Me and my research - Museums Association

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Me and my research

Duncan Redford is analysing the causes of "sea-blindness"
Interview by John Holt
My main field of study is the connection between the Royal Navy and British national identity, which includes the analysis of the possible causes of what is known as sea-blindness, a term which describes the complicated relationship between the navy and the public and politicians.

For a long time the navy was seen as central to our security and the defence of the empire. Things began to shift as the way the British viewed themselves as an island race changed in the 20th century.

The idea that aircraft could fly across the Channel and bomb the civilian population gained traction far beyond the actual capabilities of planes at the time.

If people were prepared to believe that an HG Wells book was a more terrifying vision of future war than invasion or blockade and starvation, then they were hardly going to pay attention to arguments over navy policy and spending.

Post-1945, the empire disappeared quite quickly so the two main props for the naval argument in the public’s perception had dissolved.

Sea power was not given great consideration during the cold war; compare that with 1911-14 where its use against continental powers was critical to government strategy.

Things change all the time, but a lot of the issues are based on perceptions rather than reality. The navy has put a lot of effort into PR but much of it sank without trace.

There has, for example, been a lot of comment about the decision to stop ship-building at Portsmouth dockyard but – upsetting though this may be for those people losing jobs – the last time a complete, high-specification warship was built here for the Royal Navy was in 1967.

The truth is that the needs of the navy dictate the activities of the dockyards and as a nation we are reluctant to increase the money we spend on our fleet.

Duncan Redford is a senior research fellow, modern naval history, at the National Museum of the Royal Navy, Portsmouth

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