In early March, His Majesty’s (HM) Government is expected to launch the refresh of the Integrated Review. The actual review, published in March 2021, identified ‘intensifying geopolitical competition’ as the key challenge confronting the United Kingdom (UK) during the 2020s. Since then, Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine and the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) increasing authoritarianism and military buildup have compounded the challenge. Both countries, led by hubristic regimes, believe they are locked in a systemic struggle to control the future. They see free and open countries, of which Britain is among the most powerful, as their opponents – even enemies.
To generate sufficient means to meet the challenge, the Integrated Review contended that the UK would need to turbo-charge scientific and technological research to compete successfully against far larger and more populous rivals.
There are two ways a country can grow its power to uphold its interests. The first is expansion. Catherine the Great’s infamous assertion that ‘I have no way to defend my borders but to extend them’ captures this method perfectly. Today, Vladimir Putin is attempting the same in Ukraine. The problem, however, is that, besides being unethical this approach often has unintended consequences, including ‘imperial overstretch’. The second way for a country to grow in strength is to develop its existing powerbase through sustained economic growth and scientific research to devise new technologies.
Throughout history, Britain has tried both, but it was the latter approach which bore the greatest fruit. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the UK pushed ahead first with canals and turnpike roads and then with railways. These great lines of communication – capped by wonders such as the Menai Strait and Firth of Forth bridges and the Box Tunnel – linked the country together creating a large, integrated market, which gave Britain a competitive edge over far larger rivals. Indeed, these routes laid the foundations for a national powerbase so productive that it propelled the human race out of the agrarian age and into the industrial.
Two-hundred years after the Industrial Revolution, the UK’s population stands at 67 million, with a density of 276 people per square kilometre, the third densest in the G20 after South Korea and Japan. By late-century, Britain’s population could be the largest in Europe, larger even than Germany’s, and with a more stable generational structure. Due to its smaller size and the relative proximity of British cities to one another, the UK should have a continued competitive edge, boosting productivity and economic prosperity.
The problem, however, is that there has been a lack of national direction and investment in modernising the country’s infrastructure, while the population has increased by over 17% since 1990. From the early 1980s, when investment in transport peaked at over 4% of national income, subsequent years were marked by a steep decline. Consequently, many motorways and dual carriageways are run-down, littered and obsolete, covered by a patchwork quilt of tarmac and concrete, lacking capacity to handle the growing levels of traffic. Archaic roads such as the A1, A9, A14, A27, A44, A47, A66, A90, A303 and A487 – mishmashes of roundabouts, dual and single carriageway – should be ironed out and opened up and fitted with interchanges to speed the flow of traffic.
The Integrated Review was right to identify the critical importance of science and technological innovation. But it did not go far enough. What is now needed is for the review process to be extended to provide a strategy for the renewal of national infrastructure to open up the communication bottlenecks which block and restrict economic growth.
Furthermore, the UK has just one high-speed railway line. And despite passenger numbers almost doubling in the 20 years prior to Covid-19, much of the rest of the railway network is founded on infrastructure from Victorian times. Almost all British cities beyond London lack mass transit systems, whether in the form of trams or tubes. The few with mass transit – Liverpool, Newcastle and Glasgow – have only a single line. Meanwhile, the average speeds of Britain’s mobile telephone and broadband communication systems rank only 42nd and 54th in the world – below many developing countries – despite the fact that it should be easier to cover a denser population.
Worse, other countries have not stood still or developed at Britain’s pace. Japan, South Korea, Germany, France, Poland and Spain have rolled out nationally-integrated communication systems. In the early 1980s Spain and Poland had few motorways and no high-speed trains; today, they are criss-crossed by modern road and rail infrastructure. The PRC, meanwhile, has undertaken a road and rail construction bonanza over the past twenty years unrivalled by any country in history; the Chinese mainland now boasts a high-speed railway network longer than the rest of the world combined, and a motorway system longer than anything previously conceived, including America’s vast interstate highway network.
Critics of new infrastructure in the UK argue that it is too costly, that it will undermine local communities, or, in the Welsh Government’s case, that it will contribute to climate change. These arguments are spurious. High Speed 2, for example, may only save the average passenger 30 minutes when travelling from London to Birmingham. But this single journey would be replicated over 109.5 million times per year – the anticipated passenger numbers for the railway. That would cut collective communication times by a whopping 43,870 weeks or 6,250 years per year – time which could be far better spent in more productive activities.
The Integrated Review was right to identify the critical importance of science and technological innovation. But it did not go far enough. What is now needed is for the review process to be extended to provide a strategy for the renewal of national infrastructure to open up the communication bottlenecks which block and restrict economic growth. If not, the UK will fall behind countries which most Britons considered to be poor only a decade ago.
Without a well-developed and connected national powerbase, HM Government will fail to enhance the prosperity and wellbeing of the British people. As importantly, it will lack the material means to protect them from hostile states or project British power globally to deter challenges to the kind of open international order the nation needs to thrive and prevail. In 2021, the Integrated Review successfully threaded together the outward-facing dimensions of Britain’s engagement with the world; after the refresh, the next review should go further – it should be a genuine National Strategy to stimulate the development of the national powerbase to provide the means to secure British geopolitical and geoeconomic objectives.
James Rogers is Co-founder and Director of Research at the Council on Geostrategy.
Join our mailing list!
Stay informed about the latest articles from Britain’s World