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Wed 16 October 2019
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How Brexiteers’ obsession with the sea and Boris Johnson’s promise of more money for ship-building represents a yearning for the days of Empire.


Last Friday, Britain’s newly-appointed Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, ordered Royal Navy warships to escort UK-flagged tankers through the Gulf.  

It was part of a new government policy that all such vessels be offered protection, provided “sufficient notice be given of their passage”. To achieve this, the Royal Navy has also deployed the destroyer HMS Duncan to the Gulf. HMS Montrose is currently watching over ships like the Stena Important as it passes through the Strait of Hormuz. 

“Freedom of navigation is crucial for the global trading system and world economy, and we will do all we can to defend it,” a Government spokesman said. It is an armed response to the fact that, on 19 July, Iranian authorities seized the British-flagged vessel, Stena Impero, in Omani waters.

It’s a big commitment. The now-sacked Defence Minister Tobias Ellwood said it would be “impossible” to escort every ship through the Iranian straits, but that’s a detail lost by a government headed by a man famous for his inattention to detail

Details in this case, though, are crucial. Like the fact the Stena Important is not British at all, but a Bermuda-flagged vessel owned by the Swedish company Stena Sessan AB. Its recently-dissolved investment arm made a cool £800 million in profit in 2016. Bearing in mind it’s military companion – HMS Montrose – costs £31,000 a day to run, it’s a protection whose cost is borne by the British public, not by Stena Sessan’s owners. Yet, despite the fact it is registered in a tax haven, because Bermuda is a British overseas territory the ship is “UK-flagged”, and so granted British naval protection.

The other Stena ship at the heart of this crisis – Stena Impero – was not too dissimilar. While it sailed under a British flag, it was owned by a company in Cyprus that, in turn, was run by Swedes. It had an entirely non-British crew and was taking oil from the United Arab Emirates to South Africa.

If you question, though, the costly logic of British warships protecting the vessels of highly-profitable, non-British shipping companies, you’ll get short shrift.

“I’d like to think that any British warship would intervene to aid any merchant ship under attack from armed raiders operating in flagrant breach of international law,” said Dr Chris Parry, a former Royal Navy warfare officer and first Chair of the UK Government’s Marine Management Organisation. He was responding to a question on whether the UK had a duty to defend ships that have a loose connection to Britain at best, and paid no direct tax to the Crown.

The problem is that Britain’s supremacy of the seas is over.

His logic was thus: “If we are not defined by our values, we are nothing.”

Values indeed. These are likely the deep-rooted values of a sea-faring nation, one that transformed a small, rain-swept island in the North Atlantic into a great power. They are salty values that imposed notions of trade, government, faith and culture upon vast swathes of the world – an imposition that needed a British Navy to enforce Westminster’s will across every continent.

They are values shaped by Britain’s very geography: an island that sits ‘upwind’ of Europe, blessed with prevailing westerly winds. A place where no one is more than 70 miles from the coast, and coal, iron and oak are found in plentiful supply, along with great southern ports. They are also values that look fixedly upon the sea for the defence of our liberty and trade.

Britain’s long obsession with its Navy has led to its maritime force being funded lavishly by monarchs, lionised in novels and music, and embodied by the likes of Hawkins and Drake. 

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This visible love affair – with Nelson’s Column a needle piercing the very heart of London – lives with us still. It is there in the Brexiteer’s obsession with our fishing industry. There in Farage’s queasy re-enactment of Titanic with Kate Hooey on the Thames. There in Boris’ kipper. There in the Prime Minister’s pledge to build more ships for the navy the moment he won power. It is one that seemed to find itself a painful metaphor in the story of a mass brawl that broke out on the P&O cruise ship Britannia last week following an afternoon of “patriotic” partying on deck. 

This turning towards the sea constitutes a yearning for the days of Empire, in a way. When Britain ruled the waves, “free of the EU shackles“. But, it’s a yearning based on an impossible dream.

For a start, we only ruled the waves because no one else sought to. 19th Century Russia and France were faced with substantial challenges on their home fronts to bother with a global power grab. By the 20th Century – when industrialised Japan, Germany and America came into their own, seeking to realise their ambitions as naval powers – Britain’s supremacy of the waves soon faded and would not return. Today, the UK registered trading fleet accounts for just 0.8% of the world’s fleet, and is only the 18th largest globally.

The memory of supremacy, though, lingers. It is there in the fact that English is the international language of culture and business – a domineering Royal Navy’s legacy.  It is there in the Brexiteer’s yearning for a swashbuckling, free-trade future. It is there in our curious attempt to police waters far from our own shores.

The problem is that Britain’s supremacy of the seas is over. And conquering other nation states would not sit well with the 21st Century laws of war. So, instead of a buccaneering fleet, Brexit Britain will likely end up with an over-priced navy that – in an age when conflict is defined by land-based non-state actors like ISIS – will be ineffective in dealing with the real threats of suicide bombers and car bombs.  Instead, the Royal Navy will be reduced to the role of an expensive, plodding policeman, protecting sea-faring companies that rarely foot the bill.

This, though, will not stop Mr Johnson’s “strong desire to increase defence spending, particularly on ship building”, without really explaining why we need these ships in the first place, and just how much they are finally going to cost.

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