6th July 2017
The Man who saved Britain. Simon Winder’s James Bond study (Picador, 2006, 2011) under a clutch of daffy mannerisms, means what it says. The Flemings were a family of Dundee keelies, who rose by investing the jute-made fortunes of their bosses (compare Sean Connery in Edinburgh?) but Winder, history editor at Penguin, doesn’t do Scotland. Stay with Dr No: Joseph Wiseman of the tarantulas and the Goya ‘Wellington’, picking off Cape Canaveral’s rockets. That’s back …Ian Fleming earned more than a crust on the Sunday Times. Who owns that slab of newsprint now? Who else but the grandson of the Free Kirk’s Patrick Murdoch, missionary to Australia. Remember Canada’s populist prototype Robert Bruce Ford taking Toronto’s mayoralty in 2010-14 and ending that city’s ‘New York run by the Swiss’ reputation before he snorted himself off the stage. Donald Trump, a Gaelic-Teutonic Ubu Roi, won scarcely a quarter of the USA’s electorate via its bizarre voting system. But Fox News, prop. Rupert Murdoch, helped.
Think again about Bond villains and yachts, algorithims, minions and Big Data, non-functional destroyers and submarines and misguided missiles. Think thirteen thousand tons of what the River Clyde saw two years back, towering over the tiny paddle-steamer ‘Waverley’ off Greenock: the ‘Eclipse’.
Roman Abramovitch’s superyacht. Cost estimates: in 2010 between $ 340 million on delivery from Blohm and Voss, Hamburg (think ‘Bismarck’, ‘Goeben’, etc…) and $1.5 billion after a rebuild in 2015, a statistical cloud which may conceal a lot. (YachtCharterFleet, 2015; Corey Charlton, Daily Mail, 17 February 2015). Think further on the name …’Eclipse’ (1764-1789) was the prime stud, the first superhorse, the Anglo-Arab stallion that revolutionised the racetracks. A nag important enough to centre the action in the high Tory philosopher Michael Oakeshott’s first work to be noticed: ‘A Guide to the Classics, or How to Pick the Derby Winner’, 1936.
Then think sideways to another sort of Tory, a ‘Presbyterian Cavalier’, as Abramovitch, Russia’s fabulous Wandering Jew, steams west and north, and think about the Crimea, retaken by Vladimir Putin, the man Abramovitch nominated in 1999 as successor to the useful idiot Boris Yeltsin. Take the bus to Peebles Library, the leather-bound volumes and the lurid thrillers, move back in history and click on the poker face of Calvinism’s Mister Cool, John Buchan, dead since 1940 …
1912 Andrew Lumley in The Power House: ‘And yet knowledge is the only power – now as ever. A little mechanical device will wreck your navies. A new chemical combination will upset every rule of war. One or two minute changes might sink Britain to the level of Ecuador, or give China the key of the world’s wealth. And yet we never dream that such things are possible. We think that our ‘castles of sand are the ramparts of the universe.’
1922 Princess Saskia in Huntingtower: ‘Lenin may be a good man – I do not think so, but I do not know – but
if he were an archangel he could not alter things. Russia is mortally sick and therefore all evil is unchained, and the criminals have no one to check them.’
1996 … a teenager in post-Soviet Perm in the Urals, fixing my aged laptop 24 hours out from Moscow’s Kazan station: ‘I get my computer stuff from Dubai, of course, where do you get yours? Moscow Sheremetevo’s a joke!’
Where was it that Putin made Abramovitch governor of – that chunk of tundra revolutionised into a hi-tech satellite? Somewhere in Siberia? Chukotsky’s so far to the east it’s almost Alaska: the USA only 100 km
away, and about 4200 km from Moscow or Tokyo or Beijing or Seattle. Was this useful to Abramovitch in 2000-2008 when he ran the place? Such distances return to the register when computer networks become so
permeable you go back to human couriers … and megayachts.
July 2015 and the world’s second-biggest yacht rides at anchor off Gourock. ‘Eclipse’ is crammed with state-of-the-art computer technics, anti-aircraft rockets, helipad, miniature submarine, drones, etc., and doubtless enough minion PhDs flown in through the Russian diplomatic to fire this lot up when needed for big-data stuff, complex algorithms, etc. As now …?
The yacht, Bermuda-registered, 70 crew, is headed for the Caribbean. Where’s its real base? Crimea, ruled by Putin since 14 March 2014? And its target? Forget sad harbours like Portsmouth and Devonport, ten miles north of Greenock at Faslane is the Royal Navy: a big (if ageing) spender on nukes, new Clyde-built ‘Type 45’ destroyers, and underlying the lot, computers.‘Eclipse’ sails west to Loch Fyne, down Kintyre past Campbeltown Bay, and after rounding the Mull of Kintyre into the Atlantic, steers north to Kilnaughton Bay, Islay, 30 miles southwest of where – ‘communicating by satellite broadband’ – prime minister Dave Cameron
takes his holidays on the 20,000-acre Astor family estate at Tarbert on neighbouring Jura (BBC news, 19 August 2013. Press and Journal , 7 July 2015).
The Scottish press moves in. Is Abramovitch interested in whisky, mansions, football elevens? No comment. But he has four Putineer oligarchs with him: Davidovich of Runicom, Schvidler of Gazprom, Governor Polezhaev of Omsk, Yaroslavsky, late of Khar’kiv. Eclipse weighs anchor and sails north past the Tarbert estate to Oban. From there the oligarchs fly off to the South of France.
Abramovitch would remember Greg Barker, Tory MP, since 2011 Lord Barker of Battle, and former director of his own Sibneft Oil Company (after September 2005 part of Gazprom: Russian energy monopoly and
Putin-pillar). Barker was caretaker on the comparatively tiny (6000 ton) M.Y. ‘Pelorus’ when his boss covered the World Cup in 2006, 9 June to 9 July, from Kiel on the Baltic. (Stern, July 2006); he had earlier been linked to Boris Berezovsky, Yeltsin’s favourite oligarch, who remade Abramovitch from toymaker to oil magnate. He had stage-managed David Cameron, the new Tory leader, hugging huskies on Spitzbergen (which has Russian mineral involvement) on 21 April 2006, then in 2010 went off with a male interior decorator, pursued as usual by tabloid journalists: booty and footy being what count.
Abramovich and Berezovsky fell out as Putin rose. They fought it out in the London courts and latter’s democratic credentials would be thoroughly rubbished by Abramovich’s hired gun, the high Tory barrister Jonathan Sumption. Oxford don and historian, philosopher, orator, ‘Sumption is a uniquely British object, almost a metonym for the establishment’, crooned Wendell Steavenson in a Guardian eulogy. Berezovsky didn’t survive his demolition on 31 August 2012 and killed himself. Sumption was then said to have the Scots in his sights, though his Denning Lecture on them ‘The Disunited Kingdom: England, Ireland and Scotland’, delivered on 5 November 2013 turned out tentative, even pessimistic.
But hadn’t Rupert Murdoch’s career lately been revisited by the venerable and clever Lord Asa Briggs, remembering an undergrad Communist in Josef Stalin’s Golden Days after 1945? (Guardian, 12 June, 2012). From Worcester College he seemed to be minding the comrades at Cowley works … Was he doing this as an agent of MI 5? Or convinced of Communist victory? Or simply being a Murdoch, like his father-and-chum Sir Keith? Who in 1915 had briefed the Australian Labor government of the Scot Andrew Fisher about the Gallipoli disaster and made big trouble for the Asquith coalition in London? Gallipoli generated strongman Mustafa Kemal, later Ataturk. Now in 2014 Recep Tayyit Erdogan had put the Bosphorus back on the map: in ‘liberated’ Sevastopol Putin’s Black Sea fleet was refitting.
North of lslay were the Paps of Jura. Again … think Murdoch. Between 2006-2014 he had his own yacht too, the Rosehearty, a smallish (60-metre, worth £ 30 million) R L Stevensonian schooner named for the Buchan port near New Pitsligo from where grandpa Patrick set out in 1886 to convert Australia to the Free Kirk: the Buchan region’s journalist dynasts include Robertson Nicoll, Bertie Forbes, Gordon Bennett! (Harriet Dennys, Telegraph, 4 January, 2014). If yachts matter as mobile floating-command units, Rupert would know the ropes.
Over Jura hovers the ghost of George Orwell, still awkward and sharp. Think of A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935) – his experimental image of English middle class impotence. After summer 2016 her Tridents subs
still kept Teresa May diplomatically ahead of that other clergyman’s daughter in Berlin, Chancellor Merkel. Keep the proles on Oceania’s eastern shore happy with porn and footie. Currently Eastasia’s off limits:someone’s got to churn out the infinitely-plastic news merchandise. And if the Scots weren’t happy, Rupert could still recharge by subverting the government he ostensibly supported.
On 21 October 2016 the Sun chirped ‘Who do you think you are kidding, Mister Putin?’ A Russian squadron of six ships headed south from Murmansk, passing west of Shetland, centred on its sole, ageing, aircraft carrier ‘Admiral Kuznetsov’: its goal the Mediterranean and Syria. The UK Admiralty shadowed it with several frigates and two of its newly-commissioned Type 45 destroyers HMS ‘Duncan’ and HMS ‘Dragon’: anti-sub, anti-aircraft missile boats at a billion each. By the end of the mission both were limping. Linkages between their Wartsila diesel generators and electric propulsion motors had failed. Some weeks earlier, on 20 June, a Faslane-based Trident submarine had test-launched a missile (cost: £ 13 million) off the Florida coast
that shot off towards that coast, in the opposite direction to that intended.
On 24 April 2014 the Reuters website had carried an article on the previously underestimated cyberthreat to marine communications. The Clyde voyage of ’Eclipse’ came about six months later, as did the near-success of Scottish secession in that year’s referendum, backed by Rupert Murdoch himself. Two years later a second, obscurely-financed poll on the EU ended with England headed for ‘Brexit’ and the Scots still Europe-minded.
Rogue potentate? Doctor No? John Buchan remains the go-to guy. Between 1924-35 he was depute chair of Reuters, but in 1900 as a young lawyer he got his political start in Cape Town as private secretary to the
super-enigma Alfred Milner. Machiavellian Governor-General deployed against the Boer rebels, Milner went on to be a ‘last-ditcher’ in the unreformed Lords, a backer of the ‘Ulster revolt’ of 1914: yet resilient-enough in 1916-18 to become co-ordinator of Lloyd George’s War Cabinet – against his own Germany. Milner’s mercuric Yorkshire-German father had founded the Tuebingen English Seminar; young Alfred reached Balliol as a product of the town’s new Gymnasium.
Somewhere there’s a throwaway Buchan line about the charm of young Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (aka Lenin) as his babysitter in Portland Place. But a political leader, even a Lenin, is always handicapped by power blocs and finance committees and compromise. A kleptocrat billionaire – an Andrew Lumley or Dominic Medina, or Abramovitch – is not. Least of all if his business is war, and he lives on his own floating brain.