When I was a small child, maybe 7 or 8, I can’t remember exact details, my father took me and my brothers to Southampton for a day out. I think we were on holiday in Swanage at the time (where, incidentally I was traumatised by my encounter with ‘quicksand’ on the beach – some things you just never forget!) and we’d gone up on the bus to see the big ships.
We were in luck – the harbour was crowded with the biggest ships of the day. Both the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth were there, and others, and on our tourist boat in the harbour we bobbed in open-mouthed awe as the tugs chugged back and forth despatching these monsters to fairy tale lands on the other side of the world or lashing them to the harbour walls to land another thousand new arrivals in England. I’ll never forget that day. Between them, those two ships added up to a 167,000 ton mobile advert for the UK and everything British.
Anyway, yesterday I stood on a wind – no, galeswept shingle bank at Calshot at the end of Southampton water to witness the departure of the last true Ocean Liner ever built, the RMS Queen Mary 2, trailed by her cousins, the Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Victoria. (I say cousins rather than sisters, because neither of these is actually a Liner, they’re ‘just’ cruise ships). Somehow, in the grey, bedrizzled Solent I actually felt a twinge of pride. But then I asked myself why. What was it that made me feel like that? I realised that, actually, that twinge was of sadness.
In fact, the Queens summed up for me what’s happened between that fantastic day out in Southampton Docks and these last days of arguing over who should hold the keys to Number 10 in our 2015 election. And what’s happened is, to me, quite simple. We’ve sacrificed our place in the world, and those great ships are a vast floating monument to our recent history.
We’re never going to build a ship again in this country. The Queens that made such an impression on me as a child were rivetted together from the ground up by thousands of craftsmen on the Clyde, where our latest Aircraft Carrier is currently being ‘assembled’, ready for its mothballing as we can’t build our own airplanes to fly from it. This week’s Queen Mary was built in France at the same yard that built the SS Normandie and the SS France, and the other two by the Italian Fincantieri company on their cruise ship production line.
I don’t know whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. Someone understands the economics of shutting down an entire industry just in time to ensure that we can’t compete in a world where everyone wants to go on a cruise. I’m guessing that’s something to do with politics, and wondering what part of the country’s heritage of industrial revolution and empire we’re going to give away next, and to whom, and to what extent any of the politcians elected this week will care.