18 April 2013

Deciders meet deliverers


On 4 April 2013 David Cameron was “winched from a helicopter onto HMS Victorious, one of our Trident nuclear submarines” to quote from his own account later that day. According to a local newspaper, the Lennox Herald:
Mr Cameron joined the submarine at sea as it finished an 88-day mission and spent time with crew members on board the giant strategic missile submarine and visited the vessel’s operations room, messes and living spaces.
Photographs of Cameron on board HMS Victorious at the end of the 100th Trident patrol appeared in the national press the following day (see above).

Then on 8 April the death of Lady Thatcher started a flood of media articles in the days before the funeral on 17 April. One was by Angela Huth in the Daily Mail on 11 April:
Back in 1986, a producer friend at the BBC suggested that a book I had written, The English Woman’s Wardrobe, would make a good documentary film. The book was not about fashion, but about women’s feelings about their clothes. Princess Margaret was the star of the printed version: we wanted Mrs Thatcher to take that role in the film. Amazingly, she agreed.
At Number 10 the PM
… led us into the sitting room. There, some 20 different garments were hanging before us on a long clothes rack. She had abandoned her lunch break to heave them from her bedroom into the sitting room. … Mrs Thatcher remembered the history of everything on the rack, and described each one with merry recall. She pointed to a severe beige suit. ‘This we wore on a visit to the Polaris missile,’ she explained, with a touch of nostalgia. The ‘we’ she referred to meant, I think, she and her dressmaker.
The beige suit is probably the garment fourth from the right below.


A clue to “Polaris missile” can be found on the Margaret Thatcher Foundation’s (MTF) excellent website, which has recently made available her private files for 1982:
On 31 July MT paid a visit to HMS Resolution, one of the four Polaris submarines carrying Britain's strategic nuclear deterrent, a visit held so secret in advance that her appointment diary was left blank for the day: we only have timings for it because she kept the tiny engagement card she received each morning detailing the appointments for the day ahead. (Generally those cards do not survive.) Admiral Fieldhouse accompanied her and afterwards she wrote to him (10 Aug):  
It was a marvellous experience - made wonderful by the superlative and yet modest qualities of the commander and crew. The feeling of comradeship and yet discipline and respect were marvellous to see. We are fortunate indeed in the high personal qualities of our ordinary folk - if ordinary is the word to use: they all seem so able to demonstrate extraordinary qualities when called upon to do so. …
A couple of aspects of this seem noteworthy. Firstly, the somewhat de haut en bas reference in 1984 to “ordinary folk”, although qualified, and the use of a regal “we” to Huth in 1986 suggest that Mrs Thatcher’s feet had lost contact with the ground earlier than indicated by some of the accounts of her despatch in 1990 by her exasperated colleagues. The well-known “We have become a grandmother” was in 1989. Secondly, and more interestingly, it raises the question of how many other Prime Ministers have taken the trouble to visit Polaris or Trident submarines. Why should they? Peter Hennessy devotes a whole chapter of The Secret State Preparing for the Worst 1945-2010 to “The Human Button: Deciders and Deliverers” and makes the point:
… the premier [with the Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS)] makes up the first of the pairs that comprise the firing chain from the prime ministerial bunker to the Royal Navy Trident submarine on patrol. (page 358)
The Royal Navy became “Deliverers” at the start of the first Polaris patrol in 1968 since when there have been eight “Decider” Prime Ministers, four Conservative and four Labour. Of the Conservatives we know for certain that Cameron and Thatcher have been on board HM submarines carrying the nuclear deterrent. John Major may have been – he visited the Faslane base in August 1996 and made a speech at the ceremony to mark the decommissioning of the last Polaris submarine, HMS Repulse, by which time the first two Trident submarines were operational. Whether Ted Heath made such a visit in the Polaris period between 1970 and 1974 is uncertain. Margaret Thatcher was Heath’s education secretary so the MTF is making papers from his government available on-line. One is a record of a conversation between Heath and President Pompidou in November 1973 indicating the former’s interest in future nuclear cooperation with France rather than the US (page 8/9). So perhaps not.

Again, it is yet to be established whether or not any of the four Labour PMs (Wilson, Callaghan, Blair and Brown) visited a Polaris or, in the case of the latter two, Trident submarine. Of course, not doing so, or not wanting it to be publicised if they did, does not mean that they failed to take their Decider responsibilities seriously. Hennessy records Lord Guthrie’s comment on his briefing when CDS of Tony Blair as to the Trident force and its capability:
He was quite quiet when he actually heard what was at the country’s disposal. (page 310)
In France, a country which embraces égalité (but is run by élites) and where a Socialist President is unencumbered by a left wing with unilateralist tendencies, the Decider can go to sea early on in his time in office to mix with les gens ordinaires who are ready to do the delivering (François Hollande on Le Terrible in July 2012, below).

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