Following the Brexit vote, the term ‘Global Britain’ seeped into the public lexicon. Despite it been used in almost every government speech, we are yet to see much change in policy output to reflect this new mindset. The biggest challenge to this new vision for Britain can be seen by examining the state of two different government departments: the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence. Both have been hampered by funding cuts, and in the case of the latter, these cuts may not be over just yet.
This is a worrying trend at this particular juncture in history. Not only because defence spending provides the hard power capacity that underwrites wider foreign policy, but also because our present strategic reality is an increasingly complicated one. The world order is shifting, with a rejuvenated Russia and a self-confident China. When coupled with the persistent cloud of Islamist terrorism, the world looks increasingly threatening to Britain and the West.
We are now nearly seven years into the austerity measures introduced by the coalition government of 2010 and their Strategic Defence and Security Review. It is doubtful whether the Armed Forces can make any more ‘efficiency savings’, yet there has recently been another review of military spending (the Modernising Defence Programme).
Britain needs to take the funding of its military seriously if it is not to lose its ‘Tier One’ status as a global superpower. With another review of armed forces spending due, we wait in anticipation for what the eventual publication of this review may detail. Ideally, it would involve a change of tone as Britain looks to propel itself into a post-Brexit world. Any further cuts to defence would not only undermine the ‘Global Britain’ policy but could also prove catastrophic for foreign policy and national security.
More cuts to military spending could be a daunting proposition for Gibraltar in particular, which already suffers from a strained fighting force. With Gibraltar’s enviable strategic position at the entrance to the Mediterranean, it should not be surprising that with further cuts its position will become increasingly vulnerable.
Gibraltar could become an attractive target, whether to disrupt Britain’s sea lines of communications or to restrict the UK from this convenient operating base. If trade deals with other countries, especially those in the Middle East, are in the pipeline, then most of this trade could pass through the narrow corridor at the Strait of Gibraltar. So, a threat to the Rock is not just a threat to its local population and naval base but to the rest of the UK and its wider interests too.
Indeed, Gibraltar does not just have a strategic connection to the armed forces, but also a strong cultural bond. It has spent most of its 314 years under British control as a military garrison. The locals regard Britain’s military presence as a concrete expression of its commitment to the double lock on Gibraltar’s sovereignty. This was most obvious during the recent visit of HMS Queen Elizabeth to Gibraltar in February. Her Captain, Commodore Jerry Kyd, described the Rock as a “sanctuary” to British servicemen and women.
On that day, the Ministry of Defence said that they were looking at further investment in Gibraltar’s naval base for it to be able to accommodate and cater for the Royal Navy’s aircraft carriers in the future. Improving and enhancing the naval base would strengthen the ‘Global Britain’ cause and facilitate an increased number of visits or deployments should they be necessary in an increasingly unstable world.
The Modernising Defence Programme needs to give hope to the ‘Global Britain’ vision and reinforce Britain’s standing on the world stage; for the good of both the UK and its overseas territories.