On August 16, Britain’s new aircraft carrier, the HMS Queen Elizabeth arrived at Portsmouth harbour after undergoing sea trials.
All the statistics about it are impressive: 65,000 tonnes, 900 feet long, 155,000 miles of electrical cable: it is a marvel of modern engineering and those who built and man it have every right to be proud.
When it’s fully operational in 2023, I have no doubt that it will fulfil its important role in defending this nation.
It’s good that there is investment in our conventional forces: amidst debates about Trident, we seem to forget that in recent years most defence spending has been cut, which is ostensibly all part of “austerity”. However, Britain’s servicemen have been constantly at the front line. Between 1968 and 2016, at least one serviceman per year has died whilst on operations. As conflicts continue to rage around the globe, there is little doubt that Britain will continue to play its part in preserving global peace and security. Tributes paid at the Cenotaph will ever remain part of living memory. Despite their continued sacrifice, recommended pay rises for armed forces personnel announced in March were capped at one per cent, which makes retaining skilled staff such as engineers much more difficult. We spent £3 billion on the HMS Queen Elizabeth, but we’re strangely lacking in commitment to adequately paying the people who run her. Just like anyone else, their earnings are being eroded by the increasing cost of living. Just like anyone else, they suffer from housing shortages and finding school places for their children.
I am always impressed by the discipline and stand in awe of the commitment servicemen and women have made. We can invest in high tech equipment: we should. But in the end, our armed forces are comprised of people who have said: “I will forego the safety and comfort of a typical life. I will obey orders to go to the most hostile corners of the planet on difficult missions. I will subject myself to rigours that most people back home will never fully understand. I will face danger so that my countrymen and women don’t even have to think about it.”
It’s a hideous thought that a serviceman or woman, having faced trials which most of us cannot comprehend, could cross the threshold of their home and find worries about paying the mortgage or electricity bill. As Oscar Wilde wrote, a cynic is “a man who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing.” No doubt any answer to questions in the House about defence spending will include the £3 billion for the HMS Queen Elizabeth. Any reply should include what we are doing to maintain the wellbeing of our best and bravest while they put themselves at risk, and after their service is done. Their sacrifice demands it.