SIR PETER BOTTOMLEY: Tides, currents and wind

Sir Peter sailing on the Solent
Sir Peter sailing on the Solent

There is an occasional fashion to say that Members of Parliament have had little experience of real life. It may be true of a few; it is not right for colleagues I know.

This comes to mind when remembering Labour’s MP Kevin McNamara, the Roman Catholic from Liverpool who chaired the Select Committee for Overseas Development in the late 1970s when we cooperated on how the European Communities could be better partners with economically developing countries.

There was a charming article about his return to Merseyside when he retired from representing Hull after being an undergraduate and a lecturer there: the title was ‘To Hull and Back’.

His father had been a seaman. It would be good for succeeding generations to know about the founders of trades unions. Some rightly became involved in parliamentary politics.

One was Havelock Wilson, campaigner for the rights of merchant seamen. In 1887, he founded the National Sailors’ and Firemen’s’ Union, the NSFU. He opposed the growing links between unions and the Labour party.

This might be seen as a paradox as the Labour party grew from some unions and socialist groups. My view is that whatever the history, union members and our political process would improve if unions became non-party.

One day I intend to write about Edward Tupper, the powerful organiser for the NSFU, later the National Union of Seamen. It is amazing to read how in 1917, Tupper organised the picket that prevented physically the embarkation of Ramsay MacDonald for a conference of socialist parties in Stockholm just after the Russian Revolution. The union sadly later took quite a time to treat black sailors on the same basis as white sailors.

I still have my Plimsoll shoes, named for the white line’s resemblance to the ships’ Load Lines that help prevent the overloading that caused the deaths of too many sailors.

Samuel Plimsoll was elected MP as a Liberal reformer. An earlier period of destitution gave him sympathy for the struggles of the poor. His parliamentary aim was to abolish the “coffin ships”, described as unseaworthy, overloaded, over-insured by unscrupulous owners uncaring about the risks to the crews.

I arrived first in Liverpool as a supernumerary on SS Theseus, the 7,800 tonne Alfred Holt freighter after working my seven-week passage from Brisbane.

We experienced rough seas in the Australian Bight on passage from Fremantle near Perth to Aden. Plimsoll’s regulations have saved many.

These thoughts come to mind as I sail on the Solent between Sussex and the Isle of Wight in an ancient open sailing boat.

It came into the family from an old commodore whose first journeys in the merchant marine were on cargo ships with sails.

When the seas are rough, I sing his songs and hymns. My favourite sailors’ song includes the line ‘My father is in politics, a good and righteous man’ – that is the cleaned up version.

In political service as when sailing or making a passage, we can normally cope with the tides, currents and adverse winds if we know where we are aiming for, and if we have some skill, experience, safety equipment and the possibility of help from the vigilant Coastguard and the RNLI.


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