Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Titanic: My Original Interest in the UK

The iconic bow of the RMS Titanic in 2004.
Image Credit: NOAA (Public Domain)

     Thirty years ago today – after being hidden by 73 years of cold and darkness – the RMS Titanic was discovered in the wee hours of the morning.

     The search by a joint French-American expedition led by Dr. Robert Ballard and Jean-Louis Michel was the culmination of decades of unsuccessful attempts to find the British luxury liner, which had struck an iceberg and sank with a great loss of life on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York on April 15, 1912.

     Of course, as many people may know, the Titanic was said to be unsinkable because of features such as electrically-driven watertight doors, which pushed the limits of shipbuilding technology at the time. 70 years later, Dr. Ballard and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) developed a deep sea camera sled (known as the Argo) which could transmit live video. Like Titanic, Argo pushed the limits of technology in order to achieve better results – in this case, to have a better chance at finding the great ship, and given its fate, this was somewhat of an eerie prospect. But even the latest side-scan sonar technology – relying on pings bouncing off of objects (whether natural or man-made) – developed by the French had failed to capture the ship after over five weeks of searching in the general area of the Titanic’s last known position.

The Titanic was the largest ship in the world at the time of her maiden voyage - with a gross tonnage of 46,328 tons and length of 882 ½ feet - half again as big and nearly a hundred longer than her Cunard rivals, Lusitania and Mauretania.

     It was hoped that Michel and the French Research Institute for Exploration of the Sea (IFREMER) would have at least found some promising targets and then Ballard and his team would use the Argo sled to confirm the sightings and hopefully video-tape the wreck. In fact, the American team had been using Argo to map the wreck site of the lost nuclear submarine USS Scorpion, as part of a now declassified Cold War mission for the US Navy, which had funded the development of Argo and other underwater imaging equipment for Ballard (who was an intelligence and research officer in the Naval Reserve) and WHOI.

     As it was, the American half of the Titanic expedition began at square one, and with less time to spend – only twelve days, but Ballard had learned from his then secret missions to the Scorpion and another lost sub, the USS Thresher that when ships sink, objects tend to spill out of them and underwater currents create a debris field across the ocean floor. If this was the case with the Titanic, it meant that the search should focus on a larger target – the debris field – rather than the ship itself, which was only 92 feet wide. Once the debris was found, Ballard could then use it as a trail to find the main wreck.

     Using this knowledge, the American team joined up with the French and deployed Argo from the research vessel Knorr, which towed the video sled back and forth across the ocean floor in a process known as “mowing the lawn”. As the expedition went on for days, the grainy black and video images being fed back to the expedition members aboard the Knorr revealed little more than the topography of the sea floor and some bits of trash and other objects with no obvious connection to a ship. It seemed as though the Titanic would once again prove allusive, and for Ballard in particular – for whom finding her was a lifelong dream – this would have been a personal blow.

     Then at 12:48 AM on September 1, 1985, wreckage started appearing on the monitors aboard the support ship, and the turning point came when the Argo passed over a coal-fired boiler which was identical to the ones installed on the Titanic in 1911, and period photographs of the boilers during assembly in Belfast confirmed this. Titanic was found. Ballard, Michel, and their combined teams rejoiced at having solved one of great mysteries of the 20th Century, but then realized that they were approaching the time at which White Star liner sank beneath the waves – 2:20 AM. A small service was held on fantail of the Knorr to commemorate the finding of the ship, remember the lost, and honor the survivors of the great tragedy.

Robert Ballard and Jean-Louis Michel, the co-discoverer's of Titanic, in 2012
     Eventually, the ship itself was found upright, albeit in two main sections – proving correct the accounts of those who had seen the ship break up as she went down. The hundreds of hours of film and tens of thousands of still photos were the first images of Titanic in 73 years, and despite being broken into pieces, was still in remarkably good condition 2 ½ miles (nearly 13,000 feet) under the surface. A follow-up expedition in 1986 saw Ballard diving to Titanic in the three-man submersible Alvin to see ship close-up and using the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Jason Jr. to explore the interior and other confined areas.

     The discovery of the wreck sparked renewed interest in the Titanic – spawning a string of books and television specials along the way, leading to more expeditions to the wreck and a more thorough understanding of ship, and how and why she sank, as well as shedding new light on the stories her passengers and crew. One of the people caught up in this was filmmaker James Cameron, a man with an interest in the sea and shipwrecks. While filming The Abyss in 1989, he met with Dr. Ballard, who talked about his expeditions to Titanic, and according to Cameron:

Meeting Ballard, I discovered that there was a romance to the wreck which appealed to me. I started reading up on the history and that is very seductive. The event’s almost novelistic. The elite of society were aboard, all the class issues, the number of people that died in steerage. It's got all these tensions and symbols. It's a gold mine.”

     With this, Cameron set out to write, produce, and direct a film about Titanic, which saw Cameron diving to wreck itself as part of the filming, and he has said that the film was really about getting 20th Century Fox to pay for an expedition more than anything else. Be that as it may, Cameron went on to create of the highest-grossing films of all time, and one of the millions of people who watched it during its original run in theaters was yours truly.

James Cameron in 2012 with the ships wheel from his
epic 1997 film, which he donated to Titanic Belfast.
Image Credit: Titanic Belfast via Flickr cc

     At the time, I was a seven years old lad when I viewed the film (save for certain scenes) in April 1998, and I liked it so much because of its extensiveness – the legendary and masterful musical score by the late James Horner, the overall screenplay, the revolutionary use of special effects and CGI, and the meticulously-built and faithfully-created live sets which were used to bring Titanic back to life in an extraordinary way that had not been done before, and which has not been done since. Indeed, it was these things I paid attention to, as well as the historical events surrounding the ship, and not the love story of Jack and Rose – which was something I did not really comprehend at the time and found quite boring. Looking around all that and focusing on the beauty of the ship itself and real story of it and its passengers and crew was what peaked my interest, and soon after I became fascinated – some would say obsessed – with all things Titanic.

     Through books, films, magazine articles, documentaries, and other media, I delved deeper and deeper into the Titanic and virtually anything related to it, including other ocean liners, and this resulted in a fascination with those great liners which were built in the 19th and 20th centuries – many of which happened to be British, such as the Olympic and Britannic (Titanic’s sister ships), Lusitania, Mauretania, Aquitania, Majestic, Berengaria, Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth, and Queen Elizabeth 2 (QE2).

RMS Queen Mary, probably the greatest of all British ships, as she
appears on this 1940's baggage tag of the merged Cunard White Star Line.
Image Credit: Centpacrr via Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

     As I became more engaged my study of British ships, it led to learning about Britain and its heritage as a maritime nation and much more. I became increasingly attached to Britain over the last decade because of those ships, and due to British cultural exports such as 101 Dalmatians, Harry Potter, James Bond, and the Beatles, as well as the writings of Lewis, Burns, Scott, and Shakespeare. Along the way, I became interested in the monarchy, British politics, and the British people themselves.

     Becoming immersed into British society and culture – and from all parts of the United Kingdom – quite simply, I developed a serious liking for the country and its people, and in 2012, this reached new heights as I closely watched the Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics with pride in a country which I had already adopted as my second home. This is why I have been passionate about the UK staying together and not breaking up, because I see as a strong country, rich in people and a diverse culture – from Shetland to Land’s End – and a place with so much robust and positive potential going forward.

     But I always remember that it was the Titanic that brought me to this point, and it remains my original interest in the United Kingdom, since she was owned by the Liverpool-based White Star Line, sailed from Southampton, and – perhaps more importantly – was built by Harland and Wolff in Belfast. In fact, all of the White Star liners were built at Harland and Wolff, and the shipyard workers took pride in the near-simultaneous construction of Titanic and her older sister-ship Olympic in just 3 ½ years – a phenomenal achievement of maritime engineering which has yet to be rivaled.

Titanic (at left) and Olympic under construction at Harland and Wolff's in Belfast.
Image Credit: George Grantham Bain Collection at the Library of Congress (Public Domain)
     When Titanic left Belfast on April 2, 1912 for Southampton to prepare for her maiden voyage, she carried the pride of a city with her, along with the dreams, ambitions, and lofty expectations of the men who built her. Among them were the eight men of the Guarantee Group, who were aboard the liner to observe its operations and spot the need for improvements. They were led by Thomas Andrews, the well-liked and respected managing director of Harland and Wolff and head of the drafting department – meaning that he had overseen Titanic’s design and construction. Known for being a diligent and hard worker, Andrews – along with his men – walked up and down decks to ensure that the maiden voyage went smoothly aboard the brand new vessel.

     On the night of the sinking, the entire Guarantee Group was lost, including Andrews – who informed Captain Smith that Titanic’s fate was a “mathematical certainty.” He tirelessly searched through staterooms and public areas to urge people to get to the lifeboats (of which he knew there were not enough to save everybody due to the lax regulations at the time), and assisted in the evacuation with the knowledge that his ship had only a very limited time above water. For his selflessness and concern for others above his own safety, he has been marked as a hero of that tragic night.

Thomas Andrews

     Back home in Belfast however, the sinking and the loss of life – including eight of its own – proved a huge blow for the city and the shipyard that was its major employer. Men who built the ship wept – sometimes inconsolably in the streets – as the news reached them, and the shipyard closed for one day as it went into mourning with the shock and disbelief that the unthinkable had happened.

     Eventually, life went on and Harland and Wolff went on to become one of the largest, most extensive, and technologically advanced shipyards in the world – producing an array of passenger liners, cruisers and aircraft carriers, tankers and cargo ships, offshore oil rings, and even aircraft. At its peak, it employed 35,000 people and accounted for around one-eighth of the world’s shipbuilding output. But despite being officially exonerated of wrongdoing or negligence with regard to Titanic, the disaster remained somewhat of a cloud over the yard and city. For many decades, Titanic simply was not brought up in polite conversations out of shame that something produced by Belfast with such pride and optimism – with all of the advanced technology and safety features of the day – had ended up on the bottom of the Atlantic within a fortnight of leaving the city, and through the 1970’s, Harland and Wolff barely acknowledged its link to the doomed liner.

     However, with the discovery of the wreck in 1985 and a renewed popular interest in the Titanic saga, the city and shipyard began to embrace their creation as more people visited Belfast just to see where the Titanic was built. The effort and skill that it took to build her became increasingly focused upon as an achievement by the people of Belfast, in recognition that Titanic’s sinking did not reflect poorly on the workmanship of the men who built her from the keel up – so much so that a cheeky phrase has come into being: “She was fine when she left here.”

The modern-day Harland and Wolff, whose enormous gantry cranes
(named Samson and Goliath) continue to dominate the Belfast skyline.
Image Credit: Maryade via Flickr cc

     In addition, there has also been a greater focus on the shipyard workers themselves and their stories – the lives they led in and outside the yard, and their descendants now take some pride having a connection with building the Ship of Dreams. The city of Belfast itself has also received better recognition, so that people now better understand the stock from which Titanic and so many other ships came.

     Harland and Wolff today – like so many UK shipbuilders – is now but a shell of its former self, but it is still in business, though its primary line of work is in repairing and refitting ships, offshore oil platform construction and repair, and the burgeoning renewable energy sector with regard to wind turbines and tidal power construction. These days, the company occupies a much smaller footprint than it did at the time of its peak, resulting in a large brownfield site. Some of this has been transformed into Titanic Quarter – a massive redevelopment project which includes educational institutions, residential facilities, and Titanic Studios (of Game of Thrones fame, which was visited by HM the Queen last year).

Titanic Belfast with the main exhibition building and the
redeveloped slipways where the great liner was built.
Image Credit: Titanic Belfast via Flickr cc

     At the heart of it is Titanic Belfast – the world’s largest Titanic-themed attraction, which contains several interpretive and interactive galleries telling the story of Titanic and the maritime heritage of the city and people which built her. The slipways on which the White Star sister ships were built have been transformed into a beautiful park promenade and plaza, and the last surviving White Star liner – the SS Nomadic, one of the passenger-ferrying tenders which served Titanic and other liners for over fifty years at Cherbourg, France – is located in the Hamilton dry dock, where she was originally fitted out over a hundred years ago, having been faithfully restored by her builders, Harland and Wolff.

SS Nomadic - the last of the line.
© Copyright Joseph Mischyshyn and licensed for reuse
under this Creative Commons Licence

     Titanic Belfast has been visited and endorsed by arguably the two most important people in the Titanic community within the last thirty years – Robert Ballard and James Cameron. It is a symbol of Northern Ireland’s emergence from its troubled history, and helps to showcase the vibrancy of modern Belfast as it attempts to move forward confidently and boldly into the future – thanks in part to the vessel which will forever be associated with it, and which remains my first interest in the UK.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Defense of the Union Jack

The Union Jack of the United Kingdom can be proudly found throughout the world,
include here at the Six Pence Pub in my hometown of Savannah, GA, with the
Home Nation flags of England, Scotland, and Wales and the flag of the United States.
Image Credit: Wesley Hutchins

     Flags – they can mean many things to many people. They can represent pride and instill patriotism in some, while also causing an affront to others – and these emotions can be felt by people living within the same country.

     Recently, there was a controversy over the British flag – aka, the Union Flag (or Jack) – not being present on the vests that are to be worn by British athletes during the World Athletics Championships in Beijing. The redesigned vest features the national colors – red, white, and blue – as well as “GREAT BRITAIN” spelled out across it in red letters, but not the flag itself, which had been prominently displayed on the uniform used for the last world championships in 2013 in Moscow.

     Not since 1997 has a British athletics competition vest failed to include the flag. For Olympic long jumper Greg Rutherford, it was “wrong and ridiculous” to have the flag omitted, and he took his complaint to Twitter, where he tweeted a photo of the new athletics kit.

     Rutherford, known to be popular and forthright amongst members of the athletics squad, further stated that he was “proud to be British”, and lambasted the new kit – calling it “terrible” and no longer British. He also claimed that there was not one athlete he had spoken to who had wanted the change, and that everyone wanted the Union Flag on the vest. Among his Twitter followers who agreed with this was British steeplechaser Eilish McColgan, who remarked that the vest looked “really odd” without the flag and – as with Rutherford – accused UK Athletics of representing itself, rather than Britain.

     UK Athletics is the governing body of the sport of athletics in the United Kingdom, and its CEO Nick de Vos stated that the objective of the new kit was not to eradicate the Union Flag (which is still displayed on the shorts and socks) but to promote the brand of Team GB and British Athletics leading up to the World Championships being hosted by London in 2017, and that by having “Great Britain” spelled out across the vest, they were actually taking a cue from the success of Team GB at the 2012 London Olympics. In this sense, it was more about the team than the flag.

     This view taken by the governing body is not entirely off the mark. While having the flag on uniforms is preferable in athletic competitions, it is not necessary – especially if the name of the country and its colors are present as part of the scheme. For my part as an American, I do not look for Old Glory on the uniform of athletes, and with regard to the last summer Olympics, I paid much more attention to the performance of the squads representing Team USA, whose uniforms typically displayed small US flags (probably not much larger than 2" x 3"). The substantial prominence of the flag came from the USA fans and its appearance during victory laps and medal ceremonies.

     So flags can become overrated in the overall scheme of certain things and in certain contexts, and if the statement by UK Athletics had been the last word of the controversy, this post would have stopped here.

     But Jonathan Jones decided to take it to another level when he wrote in The Guardian that he had “sympathy” for the kit designers, who he claimed had created an “elegant” vest with the national colors, while dispensing with “that jagged, explosive, aggressive flag.”

     Jones, an art columnist for the newspaper, insisted that his criticism was not about “imperial arrogance” or a “coercive union that keeps Scotland in its place”, but instead had to do with how the flag looked, and he opined that the flag was “cluttered” with sharp-angled lines which implied fragmentation as opposed to unity, as well as being “heavy and overbearing, forceful and strident.”

     Furthermore, Jones asserted that while the flag had meaning when Britannia ruled the waves – and in particular, when fighting in battles such as Waterloo and Trafalgar – it was “crap” today, and that its “sheer pompous ugliness unconsciously damages the image of the union” in a way that gives a “psychological boost” to the separatists who wish to break up Britain.

     For this reason, he suggested that a new flag should be designed to save the United Kingdom and make the British people proud to be British and love their country again.

     However, I find that the commentary by Jones – while a bit refreshing for coming from an artistic point of view – was off the mark and at odds with the Union Flag which I and millions of people around the world have come to know.

     The Union Flag is – quite simply – one of the most beautiful flags in the world, and that beauty is in part derived from the fact that it is, as Jones writes, “a compromise, a merging of different national symbols.” It brings together a vibrant blue field and a white diagonal cross – the Saltire of St. Andrew representing Scotland, with the red Saltire of St. Patrick for Northern Ireland, and the red Cross of St. George representing England, to forge one flag for one country – the United Kingdom.

     It is therefore a flag of unity, and James VI of Scotland knew exactly what he was doing in the early 1600’s when he moved to have the flags of Scotland and England merged when he ascended to the English throne as James I, and therefore became the first man to rule all Britain. The royal union eventually led to the political, economic, and cultural union which has thus far endured for over 300 years, and the flag has become a symbol of the nations of Britain joining together as a single country.

     This is in similar fashion to the United States, where the stripes represent the original thirteen British colonies which became independent states and came together as one, while the fifty stars represent the fifty states of our current Union – all in the spirit of E Pluribus Unum.

My hand-made Christmas ornament featuring Old Glory
on one side and the Union Jack on the other.
Image Credit: Wesley Hutchins

     Indeed, the idea of several diverse areas melding together is especially true of Britain, where various tribes eventually merged into larger and expanding kingdoms, and resulted in the country that we know today. Those three crosses come together as an expression of that unity, as well the possibilities that can arise from that unity of peoples from so many cultures and backgrounds.

     It must be made very clear that the Union Flag is not the flag of any one part of the UK, nor is it the flag of any one ethnic group, nor is it the flag of any one religious group, or of any one racial group, nor is it the flag of any one political party, group, or philosophy. It is most definitely not the flag of “Westminster”, and neither is it a factional or sectarian flag.

     It is the flag of the United Kingdom and thus the flag of all Britons, from Inverness to Southampton, Belfast to Dover, Berwick to Cardiff, Anglesey to Glasgow, Land’s End to Shetland, and everywhere else in between. This includes people who can trace their families to the Normans, Vikings, Anglo-Saxons, Romans, and the various Celtic tribes (all of which are quite interrelated, anyway), as well as the people who are Britons of the first generation in our time. As such, it is a flag of “relentless dynamism” – a term used by Jones as the country has changed time and time again while also preserving elements of continuity.

     It is not “owned” by anybody, just as the Saltire in Scotland is not the flag of the Scottish nationalists, for it is the flag of all of Scotland, including those who believe that Scotland should continue to be part of the United Kingdom, and who look to the Union Flag as the one that they share with the people of the rest of the Britain.

     Some may disagree with me on this point, but quite simply, it is my belief that the Union Flag serves the purpose as the national flag of the United Kingdom, just as the Stars and Stripes does as the national flag of the United States – full stop, and it is doubtful that the nationalists will start looking more favorably at the Union with an entirely redesigned flag.

     The one modification I would perhaps make would be to find a way to include Wales, which had already been annexed into England at the time of the unions with Scotland and Ireland, so that it is effectively represented by St. George's Cross. It is not – at least from what I can see – a terribly important issue, but it would be nice to have St. David’s Cross or the Red Dragon incorporated into the design, so that Wales can be represented as an integral part of the Union, as it always has been. My own personal preference would be to have the Red Dragon in the middle to preserve the overall red, white, and blue color scheme of the flag (since St. David's cross is yellow).

A modified Union Flag with the Welsh Red Dragon included.
Image Credit: Yes0song
via Wikimedia Commons cc
     After all, the Union Flag has long been established and cemented as an easily and hugely recognized symbol of the United Kingdom across the globe. It is powerfully iconic in its representation of Brand Britain everywhere, whether it is featured on clothes, food packaging, automobiles, ships, airplanes, various forms of media, mobile device cases, pillows and bed sheets, wallpaper, Christmas ornaments, stuffed animals, desktop backgrounds, posters, logos and insignia's for various organizations, and several other things which people use or come into contact with everyday.

     The flag is flown in admiration for Britain and to denote places, people, and things that are British, such as the Scottish pub in my hometown of Savannah which flies it, along with the Saltire and the Red Lion Rampant (the Royal Standard of Scotland) on its premises, as well as another pub which flies the crosses of St. Andrew and St. George, the Red Dragon, the Union Jack, and the Stars and Stripes. When one sees the Union Flag around the world, he or she knows what it is, and no questions need be asked.

Molly MacPherson's Scottish Pub and Grill in
Downtown Savannah with the Union Flag, Saltire, and Red Lion Rampant
Image Credit: Wesley Hutchins

     From this point of view, the true measure of the global influence of a Union Flag is not such much about how many other countries copy its design when in the process of designing their own, but about how many people admire it and choose to use it in admiration of and respect for the United Kingdom.

     When I see the Union Flag, I do see the Saltire of St. Andrew, St. Patrick’s Cross, and St. George’s Cross, and through them, I see the countries of the UK and their contributions to Britain’s history, its achievements, themes, values, issues, tensions, paradoxes, and contradictions, as well as the triumphs and tragedies, good and bad, joys and sorrows, and times of unity and division, as well as its future all wrapped up into one flag to represent the United Kingdom as a whole in its beautifully complex tapestry.

     Alongside the idea of a bank holiday in commemoration of the entire United Kingdom, the Union Flag ought to be formally codified into law as the official flag of the United Kingdom, and as such, should fly from all public buildings at all times, alongside the flags of each Home Nation where appropriate (i.e., it and the Saltire side-by-side at public buildings in Scotland). There is no reason why this cannot be done, and indeed, the Union Flag should not be in competition with the Saltire or the other Home Nation flags. Except for Wales, it is composed of flags representing the Home Nations, and as such, it complements them and denotes their rightful place in the overall context of the Union.

     This is why I see unity instead of division in a flag of “relentless dynamism” which befits the robust, outward-looking, and tolerant country that Britain is and should always aspire to be, as well the hope that Britain can sort out its issues – constitutional and otherwise – as one.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

The End of WWII and Nukes Today

The goal for our world is to ensure that another Hiroshima (left)
or Nagasaki (right) never happens again.
Image Credit: George R. Caron and Charles Levy (Public Domain) /
Combination by Binksternet via Wikimedia Commons cc

     Seventy years ago, World War II came to an end with the surrender of Japan, though it was not until September 2nd when the formal documents of surrender were signed aboard the USS Missouri. 

     For many – particularly in Europe – it was the end of a nearly six year long ordeal that had begun with the invasion of Poland by Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany on September 1, 1939. In the Pacific, the conflict had its roots in the 1931 Japanese invasion of Manchuria in China, while for the United States, the war was brought on by the attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan on December 7, 1941.

     But regardless of when hostilities started for different parts of the world, when Japan’s surrender was announced, everyone knew that it was all over, and that there was peace once again. The day was marked with euphoric and rapturous celebration, with enormous crowds gathered in New York – where thousands jammed Times Square;London – where the future Queen Elizabeth and her sister joined the masses around Buckingham Palace and Piccadilly Square; Paris – where the people celebrated their liberation from the Nazi regime, and in so many other places (big and small) throughout the world.

     It became known as Victory over Japan (VJ) Day and seventy years later, it remains one of the most iconic and significant moments in history, and the commemorations have rightly honored the fallen who gave the ultimate sacrifice for the world in which we live today. They have also honored the people who made it back home to tell their stories – people whose numbers are dwindling day by day. They have also provided a period of reflection on the war and what it means for us today going forward.

     This particularly includes the way in which the war was ended, for the use of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to force Japan into an unconditional surrender was one of the most controversial aspects of war, which has been hotly debated ad nausuem since they were dropped and resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.

     Was it necessary? Was there another way to end the war? Were the casualties worth it? Would the world have been safer if not for nuclear weapons?

     I will not discuss these in detail here as they go beyond the scope of this post. However, it should be noted that the dropping of the bombs by the United States likely resulted in a more swift end to the war than had the Allies been forced to resort to other measures, such as a full scale invasion of the Japanese islands, which would have dwarfed the Allied effort on D-Day the year before.

     Mercifully, these were the first and last times that nuclear weapons had been used for warfare in our history. Their immediate destructive power, combined with the long-term health effects, have arguably helped to ensure that there has not been a global conflict on the scale of the Second World War, because everyone knows that such a conflict will likely involve nuclear weapons, which were eventually obtained by the Soviets and other major world powers soon after.

     But it was not just the proliferation of nuclear weapons that became an issue as more countries obtained them; it was also the fact that they were becoming increasingly powerful like the hydrogen bomb so that multiple Nagasaki’s could be contained within only one of them. Worse still were the dizzying number of weapons as the Western powers lead by the United States and the Communist powers lead by the USSR gathered vast stockpiles, so that by 1960, there were enough of them to destroy the entire world six times over.

     It was a policy of Mutually Assured Destruction (with the appropriately acronym M.A.D.), and Japan’s emperor, Hirohito, alluded to this in his radio address to his people announcing the surrender of the Japanese Empire, when he talked of a “new and terrible weapon with the power to destroy many innocent lives and do incalculable damage” which would not only destroy Japan, but also “lead to the total extinction of human civilization.”

     Not only was this arms race mad, but it was also terribly expensive – with the cost of building and maintaining these weapons and their massive support systems eating deep into national budgets. At some point, people began asking: “why do we have all these mass-destruction devices”? It became increasingly apparent that there were too many of them and – quite sensibly – that it would be virtually impossible to use all of them anyway.

     And so began the long and gradual draw down of these gravely dangerous weapons. From a high of nearly 70,000 active warheads in the mid-1980’s, as of last year, there were only around 4,000 active and 6,000 inactive warheads – making for a total of just over 10,000 nuclear warheads in the world – with the United States and Russia owning the lions share of these, and in time, it is hoped that the numbers will decline still further.

     For its part, the United Kingdom possesses 225 of these weapons, of which 160 are currently active, and the country exercises its capability in a sea-based capacity via the Trident program of nuclear submarines operated by the Royal Navy based at Faslane along Gare Loch near the River Clyde – about 30 miles from Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city.

     Nuclear weapons in general have been contentious for several decades ever since the development of the Polaris system in the Holy Loch in the 1960’s, and has particularly been used by the SNP as a means to advance their goal of breaking up Britain. Throughout the referendum campaign last year, the pro-independence campaign and its supporters were peddling the idea that with independence, Scotland could get rid of Trident (while still being part of NATO, a nuclear-tipped alliance) and save billions of pounds to be used for purposes such as health and education.

     Scotland voted to keep the Union together, but the SNP has been consistent in their opposition to Trident – with members referring to it as “obscene” and an example of “Wastemonster” spending money on the wrong priorities. Still others object to the Trident submarines and warheads being based in Scotland, and believe that they were placed there so as to be far away from England and London in particular. A common refrain is: “If Westminster likes Trident so much, why don’t they place them along the River Thames?”

Her Majesty's Naval Base, Clyde (HMNB Clyde) at Faslane.
Image Credit: Public Domain
     In truth, Trident’s location has more to do with strategic ability more than anything, for Faslane and the area along the lower Clyde is the best deep-water harbor in Britain facing the Atlantic and is well-suited for the submarines to slip in and out of the Atlantic with a lower possibility of being detected. This has nothing to do with treating Scotland unfairly or putting Scotland in a position to be bombed so that London can be spared, for the reality is that given the UK’s size, a modern nuclear weapon – with long-term health effects included could wipe out much of the country, including the “protected” capital city, so it matters not where Trident is located in this regard. However, it does matter that it is placed in a location that gives the Royal Navy the best strategic advantage, and that location just happens to be Faslane.

     Furthermore, the much-touted £100 billion cost for the new generation of Trident is to be spread over 30 years, and during that time, a lot of that money will be going to maintenance and paying the employee's – many of them with specialized engineering skills – who earn their keep at Faslane. Over the course of Trident’s lifetime, this will result in tens of billions of pounds being injected into Scotland’s economy, and in particular, the local economy around Faslane as money goes into paying for food, housing, mortgages, transportation, clothing, and other needs and desires. Some of the money is paid toward taxes and eventually finds its way into the coffers of the Scottish Government to fund the activities under its control.

     So when the SNP talks about opposing Trident, they are effectively talking about opposing a critical piece of the economy, and with no concrete plan on what to do with the workers who have been trained in this area.

     Of course, there are some people who will oppose nuclear weapons and Trident in particular no matter what. They point to the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and believe that such weapons – with their destructive potential – have no place in the world at all, and need to be abolished. The SNP in particular wants Britain to unilaterally disarm.

     This is a noble goal, and I for one would love to live in a world without nukes or any weapons of mass destruction. However, unilateral disarmament is unhelpful because there will still be others with the weapons, and so long as that’s the case, Britain should hold on to Trident. It’s not about what Britain can do with the weapons, but rather about the very existence of the weapons and the technology. This sentiment was expressed when General Omar Bradley discussed developing the H-bomb with President Harry S. Truman, and said that he could conceive of no military objectives that could be achieved with it, except for utter death, ruin, and desolation. He further said that these were not weapons, but “instruments of genocide.” However, he advised Truman to go ahead with the bomb because “for the other side to have it, and for us not to have it, would be intolerable.”

     It may seem paradoxical, but the whole point of having the nukes is to prevent from having to use them (and to prevent others from using them against you), which is why it is called a “deterrent” and why there is an argument that full scale global wars have been prevented since 1945 because of this.

However, even if nuclear weapons were abolished from the face of the Earth, the technology and know-how will remain, and you can bet that somebody somewhere will want to use these at some point (unless you were to eliminate all nuclear physicists and burn every piece of written reference to nuclear technology).

     The best that we can do is to promote multi-lateral disarmament among all countries that have nuclear weapons, and to prevent other countries from obtaining them altogether. As has been mentioned above, there has already been a massive amount of disarmament in the last thirty years since the height of the Cold War. Perhaps by the end of the 30 year period for the new generation of Trident, the number of warheads will be reduced further to the point that Britain may no longer need a deterrent, or if it does, then it may be a scaled-down and less costly one. The same idea applies to the US, Russia, France, China, and other nuclear powers, so that the threat of nuclear conflict is curbed and so that scarce resources can be put to other uses.

     In the end, no one likes nuclear weapons. I repeat, no one, and I look forward to a world without them. Indeed, perhaps it would be nice to go back in time and prevent their creation. However, we must live with the reality that they are with us, and we have to do our best to ensure that that are never used again for any purpose.

     For Britain itself, the country’s real influence may be more thoroughly expressed through its soft power, though it should always keep its hands close to its tools of hard power – both conventional and unconventional – in case they should ever be needed. In other words, “speak softly, but carry a big stick.”

     A recent example is the recent nuclear deal with Iran, which among other things, proposes to open Iran up to trade with Western powers (including Britain, which helped to negotiate the deal) in the hope that this trade will eventually lift the Iranian economy, foster better relations, and therefore make Iran less likely to pursue nuclear weapons in the first place, and also make nuclear war in general less likely.

     If Iran reneges and fails to hold up its end, then Britain and the other powers may have to reach for the “hard power” options, including the use of nuclear weapons, in order to deal with Iran. If however, the deal succeeds, this will be good for Iran, good for Britain, and good for the world, so that hopefully the horrific events 70 years ago remain unique in the long view of human history and so that a sustained peace can be achieved.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Overdue Scrutiny

     Among the unfortunate aspects about Scotland in recent years has been the apparent stasis in which the country finds itself regarding the politics of the constitution in general, and the fixation on the issue of independence in particular, as opposed to day-to-day issues such as education and health, which are the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood, which is controlled by the SNP – now in its ninth year in government since coming to power in 2007.

     Since that time, the political spectrum in Scotland has changed dramatically from the traditional Left-Right battles between Labour, the Conservatives, and Liberal Democrats to the new pro-Union and pro-separatist clashes between the SNP and almost everybody else. Thanks to the referendum last year and the residual energies emanating from it, politics in Scotland has become defined by whether you support maintaining the United Kingdom or support Scotland breaking away and ending the Union.

     Thus far, the SNP has been the only party to benefit from this political shift, with its clarion call of “standing up for Scotland” and all but campaigning on the idea that independence will solve all the ills facing Scotland, which is a fanciful notion, but one in which its members and media acolytes believe. Further, as Alex Massie pointed out in The Times, SNP members not only believe that “everything [will] bloom after independence”, but that “it is unreasonable to expect anything to bloom before independence.” One Nationalist with whom I have come in contact personified this thinking when he basically said that Scotland could not go back to Left-Right politics until independence was achieved.

     This somewhat narcissistic comment gives a window into the thinking of many a Nationalist: come what may, nothing gets in the way of the cause of Scottish independence, which effectively means that for some people, critical matters such as education and health are of little relevance in the grand scheme of achieving their ultimate goal. It also means – to the frustration of the opposition parties – that the SNP seems to get a pass on its record as a party of government, despite legitimate criticisms regarding A&E waiting times, mortality rates being 19% higher than in Northeast England, over a third of S2 students not attaining expected numeracy levels, and several ongoing issues with the newly centralized police force which was created by the SNP government.

     Time and time again, the opposition parties at Holyrood – the Conservatives, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats – have pointed out these deficiencies in the SNP’s record, which under normal circumstances, should see the SNP paying a price at the polls. As of yet however, nothing has stuck as the SNP has become a Telfon party which has propagated the idea that Holyrood needs “more powers” on top of what it already has, as well as the powers already coming into force via the 2012 Scotland Act, and the powers that are on the way via the Scotland Bill currently going through the political processes.

     Eventually, it wants complete separation from the rest of the UK, but until such time, is perfectly content with blaming others for the performance (or lack thereof) of the government under its watch for the past eight years. After all they say, Scotland is still part of the United Kingdom and therefore not in charge of its destiny, and if it’s not in charge of its destiny, then of course, they will continue to lay blame at the UK Government for anything that goes wrong in Scotland (but claim credit for what goes right in Scotland), despite the UK Government not having any direct influence on Scottish policy in several areas.

     However, the blame game is not just reserved toward the UK Government and Parliament at Westminster; it is also used against individuals such as oil baron Algy Cluff, who asked Scottish Government ministers if their moratorium on hydraulic fracturing (“fracking” for short) applied to his plans to extract coal gas from underneath the Firth of Forth and then warned of the “potentially devastating” consequences of the moratorium on his company’s plans for investment in Scotland (to the tune of £250 million). As told by Massie in his column, both the Energy Minister Fergus Ewing and Communities Minister Alex Neil gave Cluff their blessing on the grounds that coal gasification is not the same as fracking. This led to a vilification of Cluff by SNP MP’s and members who accused him of “guilt-tripping” the ministers involved, but apparently sparing criticism against the ministers themselves for making the decision.

     This is but only one instance of the SNP getting a pass from its own members even when it goes against their wishes, but it also shows how the SNP – far from being a party led by committed idealists, come what may – is actually pragmatic when it comes to certain things, such as clearing away a potential obstacle for Cluff to invest in Scotland and therefore create jobs. Indeed, the reason why the SNP came to power was because it positioned itself as a moderate party that would provide competent and pragmatic administration, which Scotland’s middle classes would find acceptable. It talked less about independence and more about bread-and-butter issues facing people every day, and it gained trust along the way, especially as the other (UK-wide) parties lost trust.

     This was especially true of the Labour Party, which dominated Scottish politics before the rise of the SNP, and which was the primary casualty of the SNP’s march to having 56 of Scotland’s 59 MP’s during the General Election in May. A common refrain from some former Labour voters is that the party (despite winning three successive elections and keeping the Tories out of government for 13 years) longer represented them, had abandoned its left-wing principles, became Tory-lite under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and worse – had stood “shoulder-to-shoulder” with the Tories as part of the Better Together campaign to save the Union. Labour in short, had left them, not the other way around. In its place came the SNP, which claimed that it was the true alternative to both the Tories and Labour – offering up a bold anti-austerity platform against the Tories which Labour had failed to make. Not only that, but the SNP was said to be committed to preserving and expanding the welfare state Labour had largely created, against privatization, for increased government spending, and a more robust and activist government.

     The SNP in short, was the bolder and more idealistic version of what Labour was supposed to be, which stood for socialism/social democracy and did not compromise itself for the sake of power, or even it seems, political or economic circumstances.

     But just last week, it was revealed by The Guardian that the Scottish Government was turning toward more (not less) private financing and private control of several high-profile capital projects, including a bypass around Aberdeen, because it had run afoul of EU rules which are designed to measure public spending and prohibit governments from using “private finance and private contracts to avoid putting major public assets on their national accounts, potentially as a backdoor route to cutting government liabilities.” Based on the rules coming from the EU’s statistics agency Eurostat, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) classified a bypass road around Aberdeen – the biggest project at £1.5 billion – as a publicly owned and controlled project ‘due to the Scottish government’s share in the economic rewards.’

     As a result according to The Guardian, Finance Secretary John Swinney was forced to seek “a £300m contingency loan from the UK Treasury and set aside £150m of Scottish government money to cover Holyrood’s potential liabilities until the [Aberdeen] project is moved off the public books”, as well as to launch a review of his government’s overall private financing scheme, known as the Non-Profit Distribution (NDP) model, which allows private contractors to fund large-scale capital projects, but also allows Scottish Futures Trust (SFT) – a public corporation of the Scottish Government – to cap private sector profits and feature lower fixed interest rates. But with the ONS ruling, along with its determination that Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) companies set up by SFT to run and control these projects are not private entities, the “new model will increase overall costs and public-sector debt, and increase private-sector control of the schemes for the lifetime of every project, which can last for 32 years or more.”

     Altogether, this was an embarrassing moment for the SNP – not only because its funding scheme is in tatters for running afoul of EU rules to suit its political interests (i.e., being able to spend more without going to the taxpayer or taking on debt) – but also because it now finds itself actually turning to more private financing and control of big projects – the very thing it had criticized previous Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition governments of doing at Holyrood.

     However, I can imagine that the SNP will simply say that this is just another example of Westminster failing to stand up for Scotland’s interests (never minding the fact that the ONS ruling has similar implications for UK Government projects throughout the country). In this case, it would be Scotland’s interests with regard to the EU (because these are EU rules, after all), the organization which the SNP claims Scots embrace more lovingly than the rest of the UK so much so, that they have threatened to use the potential withdrawal of the UK from the EU without a majority of Scots as a wedge issue to create an excuse for holding another referendum.

     Meanwhile, many of their supporters likely won’t protest for much of the same reason – Westminster’s fault, not Holyrood’s – as well as for the reason that they probably believe that this is a distraction from their foremost agenda: securing independence. After all, this is a life-long cause for some people, and the cause justifies almost anything, which runs counter to the idea of the SNP being a progressive party of deeply-held left-wing social and economic principles, and shows itself to be like any other party which will make necessary sacrifices to achieve its aims. The membership will forgive the party, so long as they are on the road to independence.

     Indeed, some have become so converted to the cause that they are now upset at the idea that the SNP has to focus (or at least, is seen to be focused) on things other than independence, like governing at Holyrood and having its 56 MP’s at Westminster concentrating on UK-wide matters, especially when they effect Scotland. Former SNP member Delia Forrest told Buzzfeed that she decided not to renew her membership after the party broke its stance on voting on English fox hunting. She complained that it had become a “mainstream UK party even apparently recruiting English memberships”, had too many career politicians, and was “playing a game of one-upmanship with David Cameron and neglecting independence.” For her and others, the SNP is not pro-independence enough, and another person believed that if Nicola Sturgeon fails to offer another referendum on independence in the party’s manifesto going into the Holyrood elections next year, thousands will desert the party and Sturgeon risks splitting the SNP and overall independence movement.

     The reality however – much as it may prove uncomfortable for some people – is that while the SNP may be popular, its landmark policy and raison d’etre is not, or at least not popular enough for Sturgeon to call for a second referendum on it with the realistic expectation that the SNP will win next time around. Most polling since the referendum (providing it can be trusted) has shown either a pro-Union majority or a tie, and with those odds, it is unlikely that Sturgeon will call for another referendum so soon after the last one, which was held less than a year ago. Such a move may prove to be reckless and if the Union wins out in a second referendum within the next five years, it may also prove truly fatal for the independence cause for a generation at least.

     Becoming aggressively fixated on independence also risks taking the SNP back to the days when it was a fringe single-issue organization, not a legitimate party of government, and the leadership of the SNP knows that this will likely lose them votes in Middle Scotland. 

     For now though – whether on coal gasification, the mess of private funding for public projects, or the issue of another referendum – the SNP has thus far proven remarkably effective in keeping its members in line, from MP’s on down. “Internal dissent” claims Massie, “is all but non-existent because dissent might compromise the quest for independence.”

     It is for this same reason that if left-wing MP Jeremy Corbyn is elected to succeed Ed Miliband as leader of the Labour Party, Kenny Farquharson believes that the SNP – having made a career of excoriating Labour for “abandoning” its left-wing and progressive principles – will simply change the narrative to say that Labour is unelectable as a legitimate party of government throughout the United Kingdom. Forget all the rhetoric about “Red Tories” and Labour failing to take a progressive and anti-austerity stance because this would not likely apply under a Corbyn leadership. Instead, they will raise the prospect of perpetual Tory government from Downing Street beyond 2020, and this may prove to be too much to bear for some Scottish Labour voters, who will be greatly seduced into believing that the only way to get away from the wicked Tories is independence.

     It would certainly takes some chutzpah for the SNP to basically forsake and deride a “truly” left-wing Labour Party as having no chance of getting into Downing Street, so as to further their own political ends. But as Massie points out, this is a party that has proven its ability to shape-shift – abandoning inconvenient rhetoric or policies – “without embarrassment once they cease to be the best available means of advancing independence.”

     This is the party that once advocated dropping corporate taxes to encourage business investment to create jobs and spur economic growth, and therefore result in more tax revenue to fund public services – a very “Blairite” idea which they only threw out in time for the election in May to prevent Labour from outflanking it on the issue. This is also a party that laid out a prospectus for independence based on oil being $110+ per barrel, but now has gone all but silent on oil because of the recent collapse in prices. And of course, this is the party that has U-turned on the once in a lifetime, once in a generation referendum.

     It is therefore no wonder that Massie refers to the SNP as a faith-based organization, for it seems that nothing will dent the enthusiasm for the SNP amongst its loyal supporters or the wider electorate, who seem to be prepared to give them a third term in government, despite its less-than-stellar record as a governing party.

     Perhaps there is an impulse on the part of the electorate that says: “Well, we know the SNP aren’t great, but at least they’re better than the other parties and stand up for Scotland.” On this point, there is nothing wrong with giving people and organizations the benefit of the doubt, for it is a natural human impulse to do so, and the SNP’s emotive rhetoric allows for such feelings.

     However, with the stakes being so high for everyone – whether in Scotland or elsewhere throughout Britain – it is imperative that the SNP be challenged on its record of the past eight years, and not be allowed to get away with the standard line of, “well, if only we had powers over (fill in the blank)” or “only with independence can we (fill in the blank).” No, the SNP must be challenged on the basis of what it can do now and what it can do with the powers it will soon have at its disposal, and must face scrutiny for its proposals and policies. They cannot be assumed to be doing what’s best for Scotland, and must be taken to task on that assertion.

     For too long, the SNP has been allowed to run rings around everyone else. They have used issues such as health, education, and poverty as mere talking points for advancing their cause of independence and to beat down and condemn the pro-Union parties collectively as “Westminster” – as if to say that they aren’t really Scottish or don’t have Scotland’s interests at heart. They have accused those who disagree with them of “scaremongering” and “talking Scotland down”, and they have decided that the media is biased” for having the audacity to ask difficult questions (sometimes aggressively) of the SNP. 

     Along the way, they have claimed the mantle of being the national party of Scotland – almost synonymous with Scotland and the Scottish people, and they have arguably avoided, or have been immune to, the kind of scrutiny deserved by a party that has been in government since 2007. 

     The opposition parties need to step up their game in leveling their criticisms against the SNP and also come up with their own polices to present to the electorate. They should do all they can to focus attention on the bread-and-butter issues facing the people of Scotland and explain what they would do with the powers already available and the powers currently on the way to Holyrood. They must boldly tear down the facade of the SNP and explain how after almost nine years, the SNP has failed to improve critical areas of Scottish life, and that blaming Westminster will not do a thing to improve health outcomes, waiting times, reduce the achievement gap, increase educational attainment, or reduce poverty. Force them to not just bang on about poverty, but explain how they will tackle poverty and lift people out of it in the here and now. 

     Above this, the opposition pro-Union parties must develop a confident and compelling narrative of Scotland’s potential as part of the UK, and how they want what’s best for Scotland within the greater context of what’s best for the UK as a whole. These things need not be mutually exclusive, and on the constitution, all parties should commit themselves to holding a UK Constitutional Convention for a long-term governing settlement for the entire country, for the debate on constitutional issues have spread throughout the United Kingdom and have manifested in the folly of EVEL and other short-term political quick-fixes which will not sustain the Union.

     The opposition at Holyrood must explain that independence is not the answer to Scotland’s problems (which are not mutually exclusive to the problems faced by the UK as a whole), and do all they can to avoid discussion of a second referendum, which is nothing more than a distraction from the SNP’s record in government. If they are so trusted, that trust must be tested with greater and more skeptical scrutiny, and they cannot continue to get away with the dubious idea that Scotland has to wait for more powers or independence in order for things to get better. No, Scotland deserves better now, and can do better with the powers currently available – and soon to be available – to Holyrood.

     In short, the opposition parties must boldly head into next year’s elections with a determination to more efficiently and effectively scrutinize the SNP, take it to task on its assertions and rhetoric, and help to move the country forward from constitutional stagnation and the prospect of an economically damaging neverendum. Furthermore, the media needs to pay more critical attention to the SNP and to particular aspects of its policies, for in a state of affairs where one political party has become so dominant – and apparently so trusted – the media must perform its role in not so much being hostile for the sake of being hostile, but simply holding the powerful accountable, and the SNP is quite powerful these days as part of the establishment. The Guardian's aforementioned report on private financing of public projects is a good example of this, but more is needed.

     This will be a critical election which may prove to be consequential for the future of Scotland and the United Kingdom as a whole, and a serious challenge must be mounted against the SNP based on its eight year record in government. If the opposition parties do not do it, and if the media fails to step up on behalf of the electorate, who will?