"Britain punches above its weight"
November 1, 2009 8:44 AM   Subscribe

Britain: the birthplace of globalisation in the 19th century; ruler of a worldwide empire. But why, over a century later, is the UK still appearing as a major player on the political world stage? Its entire population of around 60m is comparable only with the population of California and Texas combined. Geographically it is a smaller size than Texas, and cut off from the larger and potentially more-politically-influential Eurozone. Is it relying on its history as a superpower, or on its current relations with superpowers?

Britain's Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, still sees Britain as having a vital international role, "Our role in Europe magnifies the power of our ideas, and strengthens our international clout in Washington, Beijing and Moscow".

The "Special Relationship" between Britain and the US is something British politicians try to maximise, although many in Britain see it as a one-sided arrangement, with Britain loyally following in its master's footsteps. "The concept of a special relationship with the UK is of little relevance or interest to most Americans. It is rarely a topic raised or discussed by the media or political analysts. British support for US foreign policy, if discussed at all, is largely assumed. On the other side of the Atlantic, the special relationship generates significant debate and is often a source of controversy,"( James K Wither, U.S. Army War College.)

Michael Codner, head of military sciences at the Royal United Services Institute, believes Britain still has a taste for being a world power, with the British Armed Forces playing a significant part, although "our perception of the nation as a great power was pretty undermined - we really were starting to see ourselves as rather a footling nation." However a lesser role in Iraq and Afghanistan, compared to the US, is no minor initiative for Britain, who aim to do things their own way.

Special relationship or not, the economic downfall affects us both. Britain, although a world-class financial hub, is being left behind.

Politically, militarily, financially, Britain manages to be far more influential (although not necessarily successfully) than its diminutive stature suggests. But is it due to its own prowess, or due to hanging onto the coattails of others?
posted by Petrot (71 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
As the US empire declines, we Americans will be glad to have friends anywhere.
posted by SPrintF at 8:54 AM on November 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


Having nuclear weapons certainly helps.

As does being a financial center, which has given teeny-weeny Switzerland a leg up for the past 400 years.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:56 AM on November 1, 2009


Hey, Prince Charming and Horseface are touring the Dominion of Canada tomorrow. The excitement of the colonial populace is palpable.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:58 AM on November 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Britain still ranks highly for its size in terms of GDP.
posted by idb at 8:59 AM on November 1, 2009


Nukes, a reasonable military, a seat on the security council, good intelligence services (especially for signals), a legacy of respect and developed diplomatic relationships left over from Empire and a continued status as one of the world's greatest financial centres.

That was quite easy.
posted by jaduncan at 9:02 AM on November 1, 2009 [16 favorites]


I always wonder how history would have differed if France and America had that "special relationship" (they where our BEST FRIENDS FOREVER during the revolution, and the Brits, if you recall kept like invading us and quietly supporting the Confederates) and the Uk and Germany forged a stronger alliance (which everyone thought would happen, two big Iron Empires whose families are all interconnected).

It's like no one can give me a concrete reason why WWI happened. It was like it came from SPACE or the result of a divergent time-line.
posted by The Whelk at 9:06 AM on November 1, 2009 [10 favorites]


I agree with idb, GDP clearly plays an import role in it's significance. It also has the second highest GDP of English-speaking countries (after the USA)
posted by a womble is an active kind of sloth at 9:06 AM on November 1, 2009


It's the world's sixth largest economy. Maybe by GDP it produces less than CA + TX combined, but California and Texas together make up over 20% of the US GDP. If either state were to break off (yes, yes, Gov. Perry, we know) they'd be among the 15 richest nations in the world... but would still rank below the UK.

The "we are sliding towards developing nations" handwringing is laughable. If the UK suffered a 10% annual drop in GDP this year, it'd be... the sixth largest economy in the world. If it suffered an apocalyptic annual plunge in GDP of 30%, it'd be... the seventh largest economy in the world.

Heck, if you went by per capita income ($43,374 in 2008), a 30% apocalyptic drop would mean falling to around $30K, amidst such poor and needy Third World countries as Israel and New Zealand.

This comes down to the UK's ludicrous self-esteem problem. They ran the world for 100+ years, lost their Empire, lost the sea to the US, and has had to cozy up to their hated European rivals as part of the EU. And yet, they still have a major economy, their standard of living is at or near an all-time high, and while they may be caught between being the 51st state and just another province of Brussels, they still hold sway on the world stage and will for decades to come. Its manufacturing and mining economies have fallen by the wayside, but IT and finance are still where the money are at, and despite the whining you still have four of the world's largest banks running out of the City and Canary Wharf.

The "Special Relationship" will remain important until what comes after Lisbon finally brings the EU together militarily. Until then the UK, France, and Germany will be treated as separate entities by the US, though with NATO maintaining its role for joint actions. The US isn't cutting the UK loose any time soon, much less Germany, France, Spain, or even Italy.
posted by dw at 9:17 AM on November 1, 2009 [17 favorites]


quietly supporting the Confederates

I've not heard of this before. What exactly happened?
posted by I_pity_the_fool at 9:18 AM on November 1, 2009


Another reason is as a place for young people from the old Empire to do their OE (2 year working holiday) - having access to a continual supply of youth in your workforce sans retirement concerns helps.
posted by Samuel Farrow at 9:25 AM on November 1, 2009


I've not heard of this before. What exactly happened?

Basically the UK was the world-leading producer of woven textiles in the 1860's, and realized that there would be little or no trade between the USA and CSA if secession worked. And they would be in a fantastic position to buy all the CSA cotton and weave it while the competing factories in America's Northeast sat idle because the CSA wouldn't sell cotton to them. So there was some debate about the UK entering the American Civil War on the side of the slave-whippers. But they didn't actually do much.
posted by Mayor Curley at 9:28 AM on November 1, 2009


The "Special Relationship" between Britain and the US is something British politicians try to maximise

Australia also has a "special relationship" with the US, with tells you something about how "special" it is. Any other nations with a "special relationship"? Canada? It's a phrase on the same level as "close personal friend".
posted by outlier at 9:31 AM on November 1, 2009


These days I think China's 'special relationship' with the US weighs more on the mind of Joe Sixpack.
posted by PenDevil at 9:34 AM on November 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


if you recall kept like invading us

The Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 is "kept like invading us?" And I hate to break it to you, sharky, but the US started both those wars.

and quietly supporting the Confederates

Really? So why did cotton diplomacy not work?

It's like no one can give me a concrete reason why WWI happened.

It happened because central and eastern Europe thought that by using alliances they could effectively deter war from happening. When Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated, it upset the balance of power, which was far more fragile than anyone thought it would be, even though it had been weighed and found wanting in the years before with the low-boil Balkan conflicts. Once the balance of power started to sway, the big players loaded for bear, and the smaller players had to follow them.

The war was probably inevitable, given that the Balkans were caught in a very long, very slow conflict that was only paused for half a century by Tito's iron fist.
posted by dw at 9:34 AM on November 1, 2009 [5 favorites]


Good summary of issues of British involvement in the US Civil War - the Trent affiar, cotton, selling ships and guns to the Confederacy, slavery as a moral failing, etc.

...the upper class might continue to hold the Confederates as sentimental favorites, and the London Times might thunder at intervals against the Northern government; but the British government itself tried to be scrupulously correct, and long before the war ended, ardent Southerners were complaining that the government's attitude had been consistently hostile to the Confederacy.
posted by mediareport at 9:42 AM on November 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Of course Britain punches about it's weight... it's because, as all right thinking people would acknowledge, we are bloody brilliant!*

(Of course we don't take that entirely seriously unless we are a BMP/UKIP idiot)
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 9:55 AM on November 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


So there was some debate about the UK entering the American Civil War on the side of the slave-whippers.

Really? Who was debating it? When? I'm aware that the South issued bonds backed by cotton and tried to increase demand for them by refusing to sell cotton in Europe. And I know that Gladstone and the editor of the Times (whose name escapes me at the moment) bought some of these bonds in the hope that they might obtain physical possession of the cotton and sell it. Of course, that prospect disappeared after New Orleans fell.

But I really don't know of any famous figures who urged intervention on the side of the South. The UK had both Bismarck and Napoleon III to worry about. I hardly think they were going to wage war with an industrial power their size on another continent.
posted by I_pity_the_fool at 9:55 AM on November 1, 2009


Basically the UK was the world-leading producer of woven textiles in the 1860's, and realized that there would be little or no trade between the USA and CSA if secession worked. And they would be in a fantastic position to buy all the CSA cotton and weave it while the competing factories in America's Northeast sat idle because the CSA wouldn't sell cotton to them.

That might have been nice, but I think you'll find the Brits were a great deal more concerned with the value of splitting an up-and-coming world power up before it could further challenge the old European powers. Breaking up the US would have been a huge win for crippling US expansionism in the American continents and abroad, helped secure Canada, and so on. Next to that, the cotton trade was an insignificant prize.

Unfortunately for the Confederates the anti-Slavery lobby in the UK had done such a fine job convincing Brits that slavery was bad 50 years before that the big-picture realpolitik was a hell of a sell while the CSA maintained slavery. Without slavery they would have won the war handily.

(Something to bear in mind next time some idiot tries to convince you the CSA had nothing to do with slavery: they chose to lose a war for their own existence rather than give it up.)
posted by rodgerd at 9:59 AM on November 1, 2009 [4 favorites]


If Britain uses their power for good and not for evil, does the meta-question "Is their power legitimate?" matter that much?
posted by AlsoMike at 10:06 AM on November 1, 2009


UK's ludicrous self-esteem problem
I think that the lack of self-esteem makes the smart people in the UK work harder. I just worry that there aren't enough industry-focused smart people working hard. However, the UK is the world's 7th largest manufacturer.
posted by niccolo at 10:08 AM on November 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


The U.K. has far more than a "reasonable" military. The British military is the only other military in the world (besides the USA) to have significant overseas power projection ability. France has a little but not nearly as much as the U.K..

Being able to project power is difficult, expensive, and important to being a world player. Russia can't do it any more (except for nukes) and China can't do it yet (except for nukes). The U.K. can, and that gives it the second most powerful offensive military in the world.
posted by Justinian at 10:11 AM on November 1, 2009 [7 favorites]


Eurozone sounds like a really bad boy band.
posted by Evilspork at 10:31 AM on November 1, 2009 [4 favorites]


On the topic of British calls for involvement in the US Civil War of 1861-1865, the American Civil War Round Table UK has some quite interesting articles, like this one.

The CSA sunk millions of dollars into trying to sway British support; though they didn't succeed in gaining an official alliance, they did attract the support of many wealthy private individuals, and a surprising number (not hundreds, but certainly dozens) of British Army and Navy personnel took approved leave from their postings to participate in battles.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:35 AM on November 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


The famed confederate commerce raider CSS Alabama was built in Britain and was crewed by mercenary Brit sailors.
posted by PenDevil at 10:45 AM on November 1, 2009


(my plans to turn this thread into an alternate history speculation discussion continues apace)
posted by The Whelk at 10:48 AM on November 1, 2009


Hey, Prince Charming and Horseface are touring the Dominion of Canada tomorrow. The excitement of the colonial populace is palpable.

KokuRyu,

Wasn't the Canadian headline "Bat Ears and Clothes Hanger To Tour" (when it was Chuck and Di?)?
posted by Jody Tresidder at 10:55 AM on November 1, 2009


The U.K. has far more than a "reasonable" military. The British military is the only other military in the world (besides the USA) to have significant overseas power projection ability. France has a little but not nearly as much as the U.K..
posted by Justinian at 1:11 PM on November 1 [2 favorites faved +] [!]

As a Brit I'd love to agree with you on that one, but I'm not so sure - the UK's force projection is (as with US forces) tied up in it's Aircraft Carriers - of which we techincally have 3, but only 2 are operational - and in it's Amphibious Assault Carrier - and we only have 1 of those. The carriers are STOVL-only, which is better than nothing, but not up to full-blown CV standards.

The French have a pair of full-blown CV Aircraft carriers (1 Nuclear, 1 conventional), although I don't know what state their amphib capability is at the moment.

Until the new Queen Elizabeth carriers are up and running and fully equipped with F-35s, I think the UK will lag behind France in force projection.
posted by Nice Guy Mike at 11:01 AM on November 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


The concept of a special relationship with the UK is of little relevance or interest to most Americans

It's of little relevance or interest to most educated Brits as well, and the craven sucking up to the White House is a source of disquiet to the more left-leaning of us. Britain is merely the USA's foothold in europe. A similar role is played by Israel in the middle east. It helps that we share a common language I suppose, and there are a lot of cultural cross-overs. But we're simply a convenient and strategically-placed island in the Atlantic so far as the powers that be are concerned. We're just puppets of US hegemony - gasp!
posted by MajorDundee at 11:03 AM on November 1, 2009 [3 favorites]


Good post and discussion, I've been wondering about the basis for the UK's simultaneously proud but neurotic global ego for a while now.
posted by memebake at 11:05 AM on November 1, 2009


The French carrier Charles de Gaulle is definitely a world class carrier but what is the conventional carrier they operate? Foch was sold to Brazil a while back and I'm not aware of any other operating French carrier. But I'm not an expert. Still, given that the U.K. carriers are currently kind of old and creaky I'm not going to argue too strenuously. The French military is definitely one of the two strongest in terms of power projection, after the United States.

The two QE carriers being built by the U.K. will change that dynamic as you imply. From what I know about them they are top notch and the French do not seem to be pressing very hard for their planned new carrier, and I wouldn't be surprised if it were downgraded or delayed for quite a while.
posted by Justinian at 11:18 AM on November 1, 2009


NannyState™
posted by HTuttle at 11:20 AM on November 1, 2009


Should we take the fact that so many English speakers in this very thread don't know the difference between its and it's as one more sign of the decline of the British empire?

Queen's English (and 1.8 billion English speakers) aside, Britain has one of the largest GDPs in the world. It has the ability to project military might globally. It exerts a global influence on finance, commerce and culture. And historically, the country has shaped nations and cultures on nearly every continent in ways that -- for better or worse -- still have a profound impact on geopolitics.
posted by TBoneMcCool at 11:31 AM on November 1, 2009


I submit to you that We are Britons.
posted by subbes at 11:51 AM on November 1, 2009


I think Millwall supporters have summed up the true spirit of Englishness (I hesitate to speak for the Celtic fringe) with the immortal words we all should live by: no-one likes us; we don't care.
posted by Abiezer at 11:56 AM on November 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


The French carrier Charles de Gaulle is definitely a world class carrier but what is the conventional carrier they operate? Foch was sold to Brazil a while back and I'm not aware of any other operating French carrier.
posted by Justinian at 2:18 PM on November 1 [+] [!]

Well, bugger me - and I thought I was being knowledgeable and generally clued-up here - I could have sworn that the French were still operating 2 CV carriers. My apologies.

Reviewing my answer, then, I suppose I'd say that the UK has a better capability to project power over a nation/area without a reasonable air defence, compared the the French, who may be limited to a single carrier, but have Rafale-Ms at their disposal for opponents who might actually put up a fight in the air.

The French have expressed an interest in QE class carriers - ideally they'd buy one from UK shipyards, or more likely, take on some of the workshare (i.e. build component sections for all three ships) in exchange for final assembly in the UK. Serious investment by the French Navy in rounding out QEs for CV operations (designed for-but-not-with cats and traps) might even get the UK to shift form F-35B to F-35C acquisition.
posted by Nice Guy Mike at 12:01 PM on November 1, 2009


Unfortunately for the Confederates the anti-Slavery lobby in the UK had done such a fine job convincing Brits that slavery was bad 50 years before that the big-picture realpolitik was a hell of a sell while the CSA maintained slavery. Without slavery they would have won the war handily.

Of course, they obviously wouldn't have needed to fight it either.
posted by delmoi at 12:06 PM on November 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Britain has one of the largest GDPs in the world. It has the ability to project military might globally. It exerts a global influence on finance, commerce and culture. And historically, the country has shaped nations and cultures on nearly every continent in ways that -- for better or worse -- still have a profound impact on geopolitics.

That sounds nice. But it's the outward turning of UK's image which has resulted in the inward problems being so neglected. Talk of "global financial center" means little or nothing to me, and "military projection" just sounds like a good way to waste money and shore up the old structure. The continued insistence on "Britain's place in the world" makes me wonder if anybody gives a shit about my place in Britain. I hate the UK.
posted by Sova at 12:54 PM on November 1, 2009 [3 favorites]


I think the QE carrier procurement program may crater within the next 18 months.

The problem is financial. While the carriers themselves are pricey at £3.9Bn (according to the government -- this is estimated to be subject to a 20% overrun) the real killer is the two wings of F35s (36 per carrier) -- at $75M a plane, that works out at roughly £3.6Bn on top of the carriers, and then depreciation/operating costs on top.

The MoD has already been flying a kite about buying one air wing and putting it on whichever carrier is available for service (while the other one is in refit). Funds are tight due to a monstrous budget deficit, and when the Conservatives are talking about replacing Trident with a cheaper deterrent, you know that no amount of holiness will necessarily save any given cow from the chopping block.

(A cheaper option might be to complete the QEs, but fit the cat/trap and buy F/A-18Bs instead, until there's a sufficiently deep purse to buy F-35Cs at mid-life refit. But watch for some bean counter in the treasury to suggest axing one carrier ... at which point the navy will only be able to field a carrier group in even-numbered years.)
posted by cstross at 1:01 PM on November 1, 2009 [4 favorites]


Whoops. F-35 is going to cost $65M-120M per airframe. And I'll bet the STOVL version is at the upper end of that bracket.
posted by cstross at 1:03 PM on November 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


"The CSA sunk millions of dollars into trying to sway British support; though they didn't succeed in gaining an official alliance, they did attract the support of many wealthy private individuals"

And then years later, of course, the north got it's own back by giving all that money to the IRA.
posted by ciderwoman at 1:17 PM on November 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Nukes, a reasonable military, a seat on the security council, good intelligence services (especially for signals), a legacy of respect and developed diplomatic relationships left over from Empire and a continued status as one of the world's greatest financial centres.

That was quite easy.


With the arguable exception of the financial sector all the same things can be equally said to apply to France (which also has a bigger economy, and hasn't made its nuclear arsenal subject to the United States), all the same things apply to France, yet the English-speaking world feels comfortable ridiculing French notions of relevance.
posted by rodgerd at 1:49 PM on November 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


Without slavery they would have won the war handily.

Of course, they obviously wouldn't have needed to fight it either.


But it was about States Rights! Not slavery at all! The whitewashers tell me so!

(There were, once underway, some proposals to abolish or review slavery as things got more desperate; Foote's magnum opus noted one Southern general suggested allowing slaves who were prepared to fight for the CSA to gain freed status as a useful source of manpower and a blow to Northern justification for war. He was, according to Foote, removed from his front-line duties for the remainder of the war.

Also, to harken back, a legacy of respect and developed diplomatic relationships left over from Empire may exist more in the minds of the English than many of their former colonies. The "thanks for the war dead, fuck you very much" entry to the then-EC certainly doesn't compare favourably to the status of former French colonies for economic access to the EU, for one trivial example.
posted by rodgerd at 1:57 PM on November 1, 2009


However, the UK is the world's 7th largest manufacturer.

What do we manufacture? Clothing here is made in Bangladesh and anything of plastic comes from China. Or do they mean "manufacturing", like putting German-designed Opel Vauxhall cars together from local and foreign parts? Or does it include cultural manufacturing, such as boy bands and commercial indie music?
posted by acb at 2:13 PM on November 1, 2009


Well, they're funnier than we are, and their accents make them sound smart.

Isn't that enough?
posted by Afroblanco at 2:28 PM on November 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


The whole narrative implicitly accepts the nation state as a thing with a place and purpose, seemingly separate from the interests of the people living in that polity (to say nothing of the more obvious victims elsewhere); I favourited Sova's comment above as while I absolutely love the place I was born and the people I grew up amongst, I give not a tinker's cuss for our standing in the world and indeed attribute many of the less pleasant aspects of my native land to the imperial adventure and its legacy. I don't envy Americans for having their nation state play the analogous role in the present world order. Even the unique institutions resulting from your revolutionary constitution have proved to be little defence against the iniquitous imperatives of being a/the global power.
And surely a sure sign of our sad national declineTM is that this thread is about the fucking Yank civil war, which is duller by far than out earlier effort (and resulted in fewer casualties as a percentage of the then national populations).
posted by Abiezer at 2:30 PM on November 1, 2009 [2 favorites]



However, the UK is the world's 7th largest manufacturer.

What do we manufacture?


We're pretty good at making and selling arms. So much for the so-called ethical foreign policy.
posted by Jakey at 2:59 PM on November 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


With the arguable exception of the financial sector all the same things can be equally said to apply to France.

There's not really anything arguable about it. London is a major world financial centre. On some measures, it's the most important. Nowhere in France is.

Also, to harken back, a legacy of respect and developed diplomatic relationships left over from Empire may exist more in the minds of the English than many of their former colonies.

To be honest, I don't think the average person thinks about it too much. They're more focused on the UK's relationship with the EU or the US. But there is something to be said for the Commonwealth - there are countries joining now that were never British colonies, which suggests that those historic diplomatic relationships and networks have some value.
posted by Infinite Jest at 3:17 PM on November 1, 2009


As a Brit who has travelled widely, I would say that the reason why the British are so confident of their place in the world is the fecundity of the ground beneath our feet. There is very little aridity in this country and the pervasive green fertility of the land is very reassuring. Beneath the peaks of Snowdonia, nearly all the land is cultivable and neatly partitioned and the weather is changeable but mild. Hence, when Rupert Brooke wrote The Soldier, he probably felt that the corner of the foreign field that is forever England would be genuinely enriched by his being there.

If I should die, think only this of me;
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
posted by Tarn at 3:48 PM on November 1, 2009 [3 favorites]


I could have sworn that the French were still operating 2 CV carriers. My apologies.

I'm pretty sure I have completely misunderstood you here, but correctly misunderstood, this statement conjures a beautifully absurd image.
posted by motty at 4:46 PM on November 1, 2009 [9 favorites]


That sounds nice. But it's the outward turning of UK's image which has resulted in the inward problems being so neglected. Talk of "global financial center" means little or nothing to me, and "military projection" just sounds like a good way to waste money and shore up the old structure. The continued insistence on "Britain's place in the world" makes me wonder if anybody gives a shit about my place in Britain. I hate the UK.

With all due respect, I don't care that you hate the U.K. I've never been there myself and have very little opinion on the matter. The question that was asked was whether Britain was still a global power. By many common measurements -- military power; a high GDP; global influence in culture, commerce and finance -- the answer is an obvious yes. Like it or not, those are the facts.
posted by TBoneMcCool at 5:01 PM on November 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


With all due respect, I don't care that you hate the U.K. I've never been there myself and have very little opinion on the matter. The question that was asked was whether Britain was still a global power. By many common measurements -- military power; a high GDP; global influence in culture, commerce and finance -- the answer is an obvious yes. Like it or not, those are the facts.

I like facts, indeed, facty facts are very nice things. I also like reflection, where a person considers themselves, and how others might see them. Where they adopt a role in response to the views of others towards them. You say I have a big military, hey? Well, best act like I'm a big military power. And a global center for commerce and finance am I? Best make sure that I live up to expectations, of course. Hence my problem with the UK's "outward image", with politicians in particular concerned over how other countries view them. The UK only continues to be the things you say it is because it actively tries to be them, and neglects other concerns in the process.

Let me give you an example. The current government has recently (last couple of years) decided to replace our nuclear weapons. Why? Because we're a big "military power" and those kinds of countries should have nuclear weapons, hence we get new nuclear weapons and remain that kind of country. But if we weren't concerned with being seen as that kind of country, we wouldn't replace them, and we would no longer be that kind of country. Do you see how this works? Good. Several of the links in this post talk about exactly this kind of issue.

My particular problem with all of this is that money is being spent in order that the UK might continue to "punch above its weight", and not spent trying to make the kind of country that its citizens want to live in. I hate the UK because we have nuclear weapons and yet many people can't access social housing. If we're still ranking countries according to "common measurements" like how many nuclear bombs we own and the size of our GDP, then I suggest we need some new measurements. You might want to debate what kind of country the UK is, but I want to debate what kind of country the UK fails to be; they are two sides of the same coin.

(Oh, and please don't say "with all due respect", it's always an segue into pissing on somebody's views.)
posted by Sova at 5:31 PM on November 1, 2009 [3 favorites]


I could have sworn that the French were still operating 2 CV carriers. My apologies.

I'm pretty sure I have completely misunderstood you here, but correctly misunderstood, this statement conjures a beautifully absurd image.
posted by motty at 7:46 PM on November 1 [2 favorites faved +] [!]


Having read up on the problems that the French have had with the Charles de Gaulle, your mental image may not be quite as ridiculous as you currently think...
posted by Nice Guy Mike at 6:22 PM on November 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


The problem is financial. While the carriers themselves are pricey at £3.9Bn (according to the government -- this is estimated to be subject to a 20% overrun) the real killer is the two wings of F35s (36 per carrier) -- at $75M a plane, that works out at roughly £3.6Bn on top of the carriers, and then depreciation/operating costs on top.

No shit - everyone has been telling the Treasury and MoD since CVF was first mooted that £4bn simply isn't enough for 2 advanced aircraft carriers, and they've just put their fingers in their ears the whole time and forged ahead.


The MoD has already been flying a kite about buying one air wing and putting it on whichever carrier is available for service (while the other one is in refit).

I spotted that, along with the idea of using one as a STOVL Carrier and the other as a Helicopter Carrier - my, that 60000 tonnes really going to good use there.

Funds are tight due to a monstrous budget deficit, and when the Conservatives are talking about replacing Trident with a cheaper deterrent, you know that no amount of holiness will necessarily save any given cow from the chopping block.

I wonder if we can buy some Tomahawk T-LAMs from the Yanks (and maybe more StormShadows, too) and outfit them with a greater number of small nukes - it doesn't have the global reach of Trident but it'd be a damn sight cheaper.

(A cheaper option might be to complete the QEs, but fit the cat/trap and buy F/A-18Bs instead, until there's a sufficiently deep purse to buy F-35Cs at mid-life refit.

Probably not a bad idea to go straight for C&T, if you ask me - the big problem being that no-one has built an EM catapult yet, and gas-turbine equipped ships can't generate steam quite so easily.

But watch for some bean counter in the treasury to suggest axing one carrier ... at which point the navy will only be able to field a carrier group in even-numbered years.)

My goodness, that's never happened before, has it? *cough*CVA*cough*. Let's be honest, MoD procurement is and has been fucked for a long while.


Personally I think the £6-12bn from the ID cards project would go some way to sorting this problem out.

Just for info for the USians: UK Defence Budget: ~£30bn/yr, NHS Budget: ~£90bn/yr, Social Security: ~180bn/yr. I think Defence has been sucking hind tit for years (and has had to run involvement in Afganistan and Iraq on peacetime budgets).
posted by Nice Guy Mike at 6:47 PM on November 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Nice Guy Mike, do you think it's a sign of weakness that the UK spends three times more on the health of its citizens and six times more on a social safety net than it does on its armed forces? North Korea would put its priorities the other way round, but I know where I'd rather live.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 8:06 PM on November 1, 2009


Nice Guy Mike, do you think it's a sign of weakness that the UK spends three times more on the health of its citizens and six times more on a social safety net than it does on its armed forces? North Korea would put its priorities the other way round, but I know where I'd rather live.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 11:06 PM on November 1 [+] [!]


No, I think it's great. But I think there's room to trim from other budgets before we start cutting into Defence.

30 years ago someone had a pop at a UK overseas territory and we were lucky to push them back off. If it something like that happened again today anywhere in the world, I think we'd struggle even more so than 1982.
posted by Nice Guy Mike at 8:19 PM on November 1, 2009


I could have sworn that the French were still operating 2 CV carriers.

Why would they need 2 CV carriers? You can practically carry a 2 CV in your pocket.
posted by Herodios at 8:58 PM on November 1, 2009 [3 favorites]


30 years ago someone had a pop at a UK overseas territory

Are you talking about the Falklands? Why do you even care?
posted by empath at 10:10 PM on November 1, 2009


"Are you talking about the Falklands? Why do you even care?"

Because they were UK nationals in a UK territory that had been invaded by a foreign military junta. This is an entirely legitimate thing to worry about.

As a thought experiment, think back to the reaction to the Japanese attack on Hawaii, and imagine the reaction if they'd taken and held a Hawaiian island.
posted by jaduncan at 11:24 PM on November 1, 2009


Right, but it was also just a few thousand people and England was already getting out of the colony business, anyway, and it's hardly essential to the economic well being of the UK. In other words, it's probably not worth spending $4 billion dollars on a new carrier to protect, if that's the reason they're doing it.
posted by empath at 12:59 AM on November 2, 2009


err -- england= britain in that post.
posted by empath at 1:00 AM on November 2, 2009


It's a nice place to visit. Come say hello!
posted by Major Tom at 2:10 AM on November 2, 2009


Most of our post-45 foreign wars have been pretty squalid end-of-empire affairs and the like but I agree with jaduncan about the Falklands conflict. There's some suspicion that a shooting war could have been avoided with diplomacy, even some suggestion that it was actively encouraged for political purposes, which seems not impossible but on balance unlikely; but when push came to shove it was a military junta invading against the wishes of the islanders and as I understand it, with an eye on diverting attention from domestic problems in Argentina. The good outcomes of theirr defeat were not just for the Falklanders who got the regime they preferred back, but also for Argentinians who saw the murderous rule of the generals collapse as a consequences of its humiliation. If only all our military adventures had concluded so well.
posted by Abiezer at 3:22 AM on November 2, 2009


I, too, would love to see 2 CV's being launched by a cat-and-trap equipped carrier, similar to the airborne Jaguar demonstrated by Top Gear on the HMS Invincible. This method of force projection would, however, seem to be lacking in deterrent.

(One other reason the Brits continue to be relevant in today's world: Top Gear)
posted by autopilot at 5:03 AM on November 2, 2009


You know what it is? It's those goddamn ravens on the Tower of London, is what it is. Two good ol' boys with a couple of twelve-gauges could turn Perfidious Albion into Rhode Island West with one afternoon of good shootin'.
posted by Halloween Jack at 5:37 AM on November 2, 2009


Well, you know, West going around the other way. Damnit, still on my first cup of coffee.
posted by Halloween Jack at 5:38 AM on November 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


...could turn Perfidious Albion into Rhode Island West...

Heh. More like CalTex East & the GOP's electoral nightmare. With 60 million population our EC votes & senate / house representation would dwarf the rest of the country and would prob. be a Dem shoo-in. Then again Scotland, Wales & N Ireland might want separate statehood...
posted by i_cola at 5:54 AM on November 2, 2009


I had Perfidious Albion down for a score draw on me pools coupon, but their useless long ball tactics saw them fail to even get it in the opposition's final third, let alone actually threaten a goal.
posted by Abiezer at 6:02 AM on November 2, 2009


30 years ago someone had a pop at a UK overseas territory and we were lucky to push them back off. If it something like that happened again today anywhere in the world, I think we'd struggle even more so than 1982.

NiceGuyMike, we almost certainly shouldn't be bothering to try and defend some tiny island 6000 miles away from our mainland. It's an incredibly stupid idea for a number of reasons which are hopefully quite obvious.

I mean seriously. Look at this shit. Do we honestly believe that defending these places is some sort of strategic advantage and not actually a political and economic dead weight?
posted by public at 9:04 AM on November 2, 2009


Do we honestly believe that defending these places is some sort of strategic advantage

They provide a regional presence, overseas bases, expeditionary and logistical supply capabilities near a number of critical sea lines of communications that link one of the most sea dependent nations in the world to multiple different points of the global economy. When you add the Sembawang dockyards in Singapore, and the outposts in Brunei, Belize and Kenya to your map a lot of key maritime areas are still covered by 'this shit'
posted by IanMorr at 10:29 AM on November 2, 2009


Sova: as Nice Guy Mike states, the UK spend on defence budget: ~£30bn/yr, NHS budget: ~£90bn/yr, social security: ~180bn/yr.

I'd say that, as a country, we are putting our tax pounds where they need to be in order to be the kind of country where you or I want to live.

If we consider all the extra money that has been invested in public services over the period of Labour government, I think we're heading in the right direction. Reduced NHS waiting lists, increased education funding, more doctors and nurses, free access to culture/galleries/museums, funding to tackle child poverty, improved access to education at all levels....

Yes, one could argue that we should reduce our military spend and curb the worst excesses of the City. But, despite our media daily telling us otherwise, we're not going to hell in a hand-basket. In fact, things are mostly pretty good. When we rise out of this recession and curb the resulting unemployment, things look even better.

I realise that the UK is far from perfect (like any nation state) but I love it.
posted by Lleyam at 10:59 AM on November 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


"NiceGuyMike, we almost certainly shouldn't be bothering to try and defend some tiny island 6000 miles away from our mainland. It's an incredibly stupid idea for a number of reasons which are hopefully quite obvious.

I mean seriously. Look at this shit. Do we honestly believe that defending these places is some sort of strategic advantage and not actually a political and economic dead weight?"

If we finally start getting the oil out, then I would have to say it's not a dead weight at all. It's almost like owning random bits of seabed isn't a bad investement.
posted by jaduncan at 12:04 PM on November 2, 2009


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