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Britain: A natural seapower

The sea has defined the United Kingdom’s (UK) relationship with the rest of the world for centuries, it has bounded the state, provided security against foreign aggression and offered a toll free highway to the rest of the world, securing essential food supplies, and extending British commerce. This is no accident; modern Britain was shaped by a deliberate and sustained focus on the sea as an economic, strategic and cultural alternative to the adjacent continent. This began as a response to the exclusive economic policies of a sixteenth century Habsburg Emperor based in Brussels, exploiting the emerging strategic capability of naval forces and development of maritime trade outside Europe, taking the British to sea, creating new infrastructure, industries and organisations to sustain that effort. 

The growth of naval power and commerce were intimately connected, driven by a dynamic and expansive City of London. In the nineteenth century oceanic access to the wider world became critical as the European powers and the United States (US) erected tariff barriers against British exports. Modern Germany was shaped by a Customs Union, the Zollverein, that restricted British imports and encouraged German manufacturers. Although the UK did not respond in kind, it persisted with free trade policies, but hostile tariffs shaped relations with other states. British-German antagonism before 1914 had a powerful economic dimension. 

The bitter experience of continental warfare in the twentieth century challenged the maritime model. The UK turned away from the sea after 1945, allowing long established global connections to wither, while key industries were abandoned, as the country turned to a restricted continental vision, driven by the security policy of NATO and the economic protection of the European Economic Community. The Cold War ended thirty years ago, modern Russia is a pale shadow of the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact alliance, and the decision to leave the European Union (EU) requires a new agenda. 

Going forward, relations with other states and economic blocs will be dominated by trade, and settled by negotiation. Britain has a generational opportunity to shift the policy balance towards the wider global world, a world, it should be noted, shaped and connected by the UK in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. That means putting the sea at the centre of national policy, recognising the critical role of global commerce, oceanic security, innovation  and cultural exchange in the life of these islands.

Britain needs to reconnect with key aspects of its distinctive maritime identity, to ensure that future generations will understand why the country took a different path to the adjacent continent, and how to build on that legacy.
Andrew LambertProf. Andrew Lambert


There are opportunities in every maritime sector, from shipping services, fishing, global influence, offshore wind power and other new technologies to the dynamic culture and heritage sectors. These need to be addressed in their totality, across government, with the coherence and consequence they received in earlier eras, when Britain reached out to chart the seas, pioneer critical technologies, and develop the maritime industrial and skills base to prosper. Having demonstrated what is possible in several of those sectors, notably in building two large aircraft carriers, there is no reason to doubt the potential for a shift of emphasis out to the oceans. The sale of the latest Type 26 frigate design to Canada[↗] and Australia[↗] marks a welcome return to partnerships that go beyond politics and economics. The Commonwealth is about shared interests, values, and family ties, and it is an area where the UK’s strategic power matters. That power is more often used for disaster relief than hostilities, latent or actual, sustaining a positive agenda of global engagement.  

The UK has the opportunity to promote all aspects of maritime activity, something that requires an integrated national vision. The task of government is to set the agenda, and encourage wider participation, enabling innovative, dynamic responses. This is not a change of direction, only a shift of emphasis. Britain’s maritime role in the wider world survived the Cold War and economic difficulties, because it was driven by real interests and real connections. The Falklands conflict reminded an age dominated by the Cold War and the painful transition to a post-industrial economy that the UK still possessed world-class fighting forces, especially at sea. 

Unable to afford the sheer scale of defence maintained by the US and China, the UK needs to focus on the essentials to sustain its international influence and alliance value. That focus must be maritime, because the ability to trade by sea and secure the nation’s borders remain critical. Today power can be projected from the sea more easily and effectively than ever, and at greater range. A maritime focus for strategy and defence policy is inevitable, and should be declared. The Royal Navy remains the basis of the UK’s alliance value and strategic influence around the world: soon HMS Queen Elizabeth will join allies[↗] to support the freedom of navigation in the Western Pacific Basin, reconnecting with Japan, Australia and the US Pacific Fleet. Closer to home the Royal Navy provides security for offshore economic activities, the nuclear deterrent and much else. This strategic rebalance, begun in 1997 by the Strategic Defence Review, was delayed by economic downturns and shifting priorities; it needs to be sustained. 

The maritime industrial base is essential, as are the human resources to crew and command ships of all types. Merchant shipping should be supported, encouraged to take British Registry, acknowledge British ownership and be sourced from British shipbuilders. Shipbuilding is a high skill industry, a major consumer of specialist steel and an opportunity to revitalise coastal communities. In 1914 the UK built more than half[↗] the world’s ships. Now it has an opportunity to design and build the ships for a green oceanic future. The ecological imperative will drive maritime innovation, and require new ships. It will also demand rising standards for personnel. Legislation to raise the ecological and professional standards in British waters would shift trade into better ships, with highly trained, well-paid crew. 

Fishing, a headline issue during the Brexit debate, offers further opportunities. This massive renewable resource should be managed, to increase stocks and sustainability. Once stocks have recovered an effort should be made to persuade the great British public to eat more British fish, and extend the export market beyond Europe.

The UK’s unique maritime heritage offers both a powerful example of what has worked in the past, and a major economic asset. Britain needs to reconnect with key aspects of its distinctive maritime identity, to ensure that future generations will understand why the country took a different path to the adjacent continent, and how to build on that legacy. Nowhere in the UK is more than 100 miles from the sea, and very little of the coast is without attractions of one sort or another. Today many offshore vistas are dominated by wind farms. Cheap, green electricity will be critical to future-proof a post-carbon economy. Offshore oil structures have been replaced by wind turbines, but the sea remains central to the future.

Prof. Andrew Lambert is Laughton Professor of Naval History at the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London. He is also a Member of the Advisory Council of the Council on Geostrategy.

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