Throughout modern British history there has been continuous periods of debate over whether or not Britain is still a great power. Last month the debate resurfaced as the UK engaged in joint military exercises, being called ‘Corsican Lion,’ with France in the Mediterranean. Also at the end of October, UK Defence Secretary Philip Hammond pledged an additional £350m to replacing the Royal Navy’s current nuclear submarine fleet called the Vanguard fleet. The new ‘nuclear deterrent’ fleet as it is termed is expected to be completed by 2028. The juxtaposition of these two events begs the question, is Britain still a great power?
The press coverage of the past month across the UK has focused much more intently on the Ministry of Defence’s investment into replacing its nuclear capable fleet than the joint exercises in the Mediterranean. In mid October the press coverage surrounding Britain’s Vanguard fleet spread around the world since Britain fired off a Trident ballistic missile from the HMS Vigilant, a Royal Navy nuclear submarine. This marks the first time in three years that Britain has tested a nuclear capable missile. The purpose of these tests is part defence and part political. The political element is that Her Majesty’s Government wants to show that they are still a pivotal power in the world and should not be dismissed in favour of a larger EU or NATO identity.
I asked many of my friends from both Scotland and England what their perspective was on the issue. Most of them openly acknowledged that the UK was no longer a great power, but at the same time said that the UK did not need France or the EU to show their strength. They were largely in favour of the new naval investments, but were quick to mention that foreign engagements either in the Middle East or elsewhere could have devastating effects to the Treasury. Tuesday 6 November I was at an election night party at the US Embassy London and I posed the question to a University College London modern history professor. He laughed at the mere suggestion that the UK was a great power and said we lost that title in 1956 during the Suez Crisis. He remarked that the UK never has gained that title back, despite being a key player in global events.
I would argue that the UK is not a great power but is one that does play a crucial role in the world. Both within and outside the UN, the UK has been a key ally to the United States, which is arguably one of only two great powers today along with China. The UK is one of only five countries to have a veto power on the UN Security Council, the central and most powerful group within the UN. Additionally, the UK proved to be a crucial ally to the US to make up the ‘coalition of the willing’ that supported America’s Invasion of Iraq.
With regard to the joint exercises the Royal Navy is partaking in with France, powerful countries around the world have been taking part in joint military exercises for decades. I do not see this partnership as a sign of weakness, but instead a showing of strength for both countries. Britain has a powerful military that is critical to NATO and any future engagements around the world. So while the UK may not be a ‘great power’ per se, no country or supranational institution can claim that the UK isn’t one of the most important powers on the world stage today.
Photo credit: UK Ministry of Defence