This sceptered Isle?

12Mar11

I reprint herewith a review of Great Britain’s current standing as a world power.  First lines of  John of Gaunt’s famous speech in Richard II about  England’s place in world affairs then. Then read an update from the Spectator Magazine.  Gaunt was prescient. 

This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Fear’d by their breed and famous by their birth,
Renowned for their deeds as far from home,
For Christian service and true chivalry,
As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry,
Of the world’s ransom, blessed Mary’s Son,
This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it,
Like to a tenement or pelting farm:
England, bound in with the triumphant sea
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds:
That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
Ah, would the scandal vanish with my life,
How happy then were my ensuing death!

Here’s today’s update, 500 years on:

politics.co.uk

Britain’s diminished place in the world

 Britain’s power and influence has not shrunk as a result of defence spending cuts, four senior government ministers have insisted. Really?

By Alex Stevenson

The Commons’ defence select committee spent yesterday afternoon grilling the men who, with the exception of the prime minister, are uppermost in maintaining Britain’s place on the world stage.

The task is not an easy one. Last year’s strategic defence and security review (SDSR) outlined defence spending cuts of eight per cent in real terms. The decision to stick with the Trident nuclear deterrent placed even greater pressure on the budget for military spending. One of two future aircraft carriers is to be mothballed, while overall personnel numbers will fall by 17,000. The Harrier jump jet has been withdrawn from service. Britain’s future ability to deploy an expeditionary force outside Europe has been reduced by between a third and a quarter.

Making its assessment of the impact these cuts would have on Britain’s place in the world, the annual Military Balance publication from the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) thinktank concluded: “The resultant contraction in military capacity will reduce the nation’s ability to project military power and influence internationally.”

This paints a depressing picture. But, astonishingly, it’s one which foreign secretary William Hague, international development secretary Andrew Mitchell, defence secretary Liam Fox and Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin simply don’t acknowledge.

They have chosen to stick by perhaps the most surprising line of the NSS: “The national security council has reached a clear conclusion that Britain’s national interest requires us to reject any notion of the shrinkage of our influence.”

Committee chairman James Arbuthnot asked Hague, given the Navy’s surface fleet has been cut to just 19 “serious” ships and Britain won’t have any operational aircraft carriers for a decade, “can you really say our influence will not shrink”? Here’s what followed:

Wm Hague: That depends for what we do in other areas.
Arbuthnot: It’s compensated elsewhere?
WH: There’s a mix of these things.
JA: This denial of a shrinkage of influence strikes me, at any rate, as being a little unrealistic.
WH: Influence doesn’t just depend on the resources that you’re devoting. It also depends on how you are using them.

This is exactly the same logic as that used across the board by the coalition government: the negative impact of the cuts will be mitigated, or even entirely offset, by doing things more efficiently.

According to Hague, this involves maintaining or extending Britain’s influence in international bodies like the UN or EU. Cultivating bilateral relationships helps too; the result will be an overall maintenance of the position because of a boost in “soft power”, even as Britain’s “hard power” contracts.

Not that Fox was especially willing to accept this. “The whole question of influence is very multifaceted,” he said.

“There are ways of effecting influence. The one asset that has not been discussed sufficiently in terms of influence is time – the time that ministers are willing to spend working on those relationships themselves. Hugely underestimated.”

The global shift of power from west to east, as viewed by the IISS, puts Britain’s defence cuts within a broader trend. The Military Balance says persuasive evidence exists that “a global redistribution of power” is taking place.

When the Chinese and the Russians assess the extent of Britain’s power and influence, critics will say, let us hope that they consider that ministers are spending more time on relationships before jumping to any hasty conclusions.

These arguments didn’t filter through last October. Perhaps the daily attrition of responding to the opposition’s complaints has firmed up the government’s rhetoric since then. The approach is now clear enough. Uniting the strategic defence review with wider security issues provides broadbrush cover for an argument which downgrades the role of ‘hard power’ in Britain’s foreign policy.

It will be easy, in the coming months and years, for voters to assess the veracity of these efficiency savings claims. They will see the police numbers fall, the NHS waiting times slide, the school funding standards slip – or not. On the global stage, the impact of defence cuts will be harder for them to detect.

This may be why the coalition’s big-hitters on the international stage can defend their claims so confidently. But that doesn’t mean Britain will retain its place in the world.

HF:  End Game for Britain?…and Britain has a half-Tory government…can you believe it? And a Tory PM. Give John of Gaunt the last few words:  

 England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.

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