Neil Morisetti (Class of 1975)
Rear Admiral Neil Morisetti (Class of 1975) served in the Royal Navy for 37 years and was Commander of the UK Maritime Force, as well as NATO High Readiness Force Maritime Commander. In 2013 he served as the Foreign Secretary's interim Special Representative for Climate Change and he continues to work in both climate and defence policy, as a Professor and Vice Dean at University College, London and for policy think-tanks including Chatham House. Neil took over as President of the John Carpenter Club in June 2022.
When did you decide that you wanted a life in the forces?
I had passed through the train-driver stage but wasn’t really sure where I had got to. Then, a colleague ahead of me at CLS called Mark Sloan joined the Navy as a University Cadet and we had a chat. It sounded like a good idea. It allowed you to go up to university and do all the things I wanted to do in terms of travel, leadership and to be involved in the issues of the day: this was at the height of the Cold War. I was planning to stay for four or five years but it ended up being 37!
You had roles at sea but also on land, working in policy and strategy. Which did you enjoy most?
Ultimately, being at sea was the more rewarding. But then some of the desk jobs give you real opportunities to influence things, so both roles were enjoyable in different ways
It was the variety I really enjoyed, no two days were the same. One day in 2004, in New York, when I was Commanding Officer of HMS INVINCIBLE we opened the New York Stock Exchange at breakfast, had lunch at the New York Yacht Club, for the Americas Cup and then hosted all the world’s UN ambassadors at a reception onboard in the evening.
But, not long after, our ship was sitting off Pakistan launching jets to support operations in Afghanistan. So the Navy operates across a spectrum, from a mix of soft-power diplomacy to hard power warfighting, and you have to keep your sailors up to speed on both.
During that deployment to the Middle East we also captured pirates off the Horn of Africa. The night before we were told that a fishing boat had been taken over by pirates. We coordinated a search across an area of 9000 square miles over night and at first light, we had an aircraft carrier on one side and a frigate on the other and two other ships, plus a helicopter and a couple of jets up there too. And it was all over in about half an hour.
Earlier in my career, when I was serving in Northern Ireland, we had a squadron of fast boats, based in Belfast and patrolling the coast to ensure there was no movement of weapons in or out by sea. Command of a warship at any stage in your career is a privilege but particularly so when in your mid 20s.
And then there are just days at sea. Days when you are in the tropics, first thing in the morning and you’re in deck shoes and shorts, open-neck shirt and someone brings you a cup of coffee and you think, 'And they’re paying me as well?!'.
In that complete variety, lies the strength of maritime power; it’s the sheer diversity of what you can do.
As Commanding Officer of the destroyer, HMS CARDIFF, what did a typical day involve?
All the ships I commanded in some ways did broadly similar things. You have a task you are given for the day/month/quarter which took in a broad range of things: we could be simply a maritime presence, showing the flag – or we could be working to stop drugs being smuggled from South America to North America or Europe. We also went to the Caribbean to offer support during the Hurricane season. But there was also diplomacy and working with local communities: on a port visit, my sailors would help local charities or work at a local hospice.
And then, all the time, you are training for things that only the military can do: high-intensity war fighting. Some of that is done in intensive packages off Plymouth but there is also ongoing training while you are away doing other things.
When you are working against the narcotics trade, presumably you have smaller craft going out from the main ship?
A warship, sitting 12 miles off a coastline, just outside Territorial Waters sends quite a powerful message in itself. But, yes, you have your own small craft on board and your own helicopter and you are also working with maritime patrol aircraft from America and colleagues from the Dutch or French Navies in the region, working with their own dependent territories.
Over the time of your service, what changed about the role of the Navy?
When I joined in 1976 we were still in the Cold War and it was relatively straight forward. As maritime forces, we knew what our job was; to escort reinforcements across the Atlantic whilst those in Europe held the ground. But by the end of my service in 2012, we were involved in multiple agency operations, often in a coalition of the willing rather than just the NATO alliance, involving many more nations, but also working with non-governmental organisations and with much greater integration across government. The Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force were also working more closely together than they had been in the 70s.
When history is written about the immediate post-Cold War era that led us to where we are now, what might the verdict be?
My take on it is that we will look back and say there were points where we could have acted differently and not ended up where we are today. The manner in which we treated Russia after the fall of the Berlin Wall undoubtedly has a bearing on where we are now.
I think we probably should have done more to bring them into the European fold and we should have acknowledged the scale of the challenge they faced in a society that had gone from Tsarist to Communist and then collapsed.
When you talk with other recently retired military personnel, do they generally agree with how NATO has handled the current situation in the Ukraine?
There is a general understanding that we are treading a very fine line: what we have seen from 24 February onwards is a complete upturning of the post-1945 world. Putin has thrown everything that was understood about respect for nation states out of the window. NATO has to re find itself. We have to acknowledge that we aren’t going to return to that pre-2022 world again. We are going back to maybe the Cold War period, where we will have to demonstrate deterrence through capability and a willingness to act, or maybe even earlier.
We need to get into the mindset of potential aggressors. We are a lot closer to 1962 [the Cuban Missile Crisis] than many people recognise. But I’m not convinced we are prepared for it. In 1962, there were conversations going on between the Soviets and NATO and there was a mutual understanding, in part gained from years and years of studying each other. That kind of understanding isn’t in place now, which makes it a pretty dangerous world.
So, should we have been more friendly with Russia post-Cold War?
Not necessarily friendly but we could have done more. I think we have set conditions to enable someone like Putin to control the narrative, in the Russian media and in public life; to portray Russia as a victim of the west.
It may be that 1945-89 was the anomaly, in being a relatively stable period in world history. If you look at the challenges the security community faces today: geopolitical instability; a return to state-on-state conflict in a way no one expected; a resurgent Russia, issues with China in Taiwan; non-state actors with religious motives; organised crime; pandemics; plus the impact of a changing climate – that does not make for a cool, calm collected world.
Has climate change been seen as something quite separate, a soft optional subject, not one that will affect, say, the cost of bread?
The penny is beginning to drop. A lot of work has been done to show to knock-on effect of a changing climate on food, energy and water supplies and prices. There is a growing recognition that that will contribute to instability, around the world.
Even with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we should be approaching it from a far broader perspective, not just oil and gas: the supply of wheat is a far bigger issue. For the foreseeable future, we will have no more wheat from Russia or Ukraine, and this year, even France is too dry to grow wheat, plus there are problems in China, Australia, America. All that will see increased bread prices. We saw that as a factor in the Arab Spring, riots in Tunis over the price of bread.
We live in a joined-up world. We need to work together. But our narratives within politics and society in general in the West are still very populist, short-term, headline-based, low risk: ‘Go into the sweet shop and have what you want’. The manifestos of both major parties in the UK in 2019 gave that impression. The reality is that there is global scarcity or at least imbalance in key natural resources (food, water and land) and we need to acknowledge that and the impact that climate change will have. I think beyond the West there is greater emphasis on underlying stories and explanations.
Taking an Environmental Sciences degree, you were already across some of these issues even before the global warming crisis…
Well, at the time we were preparing for a mini Ice Age! Environmental Sciences was a version of Geography. It gave me a wide education. I studied everything from social anthropology to geo-chemistry. That mix wasn’t very vocational but it gave me a huge breadth of understanding and allowed me time to play a lot of sport! Compared to the other forces, sailors need to think strategically on a big scale. They have to look at the big picture and that was something my degree prepared me for.
What was your first experience of work?
In my last summer at CLS, I worked as a temporary clerk at the Bank of England. My mother had worked there during the war. I wouldn’t say I was very good, not least because I discovered Stella Artois at 13p a pint at the subsidised bar! I did it for seven or eight weeks. It was quite well paid, actually.
How did you come to be at City?
I was at a state primary school. I sat the entrance exam for three independent schools and my parents felt that City of London was the best fit. I remember my nerves on the first day. I remember going into the New 2a form and then being moved to a new form after a few days, because I had studied French at primary school. Although the French teacher soon worked out I didn’t actually know any French!
But my French teacher did reappear later in my life when I was doing my Navy medical - I had hay fever and I was worried I might not get through. The young doctor was apparently from CLS too, because he looked at my notes and said, 'Did Rocky Cornish teach you French?' And I said, ‘Yes’ and that was good enough to pass the medical!
Which subjects did you enjoy at CLS?
Geography and history. I wasn’t the best academically and I wasn’t a natural at sport. I probably didn’t make the most of the opportunities I had there...
Which extra-curricular activities did you enjoy?
I played rugby, athletics, some lunchtime fives, but nothing more than that. I enjoyed the CCF. I got more and more into rugby as I got older, after I left school.
Who was your most inspiring teacher?
There were two definite cohorts of teachers when I was there. Those who had seen war service; some had been evacuated with the school to Marlborough, but others had seen active service. But eventually you started seeing different generations coming through, with different perspectives.
I have been in touch with Andrew Murray ever since I left. He didn’t actually teach me history but he was head of the CCF and I still seek guidance from him. Occasionally, I exchange emails with Geoff Piper, who was my form master and a physics teacher. Both of those were the younger intake. I don’t think I was the easiest student for any of them.
Which visiting speakers do you recall?
Denis Healey when he was shadow chancellor, or maybe even chancellor. He said he didn’t know anything about economics, which I still remember! Cliff Richard came and spoke once too. I can’t remember what he said but it was probably on the religious subject, I think.
Did you enjoy school?
I think I generally did. The experience of travelling into central London as a young child was a big element, with all the positives and negatives. I would come in on the train from Eltham; it was unreliable and often packed. I had to hitch to school once, when I was about 13. I did get a lift in an E-type Jag so that was good but I don’t think it would be encouraged now!
I must have been very keen, to do that. I think I cycled once, too. But being in the City, the whole experience, you became aware of a wider world, almost by osmosis. The way we were taught, with the emphasis on developing our own way of thinking, helped shape me. I think the school culture is about developing rounded individuals who can take their place in society and have the confidence to engage with all sorts of people.
I think CLS has all the benefits of an independent school without some of the baggage... It has a very democratic, eclectic intake. Apart from once being invited to inspect the CCF, for a long time I was not very involved with the school. But a couple of years ago I was approached and asked whether I might consider being president of the John Carpenter Club. I am looking forward to taking on that role in July. Meeting up with the other alumni on the committee, we feel very strongly that our priority is to offer boys from across society the opportunity to have the benefits we have had, by raising money for bursaries and supporting the work of the school in whichever way we can.