Is Britain Still a Global Power?

September 2021

As a follow up to our recent interview with The First Sea Lord exploring the Royal Navy in the modern world, today we look at the the broader question: Is Britain still a global power? Globalisation is a topic that sits at the heart of maritime and naval history. We are all now hugely interconnected – whether it’s transportation under normal circumstances, the economy, society, social media, our health – no country can be entirely isolated from the rest of the world. But when we talk about ‘Global Britain’ there’s an assumption of global power. What do we mean by Global Britain now and what did it mean in the past? How has our history helped position Britain in the world today? What is the biggest threat to Britain’s security today? What is Britain’s relationship with NATO? How does Britain fit into the new world order emerging economically, politically and military in the Indo-Pacific? All of this can only be understood through the lense of history – with an understanding of the age of Empire, the end of the Second World War, the Cold War and now Brexit. Dr Sam Willis speaks with Dr Jane Harrold, lecturer in Strategic Studies as part of the Dartmouth Centre for Seapower and Strategy at the University of Plymouth.

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    Sam Willis 

    From the Society for Nautical Research in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis, and this is the Mariners Mirror podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history. Hello everyone and welcome to the Mariners Mirror podcast. I hope you enjoyed the previous episode my interview with the First Sea Lord, Admiral Tony Radakin. So if you haven’t listened to that, do please make sure that you find it and listen. Today we have an episode designed to follow up on that previous interview. Today I’m speaking with Dr. Jane Harrold., lecturer in Strategic Studies as part of the Dartmouth Centre for Seapower and Strategy at the University of Plymouth, and we discussed the question, is Britain still a global power? What do we mean by global Britain now? And what did it mean in the past? It was fascinating, and I hope you enjoy listening to it as much as I enjoyed recording it. Here is Jane. Thank you so much for speaking to me today.

     

    Dr Jane Harrold 

    Sam, it’s a pleasure.

     

    Sam Willis 

    So, um, let’s start what makes a global power?

     

    Dr Jane Harrold 

    That is a very good question. It’s a phrase that’s obviously being bandied about quite a lot at the moment in Britain, all this talk of Britain as a global power and a global Britain. Every country, to a certain extent is global, obviously, because we’re all part of a world community. globalisation means we’re hugely interconnected, whether it’s transportation under normal circumstances, whether it’s the economy, whether it’s society, social media, whether it’s our health, during a pandemic, and so no country can be entirely isolated from the rest of the world. I think when we talk about Britain as a global power, or global Britain, or whatever that is supposed to me, there’s an assumption there of global power. And it’s the power part, which is significant, if equally intangible, and difficult to judge. All sorts of power, of course, you think traditionally, when you talk about the great powers, you think about the greatest military powers with the biggest armies, the biggest navies, the most destructive weapons, be they nuclear, be they conventional, or whatever they happen to be at the time. Usually, that goes together with being a great economic power. But clearly, it’s possible to be a great economic power without being a great military power. And indeed, the two can sometimes be mutually incompatible. After all, it’s a huge drain on resources to maintain significant militaries, hence the that the power of Germany and Japan economic power of these countries after 1945, but without, obviously a significant amount of military power, although those are the more traditional indices. But of course together with that, there’s a lot of talk these days of soft power, which is even more difficult to judge. And the UK generally does quite well in the soft power rankings. So we’re not talking about your traditional tools of diplomacy. Here, we’re talking about how much British media is accepted across the world, the sort of height to which the BBC is  well regarded. But beyond that, our sport, our film or television, all of that reaches a global market of mass market, people playing in British football teams in the Premier League are probably better known than native footballers. In an awful lot of countries, people watch Downton Abbey and The Crown, which obviously reflects a certain image of Britain, which may or may not be particularly contemporary, but which nevertheless mean that everybody’s heard or most people have heard of Britain. So in terms of being global, in terms of being recognised internationally as a presence, let’s say, clearly, the UK is out there, it’s out there.

     

    Sam Willis 

    So having said all that, do you think there is a way that we can define global Britain?

     

    Dr Jane Harrold 

    Well, I tried to find the government’s definition of global Britain, on the basis that there’s an entire integrated review and titled global Britain and I couldn’t find one. I think that’s as tangible or intangible as anything else I’ve talked about, but I think it’s possible to work out, what is intended by that phrase? It’s certainly intended, I think, to be very inspirational, very positive. It sees sort of Britain unleashed from perhaps a less global, less proactive role in the past, I’m not entirely convinced that that that condition actually existed. As I said, Britain is a global power anyway. But I think it’s suggesting that a UK which is able to perhaps punch above its weight, which has an impressive military capability, obviously, our first our biggest ever, ships in the form of the Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales are now operational. They seem to embody this idea of Britain going out there beyond our region beyond what has been perhaps holding us back for the last 70 odd years. Our commitment to Europe and European security, and now striking out for where we see the New World Order emerging economically, politically, military, towards the, towards the indo Pacific. And I think that’s, I think that’s probably what global Britain is, is aiming to be. Quite how that is going to play out what the, the logic and rationale for that is, I think he’s is less clear, but as an inspiration, it’s inspirational, I suppose, and very difficult to quantify. But, but at the same time, as I say, it’s clear what the I think the underlying intention is.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yeah, it’s very different to the way that Britain exercise global power in the past. I think that’s a key point to make we Britain, the British Empire was the most extensive empire in human history. What happened? How did that change? Why did that change?

     

    Dr Jane Harrold 

    I think there is a degree of not, it’s interesting that you mentioned the Imperial period, because I think there is an awful lot of nostalgia in England, not necessarily the rest of the UK, but in England, for a past where Britannia really did roll the waves. And consequently, we were able to pretty much exert our influence as and when we wanted to and expand our markets in terms of both manner of selling our manufactured goods, and of course, acquiring raw materials. I assume that there isn’t a perception that we can return to that because clearly, we can’t. But I think part of this is a it’s a longer historic historical process, really the idea that suddenly we’ve left the EU, and now we have to find an alternative. I think it’s very short sighted, I think we have to go back to the end of that Imperial roll in the middle of the last century, which actually happened incredibly rapidly, at the end of the Second World War. It didn’t happen in the way that traditionally empires have tended to collapse. In other words, it came at the end of a great military victory rather than a devastating military defeat. With the end of the Second World War, the subsequent loss of our empire was done more or less consensus, consensus by consensus. That’s not to suggest it was an easy and certainly not a bloodless process. I mean, clearly, that Partition of India, itself is a really good or bad example of how disastrous some of our decolonization actually was. But it wasn’t necessarily seen entirely as a sign of weakness or a sign of decline, it was an acceptance of, on the one hand, a changing sort of ethos, where Empire would no longer be considered an acceptable way of dealing with international relations. An ethos very much backed by the main superpowers at the time, both the Soviets and the Americans hugely anti-imperialist, although you could argue somewhat, hypocritically given their own foreign policy stances. Also a growing recognition simply that it was no longer acceptable for foreign rulers to impose their will on other countries and the right of these countries for their independence and to have their own control over their lives and their livelihoods. So I think in those circumstances, the fact that the British Empire retreated quite so quickly. The British or whole never really got to have a proper debate over what that meant for our role in the world. It just it happened really quite suddenly but in a sane and non-conventional way. The real turning point often credited of course is the Suez crisis. That was the wakeup call when we finely realised that we weren’t the great imperial power that we once were, we couldn’t act independently without the backing of the Americans. So we had to look elsewhere, and that elsewhere turned out turned out to be Europe, a process that had already happened, in security and defensive of course. Our commitment to NATO, and to the defense of our NATO allies in Western Europe, from 1949 onwards significantly predates our commitment to the European Union, as it would become, and interestingly, of course, has never been nearly as contentious either. And that, in theory, at least, remains unchanged by leaving the EU. But nevertheless, that that historical process that really started to shift in the late 50s, and into the 60s, saw our abandonment of our east of Suez roll to focus on NATO, which clearly given the Cold War was our major strategic threat. Then economically, to turn our attention to Europe to the common market, as we insisted on calling it right up until really the mid-1980s. And it’s as if that was sort of a 50 year experiment. That was the alternative model first attempted. And after those 50 years, for a combination of reasons, decided no, actually, that’s not for us, we’re not comfortable here. So we need to rethink and restart. Where are we going? And actually, I think if you look at it like that, you can almost argue that rather than Brexit being the great turning point here, the cause of all this change. In many respects, it was perhaps a symptom of a trend that was already ongoing. The UK, famously had never been a fully paid up, committed member of the EU, obviously paid up financially, but paid up in terms of yeah, we like the idea of the single market, at least for the majority of our membership, but we never bought into the bigger federalist ambitions of European integration. So there’s almost an inevitability to certain extent that we might ultimately leave. Well, I think that the problem with that argument is I don’t think that many people were thinking in those terms, when they decided that they would prefer to leave. So it’s there’s a there is a disjoint. There to a certain extent, and also unfortunate, I think that in that more immediate debate around the referendum, foreign and security policy didn’t really figure in the debate, even though

     

    Sam Willis 

    that’s extraordinary, isn’t it?

     

    Dr Jane Harrold 

    I mean, this, the whole thing about the EU in a way was that it kind of transcended domestic and international affairs. And the focus was very much on the domestic impact of membership of the EU, with almost no consideration whatsoever, and even after the referendum, obviously, the economic relationship with the EU was going to be dominant, because that was going to have the most immediate effect. But at the same time, it was still very little consideration, let alone wider debate about what this meant for Britain and the world, even what our relationship with the EU should be, after we leave it. It’s one of the I mean, I think it’s probably quite clear what my position on all this is. But it was it seems to be that there’s an assumption that having left the EU, that the EU has become in quotes the enemy.  So rather than a partner, with whom we could enjoy not just mutually beneficial trading relationships, but with whom we share significant security interest, global interest, regional interests, with whom we still share a huge amount in common not just in terms of interest, but you know, culturally, etc. Who we could still, and this is another of my concerns about global Britain, and the foundations upon which it is or isn’t built, if you actually look at what has made Britain a global power since 1945. It’s a combination not just of economic and military strength, which compared to the Soviets and the Americans the Russians, the Chinese, is is really quite small. It’s not tiny, but it’s, it’s far less significant. One of the things which has allowed us to punch above our weight has been our relationships, from Winston Churchill talking about his three circles in the late 1940s. The fact that even he recognised at that period in the immediate aftermath of second world war, that what allow Britain to punch above its weight, was the fact that we had this issue involving emerging special relationship with the United States, while at the same time preserving a relationship with our empire, turning into the Commonwealth countries, plus of course, Europe. And, you know, we can debate whether or not he, when he talked about a United States of European meant to the UK to be a part of that or not. What he was clearly saying was that the United States of Europe or a more united, integrated Europe, which was less like to go to war with itself, again, was a good thing. And not only that was a good thing for the UK. So even if he’d want, he would have been a soft Brexit error. At best, I think he might have wanted to take the UK out of the more federalist aspects of the EU, but he wouldn’t have wanted to treat it as an enemy. Because he would have seen that as really playing into Russia’s hands, if nothing else, What better for Vladimir Putin than a divided Europe into which he can extend his influence, let alone how the Chinese could play on that. So I think that, to me, if Britain wants to be global. I think the key is to retain that sort of pivotal power status. That, you know, for his one of our historical legacies, which is perhaps more useful than most is the fact that we’ve evolved this tremendous diplomatic network across the globe. That British diplomats and diplomacy is largely hugely respected, it may not be liked, everywhere, it may not be entirely trusted sometimes, but it is respected. And as a respected international actor, the UK is able to be maybe it’s sort of a convening power to bring disparate groups together in the context of the transatlantic relationship, for example. Now, clearly, there’s the special relationship with the US has been and continues to be extremely important. And historically, one of the reasons for that importance was that we provided the Americans with their bridge across the Atlantic and into Europe. Clearly, that has been to some extent deconstructed, but it hasn’t been necessarily demolished. The UK still knows how other European countries and the EU operates in a way perhaps the Americans don’t. The UK still potentially has a role to play. But it can’t play that role, if the way it’s coming across in terms of its relationship with the EU as a whole and key member states is so antagonistic, towards what these countries on the whole, for whatever reasons still believes is in their best interests. And I think that that is a risk.

     

    Sam Willis 

    How do you think that the armed forces, you know, particularly the Royal Navy fit into this? I mean, is there any, any business of us having a Navy at all in the modern day?

     

    Dr Jane Harrold 

    Well, I say actually, the whatever the sort of outcome of all this sort of talk of global Britain is that of all the armed forces that the Navy is in the strongest position. So that that’s a good thing, you know, in a way, I mean, in a way this global Britain is a return, as the integrated review actually talks about the UK as a, as a maritime power with global interests. So whatever the UK’s political or military involvement in global affairs in the future will be, it’s always going to need the economic global sea lanes of communication, which of course, the Navy is  critical to defending and maintaining so I think, from that perspective, the Navy has an important role. It’s debatable to what extent the aircraft carriers support that role, but of course, they play another role. They almost become the embodiment of corporate Britain, they’re out there flying the flag. That’s one of the first things that Queen Elizabeth did, was go to America and sort of try and sell corporate UK. Sailing around the Pacific at the moment, that’s as much a show of economic intent as it is of military intent. So I think, if Britain wants to project itself as being global, whatever that may or may not mean, the Navy provides an obvious platform to do that, which none of the other services can do without physically invading other countries territory, which is definitely not I think, what is on the on the agenda. So the classic maritime role of of flying the flag, promoting an image, which if necessary, could obviously be turned on a penny and suddenly become more belligerent if necessary. I think the Navy’s role becomes much more important arguably, and global Britain than perhaps it did beforehand. Even though of course, the conception of the carriers significantly predates this new version, this post Brexit version of global Britain The SDSR of 2015, talked about global Britain. And that was written before, we knew what was going to happen after the referendum. But certainly, I think from the RN’s point of view,  all three services, even though in terms of total number of ships, it’s going to decline in terms of capabilities, it will remain highly effective. Problem there with it’s all very well having super-duper kit, but you can only be in one place at a time with any such platform. But nevertheless, in certainly from a theoretical point of view, it looks good for the RN.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yeah, I was talking to, that’s the military aspect of it, I was talking to a chap who’s an expert, Ron Nish, as a podcast, for you listening, about the shipbuilders of Leith. He was talking about how Britain was such a strong power in terms of manual manufacturer of shipping. And so much of the World Shipping in the 19th century came from Britain particularly came from Scotland, as well. I mean, it’s difficult with maintaining was impossible to maintain that position if the ships, you know, the huge container ships now, which dominate World Shipping and actually being made in Singapore or wherever it might be.

     

    Dr Jane Harrold 

    So I mean, that’s another good argument for increasing our hard capacity is that that provides manufacturing and business for our own national companies. And the fact that that might benefit  shipbuilders in Scotland clearly has other political benefits, as well as far as the UK Government is concerned. But clearly, the world has shifted and changed so much since the middle of the 19th century. And of course, that’s part of the rationale behind this pivot towards the Indo Pacific is because that’s where the majority of ships are being built, because that’s where the economies are growing. And those of us in the West are diminishing, relatively speaking, in comparison.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yeah, I mean, I’ve been lucky to be to go out there and try and travel around there. And if you go to where it might be Guangzhou, or, and then Singapore, and then even in Greece, are recognised that, you know, it’s the biggest port there, which has been kind of taken over by the Chinese, they built an enormous container port there for all of the all of the shipping that’s coming through Suez, you realise. how, you know, the, the influence of shipping is very much towards the east. It’s not here at all, as much as people talk about shipping coming through the channel and it being so important it’s nothing compared to what’s going on elsewhere.

     

    Dr Jane Harrold 

    Absolutely. Which it would seem to suggest that again, pivoting to the Indo Pacific, makes sense. My concern is that physically, we can’t pick Britain up and move it. And that it’s all very well wanting to join Pacific Rim trading bloc’s and sending our flagship effectively to the Pacific, but Britain is still off the coast of Europe, it’s still in the North Atlantic. The biggest, traditional threat to our security remains Russia. The most effective way of protecting us from Russia remains our alliance with NATO, and my concern is that can we maintain our commitment as the largest European contributor to NATO, while at the same time undertaking all these moves to the other side of the world? It is does concern me that we can’t literally cannot afford either financially or in terms of our national interest to do both at the same time. I don’t know how we can we can manage that, maybe I’m just being overly pessimistic, and I’m obviously biased when it comes to all things European and NATO. The reality is the UK is not itself an aircraft carrier. There may have been analogies about its aircraft carrier position in the past, but it isn’t actually an aircraft carrier, we can’t actually just pull up the anchor and sail by whatever means to the other side of the world. We are here. We realise that in the latter part of the 20th century, and now it’s almost as if we’ve not learned any of those lessons. We’ve not learned the lesson of why we abandoned east of Suez. We’ve not learned the lesson of why NATO for decades was the foundations of our national security. That maybe makes me sound terribly backward looking and stuck in the middle of the Cold War somewhere. I’m certainly not suggesting that we ignore the rise of China and insecurity out in the Pacific. But there are other lessons to learn, which is that I mean, if you just look at the the Carrier Strike Force that’s out there now. You’ve got aircraft, brand new spanking new aircraft carriers out there, but over half of the aircraft on that carrier are American. Some of the support ships are Dutch. In other words, Britain is able to do all this stuff when we’re working with our allies. So it goes back to the relationships, maintaining those allies and alliances, which require good faith as well as good relations is extremely important. And we need to recognise that that is not, that’s not a weakness, being able to get on with people, and develop relationships is a strength. And I think it’s been a strength of UK diplomacy, historically, certainly, since the end of the Second World War and the end of the Cold War. There is a danger that in our obsession with being independent from the EU makes us so at odds with the rest of our allies. Whether they’re other EU members or other European countries, I should say, or whether they’re United States. Perhaps one of the miscalculations in this whole approach was the assumption that President Trump would get a second term. In the context of a second Trump term, which in itself had complications, because there was this dichotomy on the one hand, do you think Yeah, Trump, America, and Brexit, Britain kind of seem like they’re two peas from the same pod. Actually, the evidence, the reality was that they clearly weren’t. When it came to our foreign policy, we actually found ourselves tending towards the other European capitals, the Iran nuclear deal have been a good example of that. The sort of propaganda from the Trump administration, as far as international institutions was concerned was that they were a bad thing that he didn’t like NATO very much. He certainly didn’t like the EU. And so that, you know, our anti antagonistic stance towards the EU  was okay, under those circumstances. Clearly, Joe Biden is to a certain extent, a blast from the past in more ways than one, his attitude towards international institutions is very much of the late 20th century, which is a good thing in terms of keeping NATO together, which is in our interest. But as far as his attitudes towards the EU, completely the other side of the coin to Trump, and if we do find ourselves, and we’ve come close to that with the Northern Ireland protocol, whatever the rights and wrongs of that are, Clearly, if it came to the crunch, under Trump, we might have expected the Americans to support us against the EU, but that’s not going to happen now. We’re in danger of finding ourselves isolated, even from our closest allies, even from the United States, at least politically, that may not be a long term issue, there’s obviously plenty of other things that keep us together, not least our cooperation when it comes to defense. But in the longer term that could be undermined if our interests diverge, so I think there is a contradiction. If you look in the integrated review, between talking of needing to shake up the international order, and at the same time, defend the rules based international order. There is talking there about Britain still wanting to be a get up and go country that wants to promote democracy and human rights, etc. All of that fits in with maintaining these international relations. But now, it’s yet to be seen whether, a we have the resources in the future to do that, if that leads ultimately to military intervention. But you know, how can we be an international convener? How can we provide a link in the chain of democracies if we’re at odds with all the major democracies, because we’re being so awkward? I mean, this is maybe just a short term, political thing, and things will calm down, and sense will be restored. And we can we can get back to, as I say, more conciliatory relationships with those closest, because there does seem to be a bit of an irony to me that we talk about global Britain and wanting to make all these new friendships and our allies around the world. Whilst cutting ourselves off from our oldest and closest allies, which to me seem counterproductive. But as I say that maybe reflects my own position on these things.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Well, one thing is certainly clear whatever happens in the future is that the, you know, the idea of colonisation, and imperialism is is now dead and gone. And you were speaking there about how everything changed after the Second World War, but the movement for self-determination, certainly Britain’s colonies was, you know, as well underway by the 20s, that some of it had roots in the 19th century as well. So they were kind of their deep origins to that history.

     

    Dr Jane Harrold 

    Absolutely. The change was maybe well, of probably several changes, to be honest. One was that Britain simply couldn’t afford to hold back the tide any longer, that the Second World War was the, the sort of straw that broke the camel’s back financially, as far as the UK was concerned. So we simply didn’t have the resources to keep a lid on, say, Indian nationalism, or whatever. And I do think there was a change in in terms of what people thought, you know, politically what was right and wrong, what was acceptable, at this end of the Imperial scale. That it was just no longer tenable, any more politically and ethically, even though some may dispute that may still consider it to be have been acceptable. But plus, we needed to be on side with the Americans and the Americans made it very clear that they didn’t rate imperialism anymore. So we needed the Americans, arguably more than we needed the Empire by then. And that was maybe part of that process as well, I think.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Fascinating stuff. Well, I’ll tell you what, I’m not going to ask you what you think the future holds. But I think I’m going to come back to you. They will have another chat again in a few months time to see where we will start. Jane, thank you so much for talking to me today.

     

    Dr Jane Harrold 

    That’s been a pleasure, Sam. Thank you.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Thank you all very much for listening. If you are enjoying these podcasts, please tell your friends please leave us a review on iTunes. Sharon Barnett <shawood51@yahoo.com>Please get in touch on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and tell us how much you’re enjoying it and what you’re enjoying in particular, and we will like and share your post. Best of all, however, do please join the Society for Nautical Research. It doesn’t cost very much but it supports this podcast. It helps the society with its mission to publish the world’s most important maritime history in the quarterly Mariners Mirror journal, and it helps preserve our maritime past. Best of all, I reckon, however, is that you can apply for a ticket to come to our annual dinner on HMS victory. And that’s something that you will never, ever forget. You can join @snl.org.uk

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