On a recent visit to the Royal Yacht Britannia, I was struck by two ‘birds-eye’ illustrations hanging in the corridor of the state rooms. One shows the Coronation Naval Review at Spithead in 1953 and the other the similar Silver Jubilee event in 1977. In the first, we had just fought the Korean War, had brush fire wars in Kenya, Aden and Cyprus and needed a serious navy to police the broad oceans that connected a still-intact Empire. The 300 ships there were impressive, including seven carriers and our last battleship Vanguard. By the second, the only remaining pink bits were pinpoints and the residual RN small, mustering just 58 ships—and about to be shown as too small for global operations as it was stretched to breaking over the Falklands.
It’s as well that the Lords of the Admiralty saw sense and scrapped any thoughts of a Golden or Diamond review because either would have been pitiful. Today our entire fleet musters just 22 combat ships. Even the normally gung-ho Torygraph was moved at the time of the former to write:
A serving commander in the Royal Navy, recently returned from operations, says the MoD has made it clear no comment is to be made in public on the subject. “It would have been just too embarrassing,” he says. “There aren’t many ships and those we do have are a long way away. It was just too difficult to mount a spectacle worth having.”
And yet we keep hearing from Westminster that “the UK is a global power” or that “the UK punches above its weight”. Well, I have news for Their Lordships: it ain’t true. Now that the UK deploys more Admirals than ships for them to command, even the Indian Navy is bigger, with a carrier-based naval strike capability the RN no longer owns.
So why does the British public continue to pay through the nose for a defence posture that is clearly not fit for purpose? If we have no credible global clout why are we still pretending we do—and charging the public purse as if it were the case? Not only does the Emperor have no clothes but our Exchequer is paying Saville Row prices for them. Let’s compare the defence costs per head of the biggest European countries, taken as a fraction of per capita GDP (purchasing price parity) so we’re talking comparative financial impact.
Note that even the fearsome Russian bear charges its citizens less for its thousands of tanks, aircraft and a navy three times the size of ours. And Ukraine, with Russian troops and sundry militants roaming its territory, isn’t bleeding its citizens dry for defence.
What about the medium-small European countries, among which we would count Scotland, were it ever to assert its independence from the Admiral-heavy British state?
Even ‘worst offender’ Norway which shares a frontier with Russia and is the first stop on any foray by their Arctic Fleet makes do with 3/4 of the UK’s level of expenditure. And, given that Scotland has similar military exposure to Ireland, you have to wonder how they can hold their head up spending a quarter of our military cost per head. How come Ireland is the one doing long-range maritime patrols (LRMP) out over the Atlantic on our behalf because we can’t afford any LRMP aircraft ourselves?
Britain’s current defence posture is a joke; we claim global clout but can’t even meet our local NATO commitments. We get away with it because more frugal but better-balanced allies—especially the USA—cover for us. Even if our two aircraft carriers get built and the teething troubles of the F-35 jets to fly from them are ironed out, it will take all RN ships still left afloat to protect them properly at sea. “Do you know what we submariners call aircraft carriers?” the Russian Naval Attache is supposed to have asked at a Whitehall cocktail party. “Targets!”
Is it rocket science to work out that Scotland’s current £3.8bn contribution to an overpriced, disjointed military stance, skewed by too many Admirals, unusable nuclear submarines, inadequate ships and ludicrous ambition could be halved? Look at the numbers above. Nobody considers The Netherlands undefended but were we to spend on a balanced military as they do, £1.9bn of Scotland’s supposed deficit would disappear.