Once upon a time Britannia ruled the waves, and if Thermistocles is to be believed (and many do believe him) he who has command of the sea has command of everything. In the last 300 years, the United Kingdom has played a dominant role throughout more or less each and every episode of major-power war in Europe and across the globe. In 1920, the King of England and his government presided over one quarter of the world through an empire ‘on which the sun never sets’. But in 1945, or thereabouts, the sun did set on the British Empire. After the crippling exhaustion of the UK’s resources through its leading roles in both World Wars, the UK saw its colonies dismantled and its domestic spending redirected towards health and welfare.
Yet Britain has clung on to the notion that it is and should remain a first-rate military power. Depending on who you ask, Britain either remains or is no longer a Great Power, however there are strong arguments to be made for the former. As one of the victorious Great Powers of the Second World War, Britain along with the United States and the Soviet Union began to enshrine their international political status within strong institutional organisations, such as by affording themselves permanent seats on the United Nations Security Council – the only body of the UN capable of making binding decisions and agreements.
Besides this, the UK maintained its commitment to the supposed duties of a Great Power, through responding to international humanitarian and security crises, by continuing to maintain, albeit more tenuously, a global sphere of influence, by establishing its capital as the centre of international finance, and by taking a leading role in bilateral and multilateral military actions alongside the United States and other allies.
When a remnant of its former empire came under contest in the South Atlantic in 1982, the UK responded in a demonstration that it may have reduced its power and possessions, but it had not given them up entirely.
Even today, the UK continues to demonstrate a willingness and an ability to ‘matter’ to the world by continuing to take a leading role in new international organisations such as the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank.
Perhaps the ultimate test of Britain’s continued international prominence will become clear as its exit from the European Union plays out and it attempts to secure agreements and partnerships amongst old connections and new.
But the enduring perception of a state’s true power continues to focus on material power possession. Whether or not it is the most appropriate or accurate measure of a state’s importance in the world, most tend to use quantifiable units – size of economy and size of military – as a means to test one state’s position relative to another’s.
It is no secret that the UK’s military spending, manpower and equipment stockpiles have all been in decline since the end of the Second World War, and more recently since the 2008 financial crisis. In 1955, the post war peak, there were 804,700 service personnel in the British Armed Forces, representing 1,569 per 100,000 population, and at the time the UK was engaged in asymmetric conflicts in Kenya, Malaya and Cyprus. In 2009, while engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq, the figures were 188,400 for a 322 per 100,000 population. Military spending in 1955 was £32BN (2005.£) or 9% GDP. In 2009 it was £38BN (2005.£) or 3% GDP. In 2017 UK defence spending was £50.7BN (2017.£), 2% GDP and service personnel figures show 150,000, 229 per 100,000.
Now, while this represents a clear decline, it still puts the UK at 5th in the world in terms of military budget in real terms. Moreover, armies tend to be much more manpower-intensive than navies and air forces, and Britain has historically maintained a small army relative to other European powers such as Germany/Prussia, Russia and France. As an insular country, Britain was able to rely on the Royal Navy as the superior force which, as Thermistocles suggested, is the foundation of achieving global reach and geopolitical dominance. As Edward Grey, Foreign Secretary 1905-16, put it: “The British Army should be a projectile to be fired by the British Navy.” This statement characterises the history of British power-focus in maintaining a small enough army to sufficiently project force from the platform of a large and highly competent naval service.
However the efficacy of this strategy might be called into doubt given the decline in the size of fleets in the Royal Navy. Following the complete exhaustion of the Royal Navy during the Second World War and the design of successive consensus governments to switch national focus from empire to welfare, Britain was relegated to a specialised role supporting the United States within NATO for primarily anti-submarine warfare operations.
War with the Soviet Union never materialised, however, and the UK instead found itself having to fight an expeditionary war in the Falklands Islands using equipment and armaments which were designed for a completely different purpose. The decision to defend the Falklands was, however, a significant development in answering the question of whether Britain was prepared to continue to maintain and protect its global interests and possessions through military means if necessary. Since then the UK has engaged in numerous large-scale conflicts in Africa and the Middle East, either as a full partner in a coalition, or in a traditional British capacity of clandestine operations supporting irregular combatants.
Should the UK remain a first-rate military power?
Despite the decline in manpower and fleet size, it can be argued that the UK has decided to turn its demilitarisation around in an attempt to build itself as an independently capable military power. The development of D-Class, Astute Class, and Queen Elizabeth Class naval vessels have demonstrated a willingness on the UK’s part to reconstitute its armed forces into a capacity capable of meeting the challenges that might stem from an uncertain half-century ahead.
The crucial decision in 2010 not to scrap the HMS Prince of Wales and the (re)opening of a naval base in Bahrain signals an intention to return to ‘beyond-Suez’ operations. In an ever-globalising world and one in which Britain must strike out without the European Union, if the United Kingdom wishes to secure a more prosperous future for its people, while maintaining its traditional role serving in some capacity the stability of the international system and its commitment to humanitarian efforts, the UK will need to remain a first-rate military power. Relying on one strong ally may seem like the easy option, but the world of politics and international relations is an unpredictable arena, and previous events have demonstrated that allies cannot always be relied upon when one’s own exclusive interests are at stake.
Military spending and manpower statistics from ukpublicspending.com