Conservatives Need to Reevaluate Beliefs After Defeat

Britain's then-home secretary, Theresa May, speaks at a mosque in East London, England, February 12, 2015
Britain’s then-home secretary, Theresa May, speaks at a mosque in East London, England, February 12, 2015 (UK Home Office)

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. Read more

Scottish Referendum Raises Questions About Nationhood

Statue of a unicorn in Edinburgh, Scotland, March 11
Statue of a unicorn in Edinburgh, Scotland, March 11 (byronv2)

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. Read more

Inevitable Cuts Undermine American-British Partnership

Royal Navy frigate HMS St Albans passes the US Navy aircraft carrier USS George W. Bush during an exercise in the Middle East, September 27, 2011
Royal Navy frigate HMS St Albans passes the US Navy aircraft carrier USS George W. Bush during an exercise in the Middle East, September 27, 2011 (Defence Images)

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.

Over the past twenty years or so, British armed forces have been seen alongside their American counterparts very often — most recently in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Gates said that the United States have been able to count on a British support and that its military capabilities cover the “full spectrum” of conflict.

However, the economic times being what they are have led to a reduction in British defense spending, even if it still surpasses the minimum required by NATO by 25 percent. Personnel across the three services is being reduced. This has led to a number of senior servicemen warning about “hollowed out” forces, meaning a lack of manpower compared to equipment.

This is a reasonable fear. The war in Afghanistan showed that if the United Kingdom were to undertake more operations of that kind in the future, it would be desirable to have more men under arms, allowing increased rotations of units and so reducing the strain on individual servicemen. Instead, the number of British Army servicemen is being cut by 20,000. The Air Force and Navy, less manpower intensive to begin with, are facing small yet no less significant reductions.

A number of large platform projects have been embarked upon despite these savings, including the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carrier and the necessary airframes needed to throw off it, all of which cost a lot of money. The Royal Navy will also be receiving more of the new T-45 destroyers. New frigates wll also be on the way, as will a replacement submarine to carry the nuclear deterrent.

Former defense chief General Sir David Richards was skeptical of these investments and said, to anyone who would listen, that what was needed was more helicopters and soldiers. However, he was saying that at a time when the world was just a little different. The campaign in Afghanistan seemed more pressing and years more of tedious counterinsurgency operations looked likely; not, as Libya turned out to be, a return to the 1990s style of coercive air campaigns.

Afghanistan and Iraq taught the United Kingdom as well as the United States the unpopularity of putting soldiers and the required kit into the field for a length of time. It now seems unlikely, evidenced by last year’s parliamentary vote against intervention in Syria, that Britain will soon consider a repeat of the last decade’s wars. David Cameron is not likely to go out of his way to need a force the size of the one that went to Afghanistan under the Union flag. He will most likely be avoiding anything resembling such an undertaking and so will his immediate successors.

So is Gates right? Of course he is. A reduction in military spending and manpower does lead to a reduction in capability. But what does that mean in turn? The British public, for the most part, welcomes a reduction in armed forces rather than hospitals. Many also still resent the form American-British relations took during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. The notion that Britain will no longer be “America’s poodle” is a popular one, especially on the left.

Still, a fundamental break is unlikely. Britain continues to at least try to uphold its commitments and, barring Syria, get involved. It will no doubt continue to do so up to and after the regaining of hefty seapower in the form of the Queen Elizabeth class carrier. It still spends 2.5 percent of its annual economic output on defense. The British armed forces’ role has not changed fundamentally since 1945, even if they have less men and equipment. They retain, in theory, a global remit, particularly at sea; involvement with NATO in the defense of Europe; and general support for the main ally, the United States.

Ideally (although depending on one’s view of the armed forces), there wouldn’t be cuts at all but that is politically untenable. Few British voters would accept defense being exempt from cuts when other other departments are forced to make reductions. So while Gates’ concern of a reduced variety of ability in the British forces is accurate, the alternative is not realistic. The order and method of the cuts taken by the government, that is keeping costly and time consuming projects over personnel, will at least give much greater opportunity to regain what is lost than doing it the other way around and avoiding investment in long life but high cost assets.

Independent Scottish Defense Would Amount to Little

A parade of Scottish Royal Marines at Her Majesty's Naval Base Clyde, April 3, 2012
A parade of Scottish Royal Marines at Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde, April 3, 2012 (MOD/Will Haigh)

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.

What could Scotland’s taxpayers get for their money? They are very unlikely to be in the market for large warships, modern combat aircraft and so on, because of the considerable costs — plus, it is difficult to see what contribution two or three frigates, or half a dozen combat aircraft, could usefully make to the security of Scotland’s land mass and interests.

A desire to keep some of the famous Scottish regiments of the British Army in a separate Scottish defense organization has been expressed, although their large numbers of non-Scottish recruits may not be allowed to continue. Which would suit the lower budget requirements.

Seeking a free lunch, Scottish claims could be made for a handful of legacy pieces from the former joint armed forces, perhaps even a large surface ship which Philip Hammond claims is about all Scotland’s contribution to the budget can afford.

Cornish suggests that a fleet of small vessels could be bought and maintained for a “brown water” navy. Some rotary wing and transport aircraft as well as a small gendarmerie or land force, perhaps a few thousand, could be added. That compares to over 200,000 active duty personnel currently in the armed forces.

There’s also the question of buildings, facilities and equipment that a rump British state wouldn’t be likely to simply give away. The vast majority of assets, personnel and institutions would naturally progress into English control should Scotland gain independence, due to the divisions in funding and the areas where they are based.

The River Clyde running through Glasgow holds a sizable portion of Britain’s military shipbuilding, or rather BAE Systems Surface Ships, part of the defense contractor that provides most of British military materiel, does. Whether these will be maintained in an independent Scotland is debatable. Past attempts to regenerate shipyards outside Scotland have not proved wholly successful but the Royal Navy does not, indeed, cannot order its larger warships from foreign yards for security and employment reasons (although supply tankers may soon be built in South Korea and cold weather patrol vessels have been purchased from Norway). There is no reason why this should not continue and production transferred to somewhere south of the border if Scotland secedes.

Nuclear powered vessels will also require new facilities as the deterrent must have a safe port at home suitable to their needs. Currently based at Naval Base Clyde, the Vanguard class submarines and their planned replacements will have to be controlled from some other port which may lead to the refurbishment of disused facilities or even making new ones, as Devonport and Portsmouth, Britain’s two other operating naval bases, are busy and do not enjoy some of the features of the Clyde locale: access to the North Atlantic and deep waterways removed from busy civilian shipping lanes.

Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister and nationalist party leader, is reluctant to embrace the atom maintaining it would be “inconceivable that an independent nation of 5,250,000 people would tolerate the continued presence of weapons of mass destruction on its soil.” This removes the possibility of the Royal Navy borrowing the Clyde base.

The anti-nuclear line is one towed by the party generally and it would seem the Scottish population at large. The facilities, including the Faslane base nearby, are subject to a permanent “peace camp” of activists. This raises questions as to what may happen to Scotland’s defense in other ways.

Seeking to have NATO membership, Scottish lawmakers will have to accept the nuclear aspects of that body and the potential of hosting American armed forces which may or may not include nuclear assets, depending on how NATO continues to persist as an alliance.

England, forced to pay for the relocation of millions of pounds worth of nuclear related assets and shipbuilding, the loss of Scottish recruits and so on, will probably be disinclined for much positive military diplomacy with Scotland and therefore unlikely to throw many contract bones or enter happily into defense arrangements apart from those Scottish leaders wrangle with NATO.

Moreover, Salmond’s vision that Scotland only use military force when the United Nations permit it and his desire that it be covered by NATO at the same time could flag it as an unreliable security partner before it is even independent.

Yet such arrangements with other states will be necessary for the security of the remainder of Britain. The point in acquiring Scotland in the first place was to remove any threat to England from the north, allowing efforts to be focused elsewhere. Scotland has since served as a shield, housing advanced air and sensor stations that secure the island from air attack (although one wonders who from); stations that will have to be relocated if Scotland votes to become independent, leaving the rest of Britain to depend on the competency of an air force worth less than £2.5 billion.

An arrangement similar to American and Canadian cooperation in defending North American airspace might be found although it would mean basing English personnel in Scotland which the nationalists there seem wary of.

As Britain looks more to cooperation with France in military activities and may find it even more desirable to do so after splintering with Scotland, the old French ally L’Écosse would likely be left out, unable to make any such ties. Not liking American nuclear weapons or English servicemen enough to host any and not offering anything useful for international efforts, Scottish defense diplomacy could end up being equal to possible conflict fighting capabilities — which may be very little indeed.

Given the prospects for Scottish international relations capital, needs, assets and interests, however, that little may be just about right to suit requirements.

British-Spanish Relations Sour After Gibraltar Incursion

View of Gibraltar at dusk
View of Gibraltar at dusk (Shutterstock/Philip Lange)

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

Argentina’s Claim to Falklands a Travesty

The flag of Argentina
The flag of Argentina (Noel Hidalgo)

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

Fortress Under Siege? Gibraltan Sovereignty in Jeopardy

View from the Rock of Gibraltar, April 23, 2002
View from the Rock of Gibraltar, April 23, 2002 (James Cridland)

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. Read more