UNITED KINGDOM by Hal G.P. ColebatchNews Weekly
Britain's ever-shrinking armed forces
, August 2, 2014
The ceremonial naming by the Queen of the new British super-carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth will be a shot in the arm for Britain’s hard-pressed and shrunken armed forces.
At 65,000 tons, the Queen Elizabeth and her sister-ship, HMS Prince of Wales, will be the biggest warships ever built in Britain, though they are still smaller than the nuclear-powered American super-carriers, and are conventionally-powered, thus limiting their range. They will have a projected life-span of 50 years, and should certainly make the Falkland Islands secure for a long time.
The two carriers will each have a capacity of about 35 modern fighter aircraft, though these are not yet available. Although the Royal Navy is fighting for a change of policy, it has been forecast that Prince of Wales will go into “mothballs” when completed. Further, they will need escorts which do not at this moment exist and which cannot be built overnight. Britain has only about 19 surface combatants, spread all over the world.
Meanwhile, however, the British Armed Forces overall continue to shrink. Writing in the UK Telegraph (July 3, 2014), James Kirkup has recently reported: “Per capita, at least, Britain’s armed forces are small, and getting smaller.
“Some 165,00 out of 65 million people in the UK now serve in the forces. At the Coronation in 1952, Britain had 820,000 men and women under arms from a population of 50 million. By way of contemporary comparison, the realm is now blessed with 563,000 estate agents.…” (And 250,000 hairdressers).
A photograph of the 1953 Coronation Review shows lines of wave-ruling carriers, cruisers, destroyers and frigates stretching to the horizon — 300 ships at Spithead alone.
Kirkup continues: “Almost a decade ago, as the Armed Forces fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, and covered for striking firemen, I asked one of the service chiefs what his biggest worry was. His answer was simple: ‘Ethos’.
“He meant that the culture and spirit of the Forces, and that of the country which they serve, are increasingly different, and the Service personnel would come to seem increasingly foreign to their own compatriots.”
A hare-brained plan to compensate for the slashing of the regular Army by increasing the territorials has so far proved a complete flop: the territorials, depending on voluntary enlistment, are fewer than they were before the plan was announced.
Yet the armed forces and their surrounding traditions and ceremonies are widely admired. On Armed Forces Day (but since when have the armed forces needed a day?), 35,000 people stood in pouring rain at Stirling Castle to watch soldiers march and the Red Arrows give an aerobatic display.
But 35,000, by coincidence, is the same number as now serve in the Royal Air Force and a couple of thousand more than serve in the Royal Navy.
Britain’s maritime heritage, a matter closely related to its military ethos, was celebrated for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee with a great water-borne pageant on the Thames in April, 2012, and attracted an audience of more than a million, who, like the host at Stirling this year, turned out gamely in the freezing cold and rain. But the Royal Navy had no ships or boats to contribute.
Lord West, a former First Sea Lord, said then that there would be no naval review off Spithead, because the navy was by then so small that displaying it would only result in national humiliation.
Books by British soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have sold well, and there is at least great public sentiment in supporting the troops. But — more than the normal grousing of soldiers — the first-hand accounts are frequently filled with complaints about the continually unserviceable Bowman radios and useless Snatch Land-Rovers that offer those in them little or no protection from mines.
Britain’s soldiers are drawn disproportionately from London, the North and Scotland, with very few from Britain’s growing minorities.
The manpower shortage is so acute, even with the present army of less than 100,000 men (planned to shrink to 82,000), that about 2,000 are foreigners drawn from Commonwealth countries.
Kirkup explains: “This is about more than geography, though. Culture matters too. Disciplined, hierarchical and willing to put the organisation’s needs before their own, the services can feel a little removed from relaxed, irrelevant and individualistic Britain. With well-shined shoes, neat hair and no visible tattoos, they even look different.”
It is easy to believe British culture lost a certain fundamental seriousness with the end of the Cold War. Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair and his government fostered a shallow, hedonistic culture. He claimed proudly that British fashion-designers and rock musicians were taking the world by storm, as science and engineering faculties closed on one campus after another.
A hedonistic culture, such as Blair promoted, impacts on national defence both by draining off money to meet social expectations and by inculcating an ethos of selfishness and softness.
It is now known that at least some of the inspiration behind the stage musical and film, Oh! What a Lovely War!, satirising the British Army in World War I, was the cold-blooded and deliberate objective of damaging Britain’s defence ethos. The film version, it has been reported, is now being taught by some leftist school-teachers as history.
David Cameron and the senior Tories, with the possible exception of the recently sacked Education Minister Michael Gove, seem to have little or no idea how to tackle or even comprehend this sort of thing.
Blair rapturously praised the film, The Full Monty (1997), about a group of men in a dying coal-town who became male strippers, as a great advertisement for the new British creativity. Not long afterwards, the American film, October Sky (1999), was made about a group of boys in a dying coal-town who became rocket-scientists.
One of Blair’s ministers, in a broadcast to Ireland, had ridiculed the Trooping of the Colours, while another had suggested people joined the armed forces because of mental disorders.
Blair was succeeded by Gordon Brown, about whom nobody remembers anything at all, and Brown by Tory Prime Minister David Cameron, who has made some improvements in fiscal policy, but has done nothing to wind back the frivolous, decadent culture Blair brought in as “Cool Britannia”, and which has played such a large role in running down Britain’s defences.
Will the new carriers — actually ordered by the Blair government — mark the turn of the tide?
Hal G.P. Colebatch, PhD, is a Perth author and lawyer.