Conservatives Learned the Lesson of the 2017 Election

Boris Johnson
British foreign secretary Boris Johnson answers questions from reporters at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, June 18, 2018 (UN/Jean-Marc Ferré)

Britain’s Conservative Party learned the lesson of the 2017 election, when then-Prime Minister Theresa May lost her majority on the back of some rather limp campaigning.

This year, under the more charismatic, if perhaps less reliable, Boris Johnson, the Conservatives have been in an optimistic mood, emphasizing hoped-for possibilities of economic, political and social renewal after Brexit.

The mantra of their campaign was to “get Brexit done” after three years of back-and-forth negotiations with the EU. The calculation was that this would appeal to working-class Labour voters in constituences that want to leave the EU. The exit poll released by the three major broadcasters after polling places closed on Thursday night appears to bear this out. Read more “Conservatives Learned the Lesson of the 2017 Election”

Conservatives Need to Reevaluate Beliefs After Defeat

Theresa May James Mattis
British prime minister Theresa May speaks with American defense secretary James Mattis at Lancaster House in London, England, May 11 (DoD/Jette Carr)

Given the vote share Labour has accrued in England under Jeremy Corbyn, ideas from Britain’s mid- to late-twentieth century are once again mainstream — and they pose an ideological challenge to the liberal consensus that is in many ways deeper than last year’s vote to leave the EU.

Thursday’s election saw a one-nation-ish Conservative government face off against the most left-wing Labour Party in generations — both the left-wing elements of their parties, so to speak. The center ground thus shifted to the left, not just between cosmopolitanism and isolationism, but between different appraisals of the role of the state. Read more “Conservatives Need to Reevaluate Beliefs After Defeat”

Scottish Referendum Raises Questions About Nationhood

The polls are closed, but that doesn’t mean an end to the Scottish referendum in the news. Even by tomorrow night, there will be plenty more to say (and repeat) on the issue which, either way, will change the United Kingdom — either destroying it or keeping it together with new expectations of devolution among its constituent countries.

All eyes, it seems, both north, south and abroad, are watching with some dog in the race, either culturally (in the case of the millions of Scots descendants who still claim to be Scottish) or politically. Politicians in Madrid, for example, are no doubt observing with particular interest and wondering how this will all knock on for Spain’s own issues with the Catalans and the Basques.

Opinions on the matter are as divided in England as they are in Scotland, not just including the Scots living south of the border who have been unable to vote (like Andy Murray, who tweeted his support for independence) but also among the English. Some Conservatives see it as a wonderful opportunity to reduce the voters of the opposition; Scotland was for years a Labour bastion until many Scots felt underwhelmed and even outright betrayed by the policies of New Labour. With a reduced leftist population in a rump United Kingdom, the right-wing Conservatives and United Kingdom Independence Party would gain a larger relative portion of the vote. You’d think David Cameron would be pleased about that at least but credit where it is due — he does seem to genuinely want the union to continue despite the potential opportunities for his own party. Read more “Scottish Referendum Raises Questions About Nationhood”

Inevitable Cuts Undermine American-British Partnership

Robert Gates served both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama as America’s defense secretary. He is a man well versed in defense, considered perhaps even the best Pentagon chief since 1945. Clearly then, here is a man worth listening to when he says that defense spending cuts, taken by the British government, undermine the United Kingdom’s ability to be, in his words, a “full partner” of the United States’.

He did not say, however, that the relationship between the two countries was at an end, nor that it had even been fundamentally altered, as the BBC’s Jonathan Beale claims. Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, has pointed out while witnessing some locomotives, his country retains the fourth largest defense expenditure in the world. Nor does it have a constitutional limitation imposed on its use of armed force, such as Japan, or a history of shirking NATO commitments, like France — two other American allies. Read more “Inevitable Cuts Undermine American-British Partnership”

Independent Scottish Defense Would Amount to Little

Britain’s defense secretary, Philip Hammond, made light of Scottish plans for an independent defense on Thursday, arguing in an interview with The Daily Telegraph, “Taking random units and putting them together does not make an army. Half a destroyer would be no use to anyone, neither would be one frigate.” If crude, it is a fair assessment.

The Scots will vote in a referendum next year about whether they wish to secede from Britain. Opinion polls show there isn’t majority support for independence although the separatist Scottish National Party is by far the dominant political force in the region. It promises to commit £2.5 billion per year to defense if Scottish voters decide to break away from the United Kingdom.

Paul Cornish, a professor in strategic studies at the University of Exeter, writes in The Daily Telegraph that that’s significantly less than the £3.3 billion that Scotland currently contributes to British defense spending, totaling some £35 billion — which is hardly enough to finance the country’s defense needs as is. Read more “Independent Scottish Defense Would Amount to Little”

British-Spanish Relations Sour After Gibraltar Incursion

In part of its ongoing dispute with the Spanish government over the sovereignty status of Gibraltar, Spain’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, Federico Trillo-Figueroa, was summoned to the Foreign Office before the weekend for what was undoubtedly a heated exchange.

The redress was in reaction to a recent naval incident wherein a civilian vessel from Gibraltar was almost seized by the Armada Española and Spanish customs officials, were it not for the intervention of the Royal Gibraltar Police.

Europe Minister David Lidington explained on Thursday that Britain had “repeatedly made diplomatic protests to Spain over attempts by Spanish state authorities to exercise jurisdiction in British Gibraltar territorial waters.” He condemned Spain’s “provocative incursions” and urged its government “to ensure that they are not repeated.”

The minister furnished other details of the latest incident, reporting that a Spanish “warship” took a tour of Gibraltar’s territorial waters for some time, followed by the arrival of Spanish customs vessels seeking to intercept the civilian boat. Read more “British-Spanish Relations Sour After Gibraltar Incursion”

Argentina’s Claim to Falklands a Travesty

Of late, the Argentinian government has objected to continued Royal Naval deployments to the British overseas territory of the Falkland Islands which are situated some three hundred miles from Argentina’s coast in the South Atlantic.

Buenos Aires under President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has since the end of last year made demands and claims over the islands, seeking to take Britain to international arbitration in hopes of gaining support for its case.

It has, from celebrities including musician Morrissey and the American actor Sean Penn. They have made statements supporting Kirchner’s policy and damning Britain’s possession of the islands as an anachronism.

Accusations have been made of Britain “militarizing” the issue via deploying “more” naval forces and prominent people, though how the dispatching of the Duke of Cambridge to the islands to learn air-sea rescue methods, or rotating a T-45 destroyer through the Falklands station simply because it was its turn, is “militarizing the issue” does not make sense to anyone aware of the concept of training deployments. Read more “Argentina’s Claim to Falklands a Travesty”

Fortress Under Siege? Gibraltan Sovereignty in Jeopardy

In Foreign Policy this month, it was hinted that, along with the Falkland Islands, the tiny peninsular of Gibraltar, located on the southernmost tip of the Iberian Peninsula, may become a high-profile case for sovereignty discussion between Britain and a foreign power, in this case, Spain.

This comes in tandem with a recent increase in tension concerning the aforementioned Falklands and the bid by the Argentine government to take the matter of their sovereignty to the United Nations.

Gibraltar, nicknamed “The Rock” after the imposing mountain which overlooks its Mediterranean and Atlantic bays, was captured in the early eighteenth century by an Anglo-Dutch force and has been a British naval base ever since. Its position was further codified in the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht which ended British involvement in the War of the Spanish Succession, along with formally declaring that a number of territories be ceded to Britain, including several French colonies in North America along with Gibraltar.

The import of “Gib” in British strategic history was of high order, allowing a base from which to exercise command of the mid Atlantic, plague France and Spain and control the Western Mediterranean. It was a vital post during Britain’s expansion and later dominance of world affairs in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The recently elected Spanish conservative government under Mariano Rajoy has made an official stance to the effect of a new vitality in the Spanish claim to Gibraltar, stating that it will abandon tripartite talks and ignore Gibraltan input on the issue. Instead, Madrid seeks only to deal with the British government directly, perhaps hoping for a more favorable course. Read more “Fortress Under Siege? Gibraltan Sovereignty in Jeopardy”

American, British Navies Explore Carrier Cooperation

In the first week of January, defense secretaries Philip Hammond and Leon Panetta signed a statement of intent on aircraft carrier cooperation that, according to a Pentagon spokesman, will “provide the basis for the United States to assist the British Royal Navy in developing its next generation of aircraft carriers. This cooperation is a cutting edge example of close allies working together in a time of fiscal austerity to deliver a capability needed to maintain our global military edge.”

Figuring out exactly what that means in real, physical results is not easy however because, like any NATO allies, and perhaps more than some, the American and British navies are often working together in a number of ways already, from deployments to individual secondments, to war games and other peacetime training exercises.

Interoperability, then, seems covered by existing practices and furthering of it would seem to suggest more of the same. But the statement really comes into its own when one regards the recent policies of the British Defense Ministry in procurement issues and in retiring systems.

The October 2010, after the latest Strategic Defense and Security Review had been released, I noted the loss of the Harrier GR9 from the Royal Air Force inventory here at the Atlantic Sentinel which ended over thirty years of British use of the vertical takeoff jet, the first in service being the Royal Navy Sea Harriers in 1978 which saw action in the Falklands War. The construction of the two Queen Elizabeth class carriers remained on the board despite fears that one could be scrapped. It may still be sold.

With the retirement of the Harrier, the Royal Navy was left with two light aircraft carriers of the Invincible class: Illustrious and Ark RoyalInvincible herself being decommission in 2005 — with nothing to throw off them, but in the SDSR, Ark Royal too was to be immediately retired and currently only Illustrious remains in the role of a helicopter carrier. It is believed she will remain in service until 2014 from which point there will not be a vessel in service with the Royal Navy capable of operating such fixed-wing craft, regardless of the fact that there aren’t any anyway. Considering the Royal Navy was the first to operate aircraft carriers in the First World War, it must certainly be a source of shame and embarrassment for that institution.

This, however, is not surprising. The loss of the last real aircraft carrier fielded by the Royal Navy, HMS Ark Royal in 1978, was a sign of the future as much as the past. The Royal Navy had been reduced in capabilities (but not commitments) since the mid 1950s. The winds of change at that time clearly blew forth the final touches to the fact that the Royal Navy had been relinquishing its two hundred year position of mastery of the seas, and the responsibility of maintaining their peace, since the Second World War.

It really hit home in the Suez crisis when the US Navy demonstrated clearly the new formula of the international system, one in which Britain, and subsequently the Royal Navy, was no longer the arbiter of good conduct on the great common of the seas. The US Navy took that role, that capability and that responsibility.

With the passing of Poseidon’s trident from Britannia to Columbia, the funding also changed hands. It was now the duty of the American taxpayer to finance the world’s largest navy with as many as eight carrier fleets today. Britons could at least sigh in relief that this burden was no longer theirs.

Yet until the 2010 SDSR, British defense reviews maintained the need for global role aims, despite constant reduction in suitable capabilities. The Falklands war of 1982 is an example of this.

The 2010 SDSR said it would reduce commitment yet maintained the decision to continue construction of two new carriers, made by the previous administration, which shows a bolstering of capabilities to support commitments necessitating force projection, an about-face compared to previous reviews.

The point of such aircraft is geared toward projecting power from beyond established force conveying infrastructures such as those found in or close by states willing to provide airstrips and other facilities. This is therefore not something vital to the security of Britain as a state but in protecting established and emerging interests beyond the immediate area, to maintain good conduct at sea and in the littoral — a job, we have already established, that is undertaken by the much larger, much more capable United States Navy. Could this then be a minor reversal of the last sixty years of British decline at sea in favor of the United States Navy’s growing presence?

In austere economic times as these, even the Department of Defense has considered force reduction, to the happiness of some pundits and observers who too often fail to realize the importance of the United States Navy to maintaining the current international system and the responsibilities of the United States to that system.

Should the United Kingdom come to assist this task of Atlas, the US Navy would find itself more free to cut down its own forces and perhaps, depending on the burden being taken on by allied forces, reduce the number of its carrier fleets.

This is not to say that is how things will pan out but the American encouragement of British plans to expand capabilities like force projection and sea basing are surely not done out of the goodness of Secretary Panetta’s heart. The United States will surely benefit from a friendly carrier out doing the same job as the US Navy, especially one operating the same aircraft, speaking the same language, with officers and men who have worked with the United States Navy and with equipment using similar supply chains to the United States Navy and allowing American aircraft to land on a conventional carrier deck.

Furthermore, it may be wondered if this will involve industry assistance of some kind in the development of the carrier itself, which would seem to be mentioned in the statement, but of what kind is not made clear. Both the new Royal Navy carriers and the next generation of American ones are said to feature electromagnetic catapults. No doubt the sharing of other technologies could be agreed upon to increase interoperability.

The Royal Navy faces severe challenges in achieving any kind of position from which to lend credible assistance however. In the summer of 2010 it was thought Britain and France could closely integrate aspects of their defense capabilities, including the use of the French carrier Charles De Gaul, an idea that was later rubbished by Liam Fox, then defense secretary, for good reason, Charles De Gaul being a nuclear powered, conventional CATOBAR carrier. The new British carriers will also facilitate catapult assisted takeoff as opposed to the “ski jump” type used on the Invincible class and optimized for aircraft like Harrier.

For the same reason this could not work, the Royal Navy will struggle to adjust to the new vessels, and hence commitment of the assistance of the United States Navy.

The Royal Navy has no operational memory of such a large vessel, of orchestrating such large air flight groups, or of operating decks or aircraft compatible with catapult assisted takeoff. The US Navy has, and Royal Air Force pilots will no doubt have to learn from American counterparts in the technical difficulties of landing and taking off from aircraft carriers, as much as Royal Navy servicemen will have to learn from their opposite numbers in American service in handling all aspects of carrier operation.

This is quite good news as it will be easier to learn from the Americans than any other power with an aircraft carrier, simply by closeness of relationship and by common language. One also suspects the souring of cordiality between Britain and France surrounding eurozone fiscal policies may have played a part in turning to the United States when just last year the French were heralded as the new partner for interoperability and joint training. Defense diplomacy is alive and well.

Furthermore the Ministry of Defense plans the Royal Air Force to use the F-35C on board the new carriers. Britain is the only Level One designated state involved in the unfortunately slightly troubled Joint Strike Fighter project and, should all creases be ironed out, will benefit greatly from experience of working with the United States, specifically the US Navy which is set to use the same variant.

The scheduling of aircraft production however may seem slow with the F-35 perhaps entering service in 2020. The Queen Elizabeth is due to enter service at some point around 2016. That leaves her without aircraft for four years which by the standards of things at the moment is perfectly fine and sensible. Eight years then until RAF pilots (and one hopes, one day again, Royal Navy ones) as well as Royal Navy sailors will learn everything they can on American ships about carrier operations and duties. Ample time, considering it only took the Royal Navy two years to develop the first true aircraft carrier (HMS Argus, launched in 1918) from scratch and write at least the first few chapters in the book on modern naval aviation.

The only problem which remains then, in theory, is the rest of the Royal Navy fleet which has had its other types cut, a number of destroyers and frigates lost along with the amphibious dock landing ship Largs Bay, now HMAS Choules.

With a smaller fleet the Royal Navy will have a weaker stable with which to create and augment a flotilla based around one of the new carrier. Forming two such flotillas around both of the new British carriers is out of the question so perhaps there again interoperability with the United States Navy, and possibly even the French, will be the expected outcome, should the scenario come about where Britain has to deploy two aircraft carriers at the same time. Should it have to go it alone, the Royal Navy force sent may be at increased risk due to lack of support vessels and have limited capability if specialist vessels like the Bay class are unavailable or too far away for whatever reason.

Americans Gives Russia British Trident Numbers

Recent newspaper reports bring to our attention an intriguing WikiLeaks revelation of American-Russian agreements as part of the New START treaty. The agreement, according to diplomatic cables released by the whistleblowers’ website, detailed plans for the Obama Administration to reveal to the Russians the serial numbers of all Trident D5 missiles which the United States provide to Britain.

The issue here lays in the policy which Britain pursues with regard to its nuclear forces. The policy relies on ambiguity: officials never disclose the exact numbers of the nuclear arsenal that is held by Britain. One can well imagine why this was part of the New START process as part of its raison d’être is the reduction of delivery vehicles used by both Russia and the United States. By also disclosing the number of American supplied British delivery vehicles, the Obama Administration is making sure to gain Russia’s trust. It would make little sense for the Kremlin to accept American vehicle and warhead reductions, attempt to match them as part of the reduction treaty and yet have to completely ignore those it provides to allies and uses by proxy. Read more “Americans Gives Russia British Trident Numbers”