Outside the marginals

a commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010 & 2015 elections

Finding the right place in the World

The naming ceremony of HMS Queen Elizabeth last week at Rosyth, Scotland was a reminder that the UK still has what many would see as grandiose (and expensive) ideas of its place in the world – ideas that would probably not be pursued by an independent Scotland.

Whilst part of me felt very proud of the idea that (once we have got the aircraft) we would have an ability to “project power” at least half of the time (assuming the second carrier never enters service), part of me is left thinking “what for”?

The world is a place that has the ability to turn suddenly nasty:

  • Civil war in Syria – with a potential domestic terrorism knock-on effect
  • Iraq – and possibly Afghanistan – falling apart
  • Unrest just short of full-on civil war in Ukraine – with a potential European Energy crisis as a knock on effect as well as deteriorating relations with Russia
  • Continued Middle East unrest as Israel appears to both believe that it can just ride out any attempts to get it to make peace with its neighbours and to believe that it can continue to build settlements in occupied land – a process that is recognised as illegal in International law, but which seems to be tolerated with a nod and a wink by the US with its lobby dominated politics
  • Domestic unrest in a number of African and Asian countries where the previous tolerance of multiple religions seems to be breaking down
  • An environment that seems to be able to be more malignant leading to weather events that are either more severe or more widely reported and which give rise to significant humanitarian challenges.

In addition there are ongoing challenges such as:

  • Outbreaks of piracy where you have the combination of remote coasts, extreme poverty and well organised insurgents
  • Persistent attempts by economic migrants to enter rich countries, either across land borders (such as the Mexico – USA border) or by sea (such as from Africa to the Canaries or to Southern Italy, and from South East Asia to Australia)
  • Continued drug smuggling

All countries need to consider how they will respond to such challenges, either individually or collectively. For many they may decide not to respond either because the direct threat is thought small or because they do not see how they could improve the situation by intervening. Then in some cases they will not respond because they know that the US will be responding anyway, so why risk their “blood and treasure” and potentially attract retaliatory terrorism?

Historically this is “not the British Way”. We have a history of intervening both when we see a “national threat” and when we act “altruistically” as “global policemen” – often self-appointed, sometimes UN sanctioned. HMS Queen Elizabeth is an indication that the powers that be intend that we continue in this vein – once or when we get the aircraft.

Our carrier strike force was what “saved us” when the Falklands situation deteriorated unexpectedly  resulting in Argentina seizing the islands in the 1980s. Such a force undoubtedly allows you to project power – provided you are able to protect the carriers or keep them out of reach or sight of the enemy. Land based aircraft tend to have longer ranges than carrier based aircraft, so it is reasonable to suppose that if carrier based aircraft can reach a bit of land, aircraft based on that bit of land can reach the carriers. Whilst carrier defences have developed since the last war, it is probably still the case that a single aircraft (or guided missile) getting through those defences can take out a capital ship.

Therefore a carrier strike force probably cannot take on a “big foe” (think Russia or China) and it has to take considerable risks if it wants to take on foes who are capable of acquiring sophisticated weaponry (think Argentina with French supplied Exocets). Such a force is therefore to a degree “bluster” when compared to a force based around say a helicopter carrier (such as HMS Ocean), amphibious assault ship (such as HMS Bulwark) or a few Harriers on a through deck cruiser. This bluster is the big stick that allows us to speak with authority in fora like the UN.

I suspect that Scotland may well feel that it could do without all of this. In terms of defence it could sign up to NATO with its Article 5 “an attack on one is an attack on all” mutual defence strategy and then make do with a few fisheries defence patrol vessels. It has already said that it will do without nuclear weapons.

Scotland would probably do without a “UK level” of diplomatic representation across the world and its equivalents to organisations like GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 are likely to be significantly slimmer and cheaper. If it does not set out to be one of “the world’s policemen” (and can be seen to be truly independent of Westminster) it will probably attract less opprobrium from the nastier elements of our species, thereby significantly reducing the terrorism threat – and the cost of countering it.

Independence offers Scotland a chance to examine its place in the world. It is almost certain that the (per capita) cost of that place will be significantly less than the cost of the UK’s current place in the world.

The other question of course is whether the UK might at some time in the future examine its place in the world – particularly if there is a “yes” vote in Scotland.

If Westminster were to “lose” Scotland would we, the citizens of a diminished UK, have the stomach for continuing to fund our “world position”? Given that we already:

  • lack the stomach to do anything about Syria
  • seem powerless to do anything about the deteriorating position in Iraq
  • are only able to bluster (“doing a Hague”) about Ukraine

Is our current position a very expensive commitment to defending the Falklands stoked up with a massive dose of vanity?

Many will argue that any “stepping back” would put our UN Security Council permanent status at risk – but shouldn’t we be re-examining the anachronism that “the five victors of the last world war” can still effectively veto anything in the Security Council?

Others will argue that us “stepping back” will give too much power to the Americans and too much prestige to the French. In practice, the Americans already have this power and we seem to have no influence over it.

If we were to step back to a status more in line with similar sized European countries and divert say half the savings into targeted overseas development, would the world be a more dangerous place?

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One thought on “Finding the right place in the World

  1. Pingback: Globalisation and insecurity | Outside the marginals

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