Can Britain Afford to Be a Hard Power?

(SCF) – Recently the UK Royal Navy and Ministry of Defence unveiled their brand new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth at a cost of 3 Billion Pounds. This at a time when UK national finances are under heavy pressure and the country has been experiencing seven years of severe austerity. It has recently come to light that in true Ministry of Defence fashion (poor project management & wasteful spending, duplication, poor planning, lack of oversight and accountability) the true costs are set to rocket even further for more aircraft needed to be able to land properly on HMS QE. How very British. The decision to go ahead with a brand new and very expensive aircraft carrier for the UK at a time of acute social and economic headwinds has been hailed by some as an exciting new weapon in Britain’s hard power arsenal that will allow Britain to «punch above her weight» in world affairs and global power projection rankings in Jane’s Weekly.

Some however question if Britain can really afford such an expensive project such as a new aircraft carrier when the Prime Minister Theresa May repeatedly said during the recent General Election that there was no magic money tree for nurses, police, firefighters, doctors, in essence all public sector workers – yet there is 1 Billion Pounds for the DUP and 3 Billion Pounds for a new aircraft carrier that perhaps given the cost and the reality of Britain’s position in the world could have been done without. The cost goes to the heart of the politics of reality and a realism that is sorely lacking in British foreign & defence policy. Can the country really afford such an object when 3 Billion Pounds could have been a major boost to a National Health Service under severe strain? Or imagine what 3 Billion Pounds could do to improve social housing? Or 3 Billion Pounds invested in a National Bank dedicated to helping the carers of those suffering from Alzheimer’s and/or Dementia?

The decision to go ahead with the HMS Queen Elizabeth exemplifies everything that is currently wrong and indeed utterly divorced from reality with the current Government. It goes to the heart over the debates surrounding what kind of country Britain really is, wants to be and should be. Is Britain in reality a strong, successful, competent hard military power with an indispensable, irreplaceable military role to play in world affairs as former Prime Minister Tony Blair would have the country believe with his vision of British foreign policy? Or is it a country with some sections of its public and establishment divorced from reality, still living in a bygone imperial era clinging tenaciously to a shameful period of time in British history and politico-cultural-militarist narratives that are just simply false?

Is it in reality a country with tremendous assets mainly within the soft power field of the arts and humanities such as language, culture, entertainment, acting, drama, academia, museums, libraries, sport, music as well as cutting edges in science, technology and engineering. However beyond that sphere of soft power the British have quite a mixed and mediocre record. The British economy is the most unproductive in the G7, one of the most unproductive economies in the OECD. British efficiency and rigour are substandard as is the work ethic to a great degree. Very little proper thought, planning and analysis goes into project management in Britain. The quality of good management and leadership in Britain is sorely lacking whether it be in the political, governmental, economic, or indeed military sphere. Nothing ever really works properly or functions correctly in Britain from its transport infrastructure, customer services, public services etc.

Which brings us back to the decision to build this aircraft carrier at such a huge cost in the first place. What is Britain trying to prove? Why must its Ministry of Defence spend billions upon billions of taxpayers money creating weapons of mass destruction, «boys toys», when there are so many internal problems in the country crying out for social and economic redress. Further more Britain has become a disruptive force in world affairs. It has steadily taken on the role of disruptor in what was seen as the traditional Western Alliance of North America and Europe. At this time of acute international challenges and turbulence in world affairs it is Britain which has become a major contributor to such turbulence and has added to the complexity of the problems facing the international community, not lessened those problems. With this new found role Britain must be treated accordingly. The British have sadly played up to all the worst stereotypes regarding Britain during this period and have demonstrated on a massive scale how unreliable, undependable and two faced they can be. All the brand new, multi-billion pound shiny aircraft carriers (that don’t even properly work once set out to sea) in the world will not be able to gloss over that fundamental truth of regarding the collective, national character.

Image Source: Nicolas Raymond, Flickr, Creative Commons

Perhaps it is time for future British Governments to disabuse themselves of the vanity and pretentiousness that previous British Governments both Labour and Tory have exhibited regarding Britain’s military power. Perhaps it is time to face facts and come to terms with reality. Britain can have a significant role to play within the soft power sphere. But as a hard power, taking part in massive American led military interventions whether it be in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and allowing an incompetent and poorly governed Ministry of Defence to continually waste so much taxpayers money as if they had a guaranteed government/taxpayer «Magic Money Tree» must be brought to an end. Furthermore at this time of extreme economic and social challenges that Britain is facing it would be a very wise course of action indeed if Britain were to focus a lot more of its time, resources and energy on putting its own house in order rather than spending vast amounts of money on maintaining a non-essential, non-vital role as a very junior, supporting member of the American Western Alliance.

This report prepared by MATTHEW JAMISON  for Strategic Culture Foundation.