Sunday, 26 November 2017

Britain's moment of transition

There is a place about an hour from where I live. I go there whenever I have visitors or on a Sunday afternoon when I have nothing else to do. It's an aircraft museum dedicated to the the Fleet Air Arm - the air wing of the Royal Navy. It's a special place for me because it's a connection with the past and a small part of my identity. It invokes a certain sentimentality and patriotism - one which I am far from alone in.

When I was a boy I wanted to be a pilot, but not just any pilot; a Royal Navy pilot. I think it was a fusion of my love of all things aviation combined with the huge respect I had for my uncle who served in the Falklands conflict. That conflict was the last righteous victory of the British.

Though the Empire has long been dead, military power has remained in the landscape of the British psyche ever since. The Falklands was no different. Some of the most iconic and inspirational images in British media come from that conflict, notably the flotilla of small boats welcoming the aircraft carrier HMS Invincible back to Portsmouth. These images to this day contribute to the British self-image of a being military power.

The conflict to this day inspires many men my age who grew up learning about the daring raids by Vulcan bombers over Port Stanley. The Vulcan itself having an aviation pedigree going back to the Lancaster bomber - the instrument of our victory over the Nazis. It was also a victory for our fighter pilots who, in the spirit of their Battle of Britain forebears, fought bravely to fend off the aggressor and saved our ships from aerial attack. Britain, just for a moment, was reliving its glory days.

Notably the conflict was one where Britain stood alone. America did not come our rescue, nor did we enjoy the support of our European allies. By every measure, it was moment of great pride for Britain, one which cemented Margaret Thatcher's place in history and secured a long term in office for her.

Even by 1991, the UK still saw itself as a major military power - and when we committed our forces to Operation Desert Storm, our bomber pilots painted mascots on the side of their aircraft, as a homage to the bomber traditions of World War Two. As a boy I recall making dozens of plastic models of Buccaneers and Tornados painted in the desert camouflage colours of the first Gulf War.

At that time, most of our aircraft were cold war relics close to the end of their operational life. Many aircraft on their return to the UK were immediately retired to museums which continue to inspire children all over the country. 

Culturally, my generation were raised in the long shadow of World War Two. Growing up in the eighties much of the television we watched was influenced by it. From the many war films to the documentaries and memorials, we were saturated with the impression that the UK had fought and won a righteous war against an evil aggressor, and we stood apart in the world as a force for good.

Of course, any serious examination of the British Empire shows that Britain has plenty blood on its hands and a more objective, less sentimental look at at our past shows that we have much to answer for. That, however, struggles to compete with our collective self-deception of being a glorious victor in all things.

It is partially this powerful sense of identity that drives us to leave the EU. It bruises our national ego to admit that we are no longer a global power. Even now, our defence procurement is less about operational capability as it is power projection. This explains the purchase of two of the world's largest aircraft carriers.

The carriers themselves will carry the most advanced and most expensive aircraft ever to fly. They will be used in operations similar to those currently underway in Syria, where we believe we are righteous actors against an evil foe. Whether or not we are making things worse does not really come into it so long as it continues to massage our self-image as a global force for good. Never underestimate what a politicians are prepared to spend in the name of national vanity.

This, though, has defence analysts and armchair generals wondering how we can possibly finance the navy to do all the other tasks befitting a global pretender. Having invested so much in power projection, just about every other branch of the armed services will have to take a cut.

Britain has never really come to terms with the end of the Empire. Our Foreign Office officials, many my own age, many of them Eton and Oxford educated, are taught the works of Rudyard Kipling and tales of the Commonwealth. Our establishment simply cannot shake off its colonial mentality, nor cannot permit itself to acknowledge that the special relationship with the USA is largely a British delusion. This is why we continue to add our diminishing military capabilities to US adventures in the Middle East. This is why Britain is now about to get a rude awakening.

When Britain leaves the EU we will be forced to confront the reality that in terms of power and economic clout we are far less significant than we believe ourselves to be. The EU has been the life support machine upon which our delusions of influence depended. For this reason we have continued to behave on the world stage as though we still mattered when much of the world has zero interest in what the UK has to say.

In this regard, it is unsurprising that a feckless oaf such as Boris Johnson would have become our Foreign Secretary. He is the personification of Britain's self delusion. A boorish, spoiled, lazy yob born of the elites, who believes it is the duty of foreigners to simply bend to our will. There is a presumption that we can simply waltz into the WTO and dictate the agenda and all will bow before us.

Though our media treats this as an entertaining sideshow, internationally it damages our reputation, turns goodwill sour and diminishes our standing in the world. We will have to work hard internationally to recover from this damaging episode in UK politics. But then this is also a healthy process for the UK to undertake.

Britain's self-important self-image is one that has continued influence domestic politics but it is also a major reason why we invaded Iraq. We saw ourselves as the righteous saviour. It is also that same hubris which believed our forces would be effortlessly victorious. Instead we opened a can of worms which almost certainly contributed to the destabilsation of Syria, playing midwife to ISIS.

They say pride cometh before a fall but in the curious case of Britain, it's the other way around. We maintain our pride of empire long after we have fallen. Like cartoon physics we do not begin to fall until we look look down. That time is now upon us.

Britain is soon to find that when it leaves the EU it cannot resume its position as the head of a mighty Commonwealth. Like everyone else it will have to sing for its supper. It will be a Britain for the new generation; they whose grandparents never saw World War Two, for whom the Falklands war is just another conflict in the distant past, and for whom those museum relics are just "old planes".

I am the last of the Empire generation. The last to be touched by the legacy of World War Two. My Britain does not exist anymore and when I walk round the air museum I am walking among ghosts from a time when Britain ruled the skies and seas. Just as the mines and steel works are never coming back, the Royal Navy will never again dominate. That is the reality our political establishment has yet to fully realise.

On the left of British politics we have Mr Corbyn and his dreams of restoring the post-war socialist order, and on the right we have Tories still in denial as to Britain's position in the world. The left may chastise the right for this obsolete thinking but the Labour Party will be the first to deploy our aircraft carriers on a humanitarian bombing mission. We can no longer afford their delusions. If we want a Britain fit for the future we must rid ourselves of them. Our greatness lies in who we are to be, not in who we were.

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