By James Rogers
So, political conference season is over, with the Conservative Party Conference winding up earlier this week. The highlight of the season was surely Prime Minister Theresa May twerking on stage to the tune of ‘Dancing Queen’, as she tried to subdue her critics within her own party and beyond it. Brexit has certainly take up increasing bandwidth within government as the March 2019 exit date draws nearer, a situation that will likely intensify over the coming months, and may persist well into the new year.
What is astonishing, however, is that beneath the babble about Brexit, the United Kingdom has grown increasingly engaged around the world. If there is such a thing as “Global Britain”, it is surely beginning to emerge now. Why has it been overlooked?
Last week, off the coast of the United States, the first F35Bs Lightning II joint combat aircraft landed on the flight deck of the mighty hulk, HMS Queen Elizabeth, scotching finally the nonsense about the lack of jets for the carrier. Earlier this month, the Ministry of Defence announced what can only be understood as “horizontal escalation” in an attempt to deter Russia’s wild and unruly regime – again in the news due to events the Netherlands – from persisting in its revisionist offensive against the West. Not only was it announced that Britain would be deploying more troops to Ukraine to help with the training of that country’s armed forces, but it was also stated that a new British military facility would be established in Norway as part of a ‘Defence Arctic Strategy’.
At the same time, British naval forces have been deployed around the world, with HMS Albion – one of two vessels Gavin Williamson, the Defence Secretary, announced earlier this week would remain in service – cruising through the South China Sea to reassert freedom of navigation in international waters. Also in the Far East, the British Army deployed for the first time to Japan to exercise with the Japanese Ground Self-Defence Force. This reflects the fact that the contemporary British-Japanese relationship has grown closer than ever, and has even greater potential in the years ahead. Meanwhile, the Royal Air Force is now involved in ferrying disaster relief to the areas affected by the tsunami that struck parts of Indonesia last week. And in Oman, over 5,500 British personnel are currently deployed as part of one of the largest military exercises in the Middle East since 2002, reconfirming the United Kingdom’s ability to project military power far from the British home islands in support of its partners and allies – a unique capability held by very few nations, and one the British are likely to enhance in the coming years.
The question is: can the tempo and scale of these operations can be sustained? And can “Global Britain” be realised in the longer term? Aside announcements that existing assets would not be culled, the Conservative Party failed to outline this week whether additional resources would be provided to underpin the national posture. The aid budget is large relative to purpose, but the diplomatic and defence budgets need to grow. The Prime Minister announced earlier this week that the purse strings may soon begin to open and that “austerity” would start to end. But where will the extra funding be directed?