The Rebirth of the British Empire: Political Preconditions for a Royal Navy Renaissance

Russia is located on the vast open Eurasian steppe. It has survived through expansion, conquering and subsuming regional ethnicities until it could anchor political boundaries against hard geographic barriers.

This grand strategy reached its apogee when Joseph Stalin conquered Eastern Europe during World War II—allowing Moscow to forward stage heavy ground forces in East Germany. Moscow controlled a combined populace that was more than twice the size of the Rus ethnicity itself. This is the Russian definition of security.

In the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, Russia lost all of this defence-in-depth, and Vladimir Putin has been slowly advancing its restoration ever since. The Russo-Ukrainian War revealed that the Europeans were outgunned. Europe cannot stand alone without American strategic sponsorship. However, one bright spot in European defence capability is the ongoing renaissance of the Royal Navy.

In the aftermath of BREXIT, the United Kingdom came under enormous pressure to reorient supply chains and restore ties with its old colonial trade network. Such a reorientation is only possible if the UK has the capacity to protect complex maritime trade routes; hence the restoration of the Royal Navy. However, extensive investments in new supply chains and maritime combat capabilities would require stable finances and tranquil domestic politics. To fully understand this rebirth and its trajectory over the next 30 years, we need to explore the significance of BREXIT, the Quiet Revolution of Tony Blair, and the precedents set in the English Revolution.

UK Royal Navy's Marine Commando during training.

The Present State of the UK

BREXIT has caused many to believe that the UK is now only a second-tier power—cursed to follow in the wake of the European Union, the United States, and China. Not only is Britain economically isolated, but Westminster is politically fractured. Parliament is dysfunctional. The national budget is bloated and unsustainable. Families are being crushed by out-of-control energy prices. And while the Russo-Ukrainian War has generated inflation across Europe, the UK is experiencing some of the most painful symptoms.

The ruling Tories deserve much of the blame. They have been in power since 2010 and have failed to implement meaningful reform beyond a long and painful process of disentanglement from the European Union. However, much of this dysfunction is the inheritance of a Quiet Revolution that began in 1997 when Tony Blair ascended to the office of Prime Minister.

The profound changes that the British system underwent in Tony Blair’s Quiet Revolution can only be compared to the English Civil War and subsequent Protectorate (dictatorship) of Oliver Cromwell. But like the revolution, Blair’s reforms may not last.

The Dysfunction of Tony Blair’s Constitutional Modernizations

Blair was an idealist, and he believed that the British system of government, which has roots dating back to the Middle Ages, was in dire need of modernization. Unfortunately, rather than improving Britain’s ancient institutions, Blair’s reforms made the UK more closely resemble a newly enfranchised former Soviet Republic—unclear on how its political processes should work, unsure of how to solve problems in the legislature, unsure of the appropriate application of court authority, and stabilized only by vague declarations in support of human rights.

With almost no thought, Blair crippled the ancient cabinet position of Lord High Chancellor. The Lord High Chancellor oversaw the British justice system and chaired the old high court of appeals—the Lords of Appeal in Ordinary. The office of Lord High Chancellor appeared in so many active pieces of legislation that eliminating the position entirely proved quite impossible, so Blair elected to demote it to political irrelevancy.

Then, Blair created an independent American-style Supreme Court, creating a Montesquieu-esque separation of powers between the Supreme Court (judicial), Parliament (legislative), and Office of the Prime Minister (executive). Blair ignored the fact that the executive and legislative branches are one and the same, and the judiciary was supposed to be subordinate to the legislature. The Parliamentary system did not naturally evolve to have a separation of powers, and implementing a separation of powers over top 800 years of negotiated democratic norms was a fool’s errand.

Perhaps most catastrophically, Blair granted both Scotland and Wales their own Parliaments to legislate on regional issues in a Federalist-style arrangement with Westminster. In 1707, Scotland was nearly bankrupt and undergoing a financial crisis. The Scottish trade was also severely impacted by privateering during the Nine Years War and War of Spanish Succession. In order to gain access to the English banking system and protection by the Royal Navy, Scotland passed the Acts of Union, creating the Kingdom of Great Britain. Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh closed its session, and all of the Scottish MPs simply reconvened as new MPs in the Parliament in Westminster.

Scotland retained its culture, language, education system, laws, and religion. So intact was Scottish culture following the Union that while the King is head of the Church of England, he actually changes religion when he travels to Scotland, becoming a reformed Calvinist and elder in the Presbyterian Church. Scotland’s only real ties to England are political—the shared monarch and representative body. Blair’s thoughtless attempt to assuage Scottish nationalism by allowing Edinburgh its own Parliament radically endangered Scotland’s participation in the Parliamentary process in Westminster. The Scottish National Party continues to lobby for a referendum on independence to this day.

Blair also pioneered the use of single-issue committees, which were empowered to set policy on issues deemed too important to be frustrated by the political process. Britain’s COVID-19 response was managed by such a committee—the COVID-19 Cabinet Committee. British climate change policy is managed by such a committee—the Committee on Climate Change.

Unfortunately, politics is the art of tradeoffs. Single issue committees are designed not to contend with downside critiques on their policies. For example, COVID-19 lockdowns shredded the economy and robbed school children of two years of education and socialization. Single mindedly pursuing carbon reductions to combat climate change elevates the cost of energy, crippling the capacity of families to make ends meet.

It is the sole role of Parliament to debate policy, identify the tradeoffs, and plot a nuanced pathway forward. Even when staffed by experts (and any charlatan can claim to be an expert), single issue committees are by nature single minded, and their policies often hurt the public with little regard for nuance and compromise. Moreover, the use of single issue committees creates dysfunction in Parliament itself, incentivizing MPs to delegate hard decisions, avoid writing meaningful legislation, and devolve towards more populist instincts.

The political and economic turmoil of the present, as well as the utter failure of Parliament to simply solve problems, stem from Blair’s constitutional reforms. Disrupting the function of institutions that had developed organically since the 13th Century has consequences—the UK’s governing institutions no longer understand themselves.

Political Stability Sets the Preconditions for Empire

Ultimately, the United Kingdom is a naval power first—and for hundreds of years the world’s preeminent naval power. At the height of the British Empire one-third of the world’s population was subject to the Crown. The superiority of the Royal Navy and the subsequent emergence of the British Empire was a direct consequence of the political stability created by the legacy of Magna Carta, English Common Law, a limited executive, and the efficiency of the Parliament in Westminster.

The endorsement of the 1225 Magna Carta by King Henry III began a process of parliamentary consultation before the King could levy taxes. Gradually, Parliament grew both in its membership and authority, setting in motion a long process from which would emerge a limited executive, English Common Law, fair trials for the accused, and suffrage. Apart from the many provisions in Magna Carta which have been abandoned and forgotten, Parliament has endured—principally because it was useful to the King. Henry III and his progeny discovered that English citizens were more likely to voluntarily pay taxes if they were consulted in the purpose.

The Crown used Parliament to explain to the Barons (and eventually the broader English public) the emerging threats to the realm and the necessity of projects for the common good. In much of the rest of Europe, the King had to extract taxes from the public, almost as though he were a foreign occupier. As a result, the cost of capital in the UK was always significantly lower than in continental Europe. For example, during the reign of Louis XIV, the cost of capital in the UK (a country of 8 million) was one quarter of what it was in France (a country of 25 million). The political stability provided by England’s Parliamentary democracy enabled the necessary economic surpluses and financial stability to support what would become the world’s preeminent navy.

Unfortunately, this political and financial stability was interrupted by the English Civil War (1642-1651). Charles I of England proved himself to be an incompetent despot, and his attempts to rule by his own right, to levy taxes without the consent of Parliament, and to force Roman Catholic traditions on the protestant population, forced the public into open rebellion against his rule. Eventually, Oliver Cromwell led the Parliamentary Forces to victory, and Charles I was tried for treason and executed.

As Cromwell commanded the loyalty of the Army, he was declared Lord High Protector of the Realm in what was effectively a military dictatorship. To Cromwell’s credit, he did not accept a crown, and he died without designating a clear successor as Lord High Protector. The English are perhaps the only people who, after having fought a bloody civil war and committing regicide, reversed a revolution.

After Cromwell’s death there was a general recognition that England’s constitutional monarchy had worked very well for several hundred years. In 1660, George Monck led the Convention Parliament in declaring Charles II (who had been in exile in Europe following the execution of his father) as King of England. This act of Parliament simply declared the actions of Charles I and the last several years of civil war as null and void. It was as though the revolution had never happened.

The United Kingdom regained its political stability, and as consent of the governed conveyed into a reliable tax base, London invested new resources into the Royal Navy and increasingly looked abroad for new resources and markets (in the form of colonies). The Royal Navy was soon the most powerful navy in the world—a crown it wore until World War II—securing the maritime trade routes that bound Britain’s vast empire together.

The United Kingdom is a naval power first—and for hundreds of years the world’s preeminent sea power-through its Royal Navy.
Ultimately, the United Kingdom is a naval power first—and for hundreds of years the world’s preeminent naval power.

A Naval Renaissance—If the Revolution Can be Overturned

Following BREXIT, the UK is now being forced to look to the British Commonwealth (former colonies which remain subject to the crown but are politically independent from the UK) in order to round out its supply chains. The UK needs raw materials, as well as low and mid value-added manufacturing, to feed its advanced industrial plant and service economy.

Fortunately, most of the Commonwealth Nations need access to the London financial center, technology transfer, infrastructure buildout, and access to global markets. The UK can help with all of these areas—provided buildout of the Royal Navy can keep pace with an increasingly complex trade portfolio.

After the U.S. Navy, the Royal Navy is perhaps the most sophisticated navy in the world. The HMS Queen Elizabeth and her sister ship HMS Prince of Wales are twin 65,000 ton super-carriers. Each are equipped with up to 40 aircraft, including 24-36 F-35B 5th generation fighters. Both of these super-carriers serve as the backbone of a UK Carrier Strike Group under the protection of the advanced Type 45 Destroyer, Type 26 Frigate, and the ultra-silent Astute-class attack submarine. British naval flotillas are also modularly designed, allowing smaller allied navies like the Royal Dutch Navy and the Danish Navy to seamlessly integrate their own advanced frigates into the task force.

Many experts consider the Type 45 Destroyer to be the best air-defense vessel in the world. The Type 26 Frigate is an equally advanced anti-submarine warfare vessel that simultaneously offers formidable air-defense capabilities. The Astute-class submarine is also considered one of the world’s best attack submarines, and has frequently impressed NATO observers in naval exercises.

The Royal Marines provide the fleet a configurable special operations capability through two Littoral Response Groups (LRGs). These LRGs feature two amphibious assault ships and a company of Royal Marine Commandos. They can be attached to a UK Carrier Strike Group or a smaller task force as needed.

Perhaps the Royal Navy’s most interesting addition is the humble Type 31 Frigate (currently in production). Where the state-of-the-art Type 26 Frigate costs over £1.31 billion, the Type 31 costs only £268 million. The Type 31 will serve as an affordable multi-role vessel that can be dispatched for counter-piracy missions, escort missions, or even counter-mining. It still retains competitive air-defense and anti-submarine warfare capabilities, but the Type 31 gives London the ability to patrol the world’s sea lanes at a lower price point—similar to the old Frigates of Empire.

This is the beginning of a British Naval renaissance.

The UK and to an extend the Royal Navy needs raw materials, as well as low and mid-value-added manufacturing, to feed its advanced industrial plant and service economy.
The UK needs raw materials, as well as low and mid value-added manufacturing, to feed its advanced industrial plant and service economy.

Conclusions

In my recently published book Hybrid Warfare: The Russian Approach to Strategic Competition and Conventional Military Conflict I emphasized that Vladimir Putin’s national security cadre are behaving in accordance with historical precedent.

The UK’s participation in the European Union was a historical aberration. Historically the British only involve themselves with continental politics when it is clear that an emerging coalition could potentially cross the English Channel. Now that political and economic ties to the EU have been cut, old Britainia must refamiliarize itself with its old colonial trade network.

As old colonies realize there is a mutually beneficial partnership to be had with London, supply chains are slowly reorienting. This means that British Naval build-out is going to gain speed over the next three decades. Facilitating this reorientation requires low-cost financing–which requires domestic political stability.

The UK must rediscover the past. Just as the acts of Charles I and Oliver Cromwell were erased by the 1660 Convention Parliament, the Quiet Revolution of Tony Blair must be undone.

If the British Constitution is restored—a constitution that was formed by over 800 years of cultural development—then the UK will once again enjoy sufficient domestic stability to engage the world through a powerful maritime trade network.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

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