Who is Responsible for the Navy?
W. T. Stead (The Pall Mall Gazette, September 26, 1884)
“If ‘The Truth about the Navy’ is true, whom must we impeach?” was the blunt question asked us by a correspondent the day after we published the startling revelation by “One who Knows the Facts.” “The Truth about the Navy” was only too true, but what is wanted is not impeachment but amendment. Our lost ground must be regained. Our superiority at sea must be rendered irresistible. In this Whigs and Tories all agree, and our democracy, which to a certain extent is on its trial, prompted by the instinct of self-preservation, will no longer face the risk of attempting to guard an increased population, a more extended empire, a vaster commerce, and an enormously multiplied capital with a comparatively smaller naval force than was held to be indispensable in 1868.
The nation is of one mind about this matter. The maintenance of our naval supremacy is one of those fundamental principles of our national polity which lie beyond the range of party polemic. Our unquestioned supremacy at sea is the charter of our existence. At any cost – without even counting the cost, although it mounted up, as Cobden said, to a hundred millions sterling – we are bound to maintain, unchallenged and indisputable, the absolute empire of the seas. In that respect we brook no rivals near our throne. The moment a question can be raised as to the possible equality a single Power in any department of maritime force, that moment our position becomes insecure, and the removal of that insecurity takes precedence of all other business. It can no longer be disputed – as a matter of fact, it is no longer disputed by any of those responsible for the defence of the country – that our supremacy at sea has ceased to be unchallenged. We have lagged while our rivals have forged ahead. It is no longer a matter of positive certainty that the English navy on the outbreak of war would sweep the seas of our enemies’ fleet, and keep the ocean highway free for our mercantile marine. The probability, if not certainty, is all the other way. The country, therefore, is in a condition of peril from which it must be extricated without the loss of a single unnecessary day.
In this grave and serious crisis the nation turns to the Admiralty, and asks the responsible advisers of the First Lord what they propose to do to place the national defences on a sound footing? The present Board is exceptionally strong. At the Head is Admiral Sir A. Cooper Key, the first Naval Lord, who is virtually supreme in the absence of Lord Northbrook. The other lords are Lord Alcester, Admiral Richards, and Admiral Brandreth. These Naval Lords are assisted by Mr. Rendel, Mr. Campbell Bannerman and Sir Thomas Brassey. This is a strong and representative Board, a permanent, responsible Committee, in whom the country and the Cabinet rightly repose implicit confidence. What is wanted is that these responsible administrators should frankly but firmly set forth before the First Lord of the Treasury exactly what is wanted in order to put the navy on a satisfactory footing. They know, every man of them, that “One who Knows the Facts” set forth with sober, serious moderation the alarming “Truth about the Navy.” They know (1) that we arc much behind the French in heavy guns; (2) that, with the exception of ironclads of the first-class, France, with not one-fourth of our commerce or our colonies to protect, will soon be abreast of us in ships of war; (3) that we have not half a dozen swift cruisers capable of keeping pace with, to say nothing of overtaking, the swiftest ships that might be let loose on our commerce; (4) that our coaling stations are undefended ; (5) that our ports lie open to every passing cruiser; (6) that there is not a dock in which an ironclad can refit in the whole Indian empire; and (7) that both in torpedo vessels and in torpedo boats the cheapest and for some purposes the most effective mode of defence, we have a great deal to do if we are to keep ahead of our rivals. They know all these things, and more besides, but their mouths are closed. Mr. Gladstone, however, will have good reason to complain if he is being kept in the dark by his Admirals as to the actual state of the navy, as Napoleon III. was misinformed by his Marshals about the state of his army in 1870. If they were now to keep silence, the nation, suddenly roused into a momentary anxiety, will soon be lulled once more into a fool’s paradise from which it may not again be awakened except by a naval Sedan. If the opportunity is lost it may not again occur, and the responsibility for all the consequences of its neglect will be heavy on the Lords of the Admiralty.
The whole matter is as simple and as clear as can be. The responsibility for the maintenance of a supreme navy rests sole and undivided upon the Lords of the Admiralty. If they find that the funds allotted for that purpose are insufficient, they can only relieve themselves of their responsibility by making a formal and emphatic representation to that effect to the First Lord of the Treasury. The Lords of the Admiralty took that course in 1867, when the need was not more pressing than it is to-day. Their representations were promptly attended to then. They would command not less attention now. As we have repeatedly pointed out, the present Prime Minister is peculiarly committed to the maintenance of our naval supremacy. His belief in the irresistible superiority of our fleet is the key to the whole of his foreign and colonial policy. Once prove to his satisfaction that our naval supremacy is really in danger, and there is no Minister England has ever had who will insist more strenuously upon making whatever sacrifices may be required to regain our rightful position of necessary and undisputed pre-eminence. Mr. Gladstone in this, as in other matters, is virtually autocrat of the empire. He can never forget that power has its obligations as well as its prerogatives. But he is busied with so many matters that he may very easily be unaware of the extent to which our naval supremacy is being undermined. In these matters he trusts his Lords of the Admiralty, and until they speak out. warning him in clear and unmistakable terms of the inefficiency of the fleet, the responsibility is not his but theirs. And how heavy that responsibility is no one knows so well as themselves.