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The Responsibility for the Navy

W.T. Stead (The Pall Mall Gazette, September 30, 1884)

The question which we asked the other day as to who is responsible for the navy has not yet received a satisfactory answer. We publish two letters to-day from well-informed correspondents, the purport of which is that the only person responsible for the navy is Lord Northbrook, and as he is in Egypt, engaged on other business, nobody is responsible. This is a very serious state of affairs, and one which, if it actually exists, cannot be too speedily brought to an end. The public mind, profoundly disquieted by the disclosures which we have felt it our duty to make as to the lamentable shortcomings of our first line of defence, will hardly be reassured by a repudiation of responsibility on the part of those who are popularly believed to be responsible for the condition of the navy.

There is now no dispute as to the accuracy of the alarming statement, which we set forth in no alarmist spirit, concerning the state of our navy. That statement has now been nearly a fortnight before the public; it has been discussed in every newspaper in the land - with the exception of the Standard, which takes no interest in the navy - and not one of the salient points of that startling revelation has been impugned. Instead of refutation we have had confirmation, and there is hardly a person whose name would be recognized as that of an authority who has not more or less explicitly admitted the substantial accuracy of our correspondent's expose of our naval shortcomings. Let us for a moment recall the summary of his conclusions, which constitute a compendium of the shortcomings of our navy. They are, in brief, as follows:-

1.  Our risks have increased, enormously since 1868; our expenditure has 
     slightly diminished.
2.  We are just a little ahead of France in ships, behind her in guns, and about 
     equal in armour and speed.
3.  We have not sufficient fast ocean cruisers to defend our commerce.
4.  Our coaling stations all over  the world, with few exceptions, could be captured 
     and  burned to-morrow by an unarmoured cruiser. In the whole of India we have 
     no dock where an ironclad could refit.
5.  Only two of our home ports are adequately protected, and some of our most
     important  commercial ports could be destroyed by any passing war ship; and
6.  Our mosquito fleet of torpedo boats, &c., is far below the minimum requisite for
     self-defence.

Bad as that showing is, it is universally accepted as accurate by the experts, the only criticism being that it is somewhat too optimist. But while the experts declare with one consent that it is a fair and even favourable statement of the facts, the public, with unanimity quite as remarkable, declares that such a condition of relative weakness is absolutely intolerable. Whig, Radical, and Tory vie with each other in declaring that no money must be grudged to restore the waning naval supremacy of the country. If, then, all who know the facts agree that the navy is in the condition set forth by our contributor, and all parties in the country agree that, at any-cost, this state of things must be amended, why is it not done?

Is it not trifling with the question to say that, owing to an Order in Council dated some fourteen years ago, no responsibility rests upon any one but the First Lord of the Admiralty? That may be fit and proper when the First Lord is at the Admiralty, but it can hardly hold good when the First Lord is in Egypt. Lord Northbrook's policy on the Nile may plunge us into war, but we are told that no responsibility attaches to any one but himself if, in such an event, the navy is found insufficient for the work thrown upon it. Such sophistry would delight a sea lawyer, it can hardly commend itself to a Sea Lord. Our sailors are too straightforward to hide themselves behind such a subterfuge. In the absence of Lord Northbrook the Naval Lords come to the front, and, whether they admit it or not, the whole country regards them as responsible for the navy. If anything goes wrong they will be blamed. They know the facts, and, knowing that the navy is insufficient for England's needs, they owe it to England to insist that it shall be put on an adequate footing, or that the responsibility for betraying the nation's trust shall be laid upon other shoulders. The country is lulled into a false security by the deserved reputation of the Lords of the Admiralty. The Scotsman, for instance, only yesterday referred to the Admirals associated with Lord Northbrook as justifying its disbelief in what it is pleased to describe as panic-mongering. The Treasury trades upon their reputation to refuse their demands. They owe it to their country to use their reputation to secure the adequate discharge of their responsibilities.

There is one point that the public as yet does not appreciate. The defence of our coaling stations and trading ports, although included in the survey of the condition of the navy, is not a duty for which the Admiralty is responsible. It belongs solely to the War Office. The responsibility of carrying out, or, as is now the case, of neglecting, the recommendations of the Commission over which Lord Carnarvon presided, does not belong to Sir Cooper Key and his colleagues; it lies at the door of Lord Hartington. Even the Daily News admits that the coaling stations ought to be defended. But the War Office does nothing. When we ask why this dangerous inertia, we meet always the same reply. Everything depends upon the Prime Minister. His will is absolute, and his veto is immovable. But those who make this assertion know very little of Mr. Gladstone. The Prime Minister, no doubt, is as unyielding as adamant to all applications for increased expenditure. He is a man of peace and a sworn economist, pledged to retrenchment, and it is a matter of course that he should refuse all demands made in a perfunctory fashion, which he can dismiss as due to the natural craving of the Services for increased Estimates. But once convince Mr. Gladstone that those responsible for the Services arc so impressed with the necessity for increasing their efficiency that they dare not face their responsibility unless their demands are attended to, and the difficulty disappears. It is with the Services as it was with Ireland. Mr. Gladstone, could never be brought to see that the Land Act of 1870 needed amendment until the agrarian revolt of 1881 rushed upon him like a flood. Then he who had been most opposed to change placed himself in the van of reform. In like manner the Prime .Minister only needs to be compelled to look into the condition of our national defences with a sense of his responsibility, and he will be foremost in insisting upon their efficiency. But in order to attain that result those primarily responsible must act, and act with decision. Otherwise nothing will be done, and the best opportunity that has occurred for many a long year for making our navy adequate to its duties will be irrevocably sacrificed.

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