Dr Duncan Redford is a naval historian who is working on the relationship between the Royal Navy and 19th/20th century British national identity. This post originally appeared on History & Policy in 2017 and is reproduced with permission.
Will Brexit lead to a naval renaissance for the British? Britain is leaving the European Union. The EU may emerge weaker or stronger, as might the UK, but the fundamentals of European security – as opposed to the EU – are not being threatened; Britain will remain a member of NATO.
The prospect of the UK being focused more on global trade and global problems rather than European ones is being hailed by some, including Prime Minster Theresa May in a speech on 6 December 2016, as ideal conditions for a possible British naval renaissance. Such a renaissance in naval spending and political interest in the maritime domain would complement the new (and potentially very capable) Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers soon to enter service.
Yet those hoping for a resurgent Royal Navy off the back of Brexit are likely to be disappointed. Britain does not worry about naval power any more. Nor is Brexit likely to lead to any widespread change in this. The reason for this lies within British national identity and its past relationship with the Navy. From the 17th century the Royal Navy was seen as Britain’s first and last line of defence. Being an island insulated Britain from continental despotism and made a large standing army unnecessary – provided Britain nurtured and appreciated its Navy. The periodic naval scares that rattled British confidence in the 19th century, especially that of 1884 which heralded a wave of enthusiastic navalism that lasted until the First World War, must be seen as just that: episodes of shaken confidence, rather than a change in underlying perceptions of British security.
Yet those perceptions of British security, the importance of island insularity, and thus the Navy itself, did change during the 20thcentury. Airpower, first the bomber and then nuclear weapons, challenged Britain’s island security. The image of bombers being able to range at will across Britain raining death from the skies was a strong one in interwar Britain when bomber anxiety was at its height. Here was a security problem that was perceived to invalidate British naval power. Nuclear weapons after 1945 accentuated the perceived irrelevance of the Navy and island insularity to British security.
Yet this was – and remains – a perceived irrelevance. The need to protect those maritime ‘commons’ and the trade that uses them remains and may, post Brexit, increase in political importance. But this is not a message that has engaged the British public in the recent past, despite it being a regular refrain of the maritime lobby as they have sought to combat the post 1980s phenomena of ‘sea-blindness’ – the inability to interest the public in maritime issues.
Nor has a wider, holistic approach to maritime issues and putting them before the public worked in the more distant past. During the interwar period the Navy League, those self-appointed guardians of British naval power since 1896, had attempted to engage a generally disinterested public by broadening their message from one of naval power to one that encompassed the travails of the merchant navy, shipbuilders, and fishing industries, without any noticeable success. Indeed, the Navy League’s only real success was its Sea Cadet movement; by the 1960s it was the only active part of the Navy League and as a result the League abandoned its pursuit of British naval power and wound itself up, being reborn as the Sea Cadet Association.
The failure of these earlier attempts to re-engage the British public with the naval and maritime case should give today’s naval lobby pause for thought. It is not a case of more and better public relations being needed. The public are simply not receptive to the current naval or maritime messages.
Moreover, the globalised nature of the maritime industry make it unlikely that Britain’s shipping industry will see significant benefits from Brexit either. Brexit, while likely to lead to a new emphasis on global trade at the political level, does not change the fundamentals of British security or make British merchant shipping more attractive in the global market place.
Ninety per cent of the world’s population may well live within 500 miles of the sea, making maritime power a significant means of influencing events and potentially of great political importance, but only if voters are convinced of the utility of seapower. While invasion of the UK is highly unlikely, the other roles carried out by navies remain. It is just that the British generally do not perceive this as important. There is therefore a difference between Britain’s strategic position as perceived by a disinterested British public and the strategic reality – past, present and almost certainly future.
To succeed, the naval case needs new messages which engage with deep seated, almost sub-conscious, cultural issues to develop popular support. Politicians may be more willing to accept the arguments for refocusing UK defence effort on its Navy, but it is unlikely that this will translate into widespread public enthusiasm for the Fleet on a scale sufficient to ensure naval invulnerability to further defence cuts. Brexit may make political friends for the Royal Navy, but these are likely to be fair weather ones unless there is widespread popular support for this aspect of defence policy. The Royal Navy is not the NHS, nor will Brexit make it so.
Image: HMS Queen Elizabeth in New York harbour in October 2018, via Wikimedia commons.