and because military tasks are something we are good at. These are not convincing reasons for spending much more on defence than similar countries do. I am sure that the nation has been literally poorer as a result. Let us have a full account of Britain's maritime past; let it be well taught in schools and universities. But let us also accept that those days have finally gone.

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