Brexit Britain Economics International Politics Trade

‘Sea Blindness, a 21st Century Problem?’

It is surprising then that successive governments have removed our ability as a nation to protect our coastline, trade and to contribute to upholding the international norms on which we rely.

Steven Spencer
Naked Politics Blogger

In 2016 484 million tonnes of freight was handled by UK ports and this represented some 95% of all imports and exports of goods to the UK. Of course, this is not the whole story as it does not include services, which account for a large part of the UK’s economy, but any disruption in this free flow of trade over the world’s seas and oceans would have a crippling effect on this country.

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This has been brought more into focus recently by Brexit threatening the movement of goods, but it can be argued that a nation so dependent upon the seas for its economic and social well-being should not be so ‘sea blind’ in its attitude or its politics. How many people have given a thought to how the Christmas tree in their shopping trolley traveled to them from China? It was boxed and put in a container, that was loaded on a ship and then, using the freedom of navigation provided by international law, this vessel sailed through the South China Sea, Malacca Straits, Bay of Bengal, Indian Ocean, Gulf of Aden, Red Sea, Suez Canal, Mediterranean Sea, Straits of Gibraltar, North Atlantic Ocean, Bay of Biscay and English Channel, before entering the North Sea and docking at Felixstowe. The only part of that journey under direct UK control was passing through Gibraltar territorial waters; all the rest relied on each country on earth abiding by the rules and allowing the ship to pass.

Christmas trees of course are not the most vital of goods, if they were prevented from reaching the UK. However, the huge quantities of gas from Oman, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar are vital. We must also consider our huge coastline, which as we are recently discovering, can be used for illegal entry to the UK. Finally, we have our Exclusive Economic Zone, home to extensive oil and gas fields, potential mineral deposits, offshore wind, fishing grounds and marine conservation areas. For anyone with no knowledge of the UK reading these facts, it would be reasonable to assume that as a nation we would be focused upon the sea, and act to safeguard the freedom of navigation and international rules on which we depend. This is quite apart from the undersea cables that carry the vast majority of our Internet traffic.

It is surprising then that successive governments have removed our ability as a nation to protect our coastline, trade and to contribute to upholding the international norms on which we rely. The Royal Navy has been the main way of guaranteeing our rights in this area for centuries. In 1990, the navy had 50 destroyers and frigates, the main means of protecting our trade, now we have just 19, of which 2 are permanently tied up due to a lack of manpower. Back then we had 26 submarines (excluding the deterrent), now we have 7. The list goes on. We rely on the US Navy to keep our trade safe, but the folly of this policy has been shown as the Trump Whitehouse seeks to carve out a more limited world role for the US in upholding international rules.

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The Cameron government removed the Navy’s aircraft carriers and the RAF’s maritime patrol aircraft, meaning even less ability to intervene. The blindness of both decisions is being shown as the new aircraft carriers are being brought into service by a nation rediscovering how useful they are. As the RAF receives American designed patrol aircraft to enable us to interrogate Russian submarines in Scottish waters once again.

Why has this neglect happened? Firstly, as the navy has shrunk to below 30,000, fewer of us know somebody who serves, meaning we don’t hear or know what they do. Also, our modern life or supermarket shopping, online purchasing and growing up in place where goods flow freely, have led us as a nation to think it is just expected. Finally, since the Second World War, a western focused set of international rules have been upheld by the west, with emerging nations fitting into the framework and enjoying free use of the rules. In a world of emerging powers, will these rules hold fast?

As a nation it is perhaps time to be less sea blind and look clearly at the freedoms that we all rely upon. When we turn on the gas boiler, buy Atlantic cod, look at our iPhone or tuck into New Zealand lamb, we ought to consider how it is that such convenience comes about. Investing to protect a norm that has been largely unchallenged for seven decades is never going to be politically popular, but if trade is interrupted, a government of whatever colour will be asked by an aghast public, “Why did you not think of this and make sure it did not happen?” We have seen a foretaste of this when a small number of desperate people have tried to cross the Channel in recent weeks. The first duty of any government is to protect the nation and its peoples, this includes our coastline, ports and lines of communication that are invisibly interwoven into our everyday lives. We should all be less ‘seablind’.

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