Red ensign is a symbol of peace and prosperity — not a target
Boris Johnson's new government must co-ordinate its efforts with the merchant navy on the provision of oversight and support for ships. This will go a long way towards managing the threat posed by Iran, and mitigating the risk to British-flagged vessels in the region
‘The red ensign that adorns Britain’s ships evokes peace and prosperity. We must protect that reputation,’ says the chief executive of the UK Chamber of Shipping
IT IS TO risk a banality to say Boris Johnson has a difficult task ahead of him.
Having secured the keys to Number 10 and assembled his Cabinet, he must navigate Britain’s departure from the European Union and unite a Conservative party split by competing opinion over that exit.
More pressing, however, is the need to address a growing diplomatic crisis in the Strait of Hormuz.
In recent weeks, against a backdrop of growing tensions between the US and Iran, Iranian ships have twice confronted a British-flagged merchant vessel, in the second case seizing it and bringing it into their territory.
The events in the Gulf cannot be divorced from what is generally seen as the more important discussion, over Brexit and the future of the country.
The maritime sector that I represent is one of the country’s largest — larger even that the aerospace and automotive sectors. It contributes some £37.4bn in GDP and supports 957,300 jobs. About 95% of all British imports and exports, including 25% of the UK’s energy supply, are moved by sea.
To put it another way, the fates of the country and its maritime sector are intertwined. The interests of the latter must therefore be protected.
This requires a muscular defence of the ‘Red Duster’, the ensign that adorns the UK’s merchant and passenger ships.
The flag is not an evocation of a lost era of naval greatness (as some may claim), but a symbol of peace and prosperity, recognised and respected around the world.
Since the early 17th century, it has flown proudly above the ships that make up the UK’s merchant fleet, and our ability to trade freely with the rest of the world owes a debt to the strength of the red ensign as a symbol. It bears noting that merchant shipping is the spine of the world economy, representing almost 70 percent of all world trade.
But that red ensign must not become a target.
The Iranian seizure of the British-flagged Stena Impero last Friday was a striking reminder that for some, the red ensign is merely a flag — one that cannot guarantee the safety of the merchant vessels that fly it.
What makes matters worse is that the Strait of Hormuz, where the ship was taken, has great strategic significance. It is a choke point through which one-fifth of all the world’s oil moves, as well as 5% and 13% of British oil and gas, respectively.
Already we are paying for Iran’s actions to the tune of $100,000 to $200,000 per voyage.
War risk cover for hull and machinery for seven days in the Gulf has doubled from 0.25% to 0.5% and continues to rise.
This is also felt by cargo vessels, and it is no exaggeration to say that for a very large crude carrier passing through Hormuz, the cost of seven-day insurance may be as high as $500,000.
Though the present crisis is by no means unique to the United Kingdom, we have unquestionably found ourselves to be the primary target of Iranian aggression in the Gulf. And there is no doubt that Iran’s actions were illegal: it is a signatory of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and maps released by the government show that the vessel Stena Impero was in Omani territorial waters at the time of its seizure.
Crucially, there is no comparison to be made here with the seizure of Grace 1, which was done under international law for the breach of EU sanctions. The Stena Impero was clearly outside Iranian waters and legitimately carrying out its business at the time it was taken.
The health of global trade relies on our mutual commitment to freedom of navigation, and we must therefore arrive at a diplomatic, international solution with the aim of rapid de-escalation in the Gulf.
We welcome the news that there will be a European Maritime Mission designed to protect our interests in the region, but these initiatives can take months, and the need is urgent.
In the intervening period, we must see further action with the resumption of normal merchant shipping transit as its goal.
We must restore confidence in the security of the ships passing through the Strait of Hormuz, and if this necessitates the deployment of more naval vessels from the international community, we would welcome that.
Certainly, we require strong leadership at this time. We can also take simple steps aimed at reducing the threat level in the Gulf (currently the highest possible), which will give the industry and the capital markets confidence.
We must continue to engage Iran diplomatically to secure the quick and peaceful release of the Stena Impero and her crew.
The new government, meanwhile, must co-ordinate its efforts with the merchant navy on the provision of oversight and support for ships. This will go a long way towards managing the threat posed by Iran, and mitigating the risk to British-flagged vessels in the region.
Just as important is reassurance that there are resources available to our merchant navy should any further problems arise. We must continue to build on the already strong relationships between our shipowners and government, with the confidence that their concerns will be addressed.
This is not a matter of ‘shipping looking after shipping’. Nor is it an overstatement of the problem at hand.
As our departure from the EU approaches, it may never have been more important to ensure the safety of British sea trade. Equally it may never have been as important to protect the Red Ensign as a symbol of peace, amity and mutual prosperity.
Taken from Lloyd's List