The news that HMS Edinburgh is to be sold off to a foreign government after a 27-year career in the Royal Navy has no doubt surprised a lot of people like me who had a tenuous connection with the ship.
I was lucky enough to visit the Type 42 destroyer not long after she was commissioned in 1985 when she was in pristine condition. She was beautiful, a real greyhound of the waves, all sleek lines and quite obviously deadly, given the armaments that bristled on her deck.
It was a privilege to be allowed to visit the command centre – I can’t actually remember its formal name – and see the array of equipment which back then was very much state-of-the- art.
Her captain and crew of nearly 300 struck me as the very best that the navy could produce, and were certainly strong in the naval tradition of enjoying themselves while ashore – I seem to vaguely remember a civic reception at which much hospitality was exchanged.
They were all proud to be linked to Scotland’s capital through the name that had been carried by some of the navy’s most historic ships, and the ship’s badge was similar to the city’s coat-of-arms with a three-turreted castle.
That history of the ship’s name almost tells the story of Scotland for the past 300 years. The first HMS Edinburgh was a small ship of the line launched in 1707 and was named just after the Act of Union was signed. She was sunk two years later.
At that time, one of the Union’s immediate benefits to Scotland and Scottish trade was the protection of the Royal Navy which not too many years earlier had been viciously harassing Scottish ships.
History shows us that the might of the Royal Navy enabled Scotland to trade to America and beyond, and our country’s fortunes grew. The industrial revolution also saw Scotland supply ships and cannons – the famous carronades helped win the Battle of Trafalgar and many more – to a Royal Navy in which Scots played a a huge part over the centuries.
The second and third ships named Edinburgh took part in the battles and wars that expanded the British Empire, while the fourth HMS Edinburgh, dating from 1882, was one of the first modern battleships.
The fifth HMS Edinburgh helped in the battle to sink the Bismarck before she was sunk while carrying gold to wartime Russia. Her cargo of bullion was famously recovered four decades after she was torpedoed by a U-boat in 1942.
Now the current HMS Edinburgh is to be sold off, the result of this coalition government’s unnecessarily savage defence spending review.
Six ships called HMS Edinburgh helped define our Scottish nation’s history since 1707: the immediate benefits and problems of the Union; the days of improved trade and expansion of the empire in which Scots played such a part; the joint defence of these islands and the great sacrifices made by all Britons in the face of totalitarian threats; and now the dismal decline of the UK under posh boys and wicked bankers, where we sell off the family silver to pay the debts that should never have been run up.
That is the fundamental truth of our situation here in Scotland. The Union of 1707 transformed this country and if you forgive the excesses of imperialism, much of the change was for the better. In the 1940s, we also stood side by side with our partners in the Union to defend these islands, inspired by that former MP for Dundee and supporter of home rule, Winston Churchill.
But like HMS Edinburgh, the Union is redundant. It no longer serves the purpose for which Scots supported it. Indeed, I would argue that being part of the Union is greatly hindering Scotland’s development.
Even in terms of defence, whether or not we are part of Nato, such threats as exist to Scotland’s security are more likely to come from disaffected terrorists than world powers intent on obliterating us. Yes, there are rogue nations on the planet trying to develop nuclear arsenals, but they can point to the fact that we have the biggest concentration of nuclear weapons in Europe here on the Clyde, and you might ask why we permit that when it might make us a legitimate target?
I am not sorry that HMS Edinburgh is leaving the Royal Navy. After all, she has given distinguished service and her active life is coming to its end.
Nor am I sorry that the Royal Navy has no plans to use the name HMS Edinburgh on any future ships. The navy knows that there will be even fewer ships of the line in future and there’s a queue of historic names waiting to be used should there ever be Her Majesty’s ships built again.
As an SNP member, I would hope that a future Scottish navy, however small it is, might find a place for an HMS Edinburgh in its ranks, even on a fishery protection vessel or a minesweeper.
Some would argue that putting the Capital’s famous name on a tiny vessel would be a comedown from a great historic past. I would see it as simply the proof that times change and countries change. And Scotland is changing, of that there is no doubt.