Since the Brexit vote in 2016 Theresa May’s Conservative Government have sought to push forward the ‘Global Britain’ policy campaign. However, as the Foreign Affairs Select Committee recently highlighted, there has thus far been little change in policy output to reflect this pan-government policy.
This article was submitted by Jeremy Sacramento, Jeremy is currently completing a Masters in International Law and Security at the University of Southern Denmark, having previously graduated with a Masters in Public Policy at King’s College London, and prior to that a Bachelors in International Politics from the University of Surrey.
Although theoretically a pan-government policy, there are four primary departments that are in the driving seat: the Foreign Office, the Department for International Development, the Department for International Trade, and the Ministry of Defence.
However there is a slight paradox to the Global Britain drive. The two main departments, the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence, have both been subject to punishing efficiency measures; and in the case of the latter, these are seemingly not over. This is an especially worrisome prospect at this particular juncture in history. Not only because defence provides the hard power capacity that underwrites and extends wider foreign policy, i.e. provides the ultimate safeguards for Global Britain, but also, because the present strategic reality itself is an increasingly complex one. In other words, the globe Global Britain wants to operate in is an ever more precarious one – think a resurgent Russia, an assertive China, and an unabated threat from terrorist actors.
With nearly seven years of steep cuts ushered in by the Strategic Defence and Security Review 2010 (SDSR 10), it is little surprise that Retired First Sea Lord Admiral George Zambellas recently retorted that the armed forces had reached “the bottom of the efficiency barrel”; yet in mid-2017 the UK Government once again decided to launch a fresh review. This has come less than two years after the SDSR 15, which is not even half way into its implementation – since 2010 security reviews should occur every five years. This new review, the ‘National Security Capability Review’ (published 28 March 2018) was conducted by the Prime Minister’s Security Advisor, Sir Mark Sedwill, and was initially set to cover the whole of government, including defence. However, following a spate of leaks the NSCR was split, and a splinter uniquely defence review titled ‘Modernising Defence Programme’ was commissioned – due to be published mid-2018.
The leaks that led to this separate review shed light on the government’s thinking. One of the major revelations was that of reducing or even eliminating the UK’s amphibious capability, entailing: scrapping HMS Albion and her sister Bulwark, some, or all three RFA Bay Class dock landing ships, and the bulk of Royal Marines. Another leak suggested the further reduction of the British Army’s regular element – already down from 112,000 to 82,000 since 2010. A further leak alleged a reduction in the order of the fifth generation F-35B. Any of these steps would undermine the very essence of the Global Britain policy, and could prove disastrous for the UK’s wider foreign policies, not to mention its national security.
Any of these prospects prove notably daunting for Gibraltar.
For starters, a British fighting force that is thinly stretched and hollowed out leaves Gibraltar, which sits in an enviably strategic position, uncomfortably vulnerable – both for Gibraltar’s and the UK’s interests. Gibraltar carries a number of salient strategic benefits, most notably it presides over a crucial choke point in the sea lines of communication between the UK and the East – note also Russian communication between its Northern cold water ports and its warm water ports in the Black Sea. It also forms the bridge between the increasingly unstable Sahel region and Europe. Should things turn awry this makes Gibraltar an attractive target, whether in its own right, to disrupt Britain’s sea lines of communication, or to deprive the UK from this useful Forward Operating Base. And Global Britain itself further adds to this. In Theresa May’s words, Global Britain aims to “reach out to the world”, that means increased trade with states on the farthest corners of the world, in particular the Far East and Middle East, if the latest trade missions are an indicator. More trade to and from Britain through this choke point means greater value.
Apart from this strategic element, Gibraltar has an inseparable, indeed natural, connection with the British armed forces, given that 250 years of its 314 years as a British territory have been as a military fortress. Until recently, the Gibraltarian has grown-up immersed in military tradition, with the near-constant sight of Royal Navy vessels in port and a kaleidoscope of uniformed personnel scuttling across the city, not to mention the roaring sound of Tornado engines conducting a fly-past. In fact the MoD, like any garrison town, is the essence of Gibraltar’s British heritage, with Britishness being almost synonymous with the scarlet tunic. But beyond underlining Gibraltar’s British heritage, it is the representative value of this against the continued long shadow of Spain’s sovereignty claim – which Brexit compounds. The symbolic value of British commitment to the Rock the MoD provides is therefore as important as ever. Further reductions to the armed forces, including fewer naval and RAF visits, and an ever shrinking permanent HQ presence – the MoD footprint on the Rock is down to minute proportions – could thus deprive Gibraltar of Britain’s most tangible manifestation of its commitment.
On a more abstract level, a further relative decline of the UK’s armed forces – not only relative to Russia and China, but also relative to the staggering increases in defence spending by Middle Eastern states – will impact on the UK’s standing on the world stage. Although a crude measure, defence capabilities are indeed a barometer for diplomatic clout. A reduction in its clout therefore, could in the future complicate the UK’s ability to garner support on international fora, in particular the UN. This presents a further problem for Gibraltar and the Spanish claim.
The above illustrates that the prospects of a further deterioration in the Armed Force’s capabilities could carry ramifications for even comparatively less conspicuous issues. However, reality appears to have struck the austerity-eager Conservative government. The just published NCSR gives much needed and unrestrained impetus to foreign and security policy and in how these serve other policy objectives, notably trade. Might the upcoming MDP review show a similar realisation? If it does, there is hope that Global Britain may indeed – at least once more substance is produced – be a success for the UK and its overseas territories.