For mile upon mile they stretched, their flag-bedecked ranks receding into the haze. The ships of the Royal Navy, 165 of them, drawn up at Spithead on June 26 1897 to mark the diamond jubilee of Victoria, for 60 years Queen of Great Britain and Ireland and her dominions beyond the seas, and, since 1876, Empress of India.
There were 21 battleships and 44 cruisers, their names conveying the confidence of a world-spanning Empire: Victorious, Renown, Powerful, Terrible, Majestic and Mars. A vast, intimidating presence intended to impress on friend and foe alike the continuing potency of the British behemoth. And what was more, the assembly of this great fleet had required the recall of not a single ship from the Mediterranean or the far-flung squadrons guarding the imperial sea lanes.
Jingoistic hyperbole was the order of the day. “If the British taxpayer does not feel more than a thrill of satisfaction at a sight so splendid and so inspiring,” gushed one newspaper, “he is no patriot and no true citizen.”
The Solent was a mass of small craft jammed with sunburned day-trippers, fussing around the black hulls of battleships riding at anchor. The pleasure boats parted only for the Royal Yacht Victoria and Albert. It carried the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, taking the salute from the quarterdeck on behalf of his mother. Victoria, 78, was exhausted by the jubilee celebrations and had opted to observe proceedings by telescope from Osborne House, her retreat on the Isle of Wight.
One hundred and fifteen years later and Britain is celebrating only the second diamond jubilee in its history. The occasion calls for a naval review, a staple of coronations and other great moments in the life of the nation, but it is not to be. The Royal Navy, the country’s saviour in two world wars, is a sorry shadow of its former self, so depleted by successive rounds of cuts that it can no longer muster a dozen ships for the occasion. So embarrassed are the ministers and civil servants at the Ministry of Defence who have overseen these disastrous reductions that they have quietly drawn a veil over the issue, hoping no one will notice the absence of a major role for the Senior Service in this week’s celebrations.