Royal Navy ‘Woefully Low’ on Warships: a testament to Britain’s General Decline?

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.

HMNB Portsmouth
HMNB Portsmouth

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.

Deptford Dockyard by John Cleveley (1757); established as a royal naval dockyard by Henry VIII
Deptford Dockyard by John Cleveley (1757); established as a royal naval dockyard by Henry VIII

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.

The British Fleet closes in on Spanish Havana during the Seven Years' War (1762)
The British Fleet closes in on Spanish Havana during the Seven Years’ War (1762)

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.

Flagship HMS Hermes makes a triumphant return to Portsmouth in July 1982 after deployment in the Falklands
Flagship HMS Hermes makes a triumphant return to Portsmouth in July 1982 after deployment in the Falklands

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.

British defence spending as a % of GDP 1988-2015. Source: World Bank
British defence spending as a % of GDP 1988-2015. Source: World Bank

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.

The Spanish Armada is set aflame
The Spanish Armada is set aflame

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.

The Decline of the ‘World Fair’: popular perception lags behind technological significance

‘Connecting minds, creating the future’; this is the motto of the 2020 World Expo in Dubai.

Artist's impression of Dubai Expo 2020
Artist’s impression of Dubai Expo 2020

‘How do we ensure safe and sustainable access to energy for all while reducing CO2 emissions?’; this  is the key question asked by the organisers ahead of Expo 2017 in Astana.

Both laudable statements that pose intriguing dilemmas for the future of the human race, dilemmas that hopefully we will go some way to resolving via the answers unveiled at the forthcoming Expos.

Yet such noble sentiments do not stir the heart in the same way that the original ‘World Fair’ did. The Great Exhibition of 1851, held in the sumptuous, albeit temporary, Crystal Palace at Hyde Park, was an extravaganza of enthusiasm and intellect. Opened by Queen Victoria herself – its organisation having been overseen by her Consort Prince Albert – the Great Exhibition:

became a festival of reconciliation and hope, a visible embodiment of commercial, technological and political Progress, with England consciously leading the world in an unprecedentedly international festival of amity and trade, with 15,000 exhibitors from round the world displaying their wares. (Tombs, 2014, p.466)

This truly international centrepiece was a novelty, a genuinely global phenomenon in the mid-19th century, oft-mimicked but never replicated.

Poster for the Great Exhibition, 1851
Poster for the Great Exhibition, 1851

Held within the astonishing Crystal Palace – a temporary structure four times as long as St Paul’s cathedral and designed by the Duke of Devonshire’s head gardener Joseph Paxton – the Great Exhibition attracted average daily crowds of 43,000 during its first six months. More than 6 million would pass beneath its beautiful transept facade before it closed.

It was written about in newspapers around the world, becoming the talk of many a conference, coffee-house and tavern, whilst introducing a breathtaking array of inventions to include the telegraph and vulcanised rubber.

What does one hear of today’s World Fairs? Has there been anything comparable to the enthusiasm surrounding the spectacle at Hyde Park more than a century ago?

Yes, the Expo’s of the 21st century are impressive in their scale and scope, their pavilions encompassing an array of modern architectural designs and engineering techniques. That said, they tend to lack character, staged in clinical, sanitised and nondescript settings, a far cry from the Crystal Palace.

The characterless pavilion at the 2010 Singapore World Expo
The characterless pavilion at the 2010 Singapore World Expo

This soullessness is a pity because the causes and challenges confronted are worthy ones that should receive more attention in the press. Yet going through a laborious bidding process comparable to the Olympics, selected and managed by the monotonously-titled Bureau of International Expositions, is unhelpful.

Why shouldn’t a country display the spontaneity and arrogance of the British Empire in its pomp? What benefit does the seal of officialdom have on the popular perception of such potentially significant events?

Unfortunately, it appears to be simply another testament to the over-bureaucratisation of the world we now live in.

The Great Exhibition was a roar of imperial grandeur that made tangible contributions to technological and scientific development, attracting some of the world’s greatest minds whilst remaining accessible to the common man. Indeed there is a reason why it has been granted the epitaph ‘Great’.

Inside the Great Exhibition
Inside the Great Exhibition

Of course the Crystal Palace is no longer with us. Moved to South London – to an area that now bears its name – it went on to host several other major events during the remainder of the 19th and early 20th century. It was destroyed in a massive fire in 1936, perhaps prophesising the imminent demise of the creature that had inspired it; the British Empire.

The death of the Crystal Palace, 1936
The death of the Crystal Palace, 1936

It is encouraging that these progressive global gatherings continue to be held in an era of international competition and tension.

However, if any of the future Expos – a term in itself far less glamorous than World Fair – intend to have a lasting legacy beyond the remit of the committed pioneers who help organise them, then a spark of originality must be reclaimed.

What we need is a defiant howl against conformity and modern stricture, against our sterilised and bookish world that will otherwise render the accomplishments of the few unattainable and unintelligible for the masses.


Tombs, R (2014), The English & Their History