In 1495, the world’s first dry dock was built in Portsmouth during the reign of Henry VII, the first monarch of the House of Tudor. Two years later the warship Sweepstake was completed, setting in motion Portsmouth’s place at the forefront of British naval history, which it is yet to relinquish.
Today, major dredging works are underway in preparation for the arrival of HMS Queen Elizabeth, the first of two new aircraft carriers for the Royal Navy. With the exception of the occasional unexploded bomb find, these works are progressing smoothly in anticipation of the docking of the £6bn craft next year.
Yet despite such a seemingly positive addition to Britain’s naval pedigree, a new report authored by the Defence Select Committee has slammed the ‘woefully low’ number of warships currently in operation for the Royal Navy, whilst raising serious questions about the government’s ability to adequately replace older vessels.
Is this naval deterioration testament to the general decline of Britain’s global power status?
It was during the Tudor era that wide-reaching reforms were enacted to create Britain’s first modern navy. In addition to Portsmouth, naval dockyards were established at Chatham, Deptford, Plymouth and Woolwich, with warships designed to specification and designs standardised.
Over the succeeding centuries, Britain became synonymous with naval power, which served a wide array of purposes. Perhaps its most important function was to defend the English Channel. From repulsing the Spanish Armada in 1588, to defying French imperial ambitions in the 18th and 19th centuries, countering the U-Boat threat during the First World War, and rendering the Nazis’ ‘Operation Sea Lion’ nothing more than a pipe dream, the Royal Navy has served as an integral, unbreachable barrier between Britain and the European continent.
Only when the government has lost the support of its naval forces, such as during the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688, has an invasion from mainland Europe succeeded, and hardly a bloody one at that.
Historically Britain not only needed to defend its homeland, of course, but also its empire which itself could not have been won without the might of the Royal Navy. Initially aimed at ravaging the overseas possessions of European rivals, state-of-the-art warships underpinned almost every one of Britain’s colonial endeavours, from the Far East, to India, to Africa and the Caribbean.
As with their Iberian predecessors, British conquerors were reliant on overwhelming naval force to project power thousands of miles from home, at a time when communication between subject and crown invariably took many months.
Once a colonial empire had been established it needed defending and here again the Royal Navy was integral in thwarting the machinations of rival European states as their great power struggles spilled into the New World.
It could also be argued that Britain’s traditional mercantilist bent, when coupled with its naval capacity, helped facilitate worldwide trade and technological dispersion, setting the course for globalisation.
Additionally, naval patrols helped disrupt and finally end the Atlantic and Arab slave trades in the 19th century.
The first global military and economic power left few countries untouched in pursuit of an empire where the sun never set, a world created in its own image.
The real and symbolic power of the Royal Navy could be felt as recently as 1982, when a naval task force was mobilised to put the Argentinian invaders to flight during the Falklands War. The exploits of the British naval force – aided by the RAF – so far from home captured the public imagination and gave a much-needed injection of popularity to the embattled administration of Margaret Thatcher.
However, the end of the Cold War precipitated a marked contraction in defence spending for most European states and Britain was no exception. With the rationale to retain such a mighty operational fleet in an era of post-colonial peace diminished, money could be set aside for pressing domestic matters.
As a result, Trident has barged to the forefront of British defence policy in recent years. The permanent presence at sea of one of four nuclear-armed submarines is arguably all that keeps Britain at the top table for debating global security matters. It is a sinister programme, decidely unglamorous when compared to the romanticised past of the invincible Royal Navy and its formidable, sumptuous warships. Yet it is a necessary and justified expense, one which has resulted in the sacrifice of a more visible British naval presence around the world.
One must accept that the days of Britain’s naval predominance have long since disappeared. For too long Britain played a role in the securitisation of the world at odds with its small size. Scaling back is not a sign of decline or an admission of relegation to the second rung of global nations.
It is a pragmatic and measured approach, one in which strategic alliances, unconventional weapons platforms, elite special operations and intelligence capabilities, and diplomatic negotiation are equally if not more important than traditional power-projection methods.
Britain should be proud of its naval history for it has done a considerable amount to shape much of what is good about the modern world. Whilst efforts should be made to ensure that the Royal Navy is not reduced to a skeleton fleet, the doomsayers must remember Britain’s place in the 21st century, which is not one of a global superpower.
Harnessing an appreciation of the benefits of past naval prowess with a pragmatic, economical vision of future naval deployment will allow Britain to continue as a relevant player on all of our great oceans.
Heroic it may not be but valuable it will always remain.