Defending The Moat: Britain's Borders
The National Security Strategy (NSS) which was published in 2010 identified Britain’s security priorities as counter terrorism, cyber security, international military crisis and national disasters. Neither invasion nor conquest featured on the list. Such threats as there are - or as they are imagined to be – are nebulous and hard to thwart. The issues were so much clearer when defence was limited to guarding what Shakespeare called ‘this precious stone set in the silver sea’.
Before 1500 or so naval vessels were too primitive to be used for coastal defence. Invaders had to be defeated on land. The Norman conquest of 1066 well illustrated the ease with which a substantial force could be landed before the English defenders had time to respond. It was an age when an invader could safely assume that he could land unopposed. So from time immemorial up to around 1500 Britain was defended by the land forces that she could raise. Effectively Britain’s border was her low watermark.
The development of naval power changed all that. The manoeuvrable and well-gunned battleships that were developed under the Tudors, combined with the growth of a ready supply of first class seamen made anticipatory defence possible. No longer was it necessary to await the landing of hostile forces before acting. It was possible to seek out an invading fleet and challenge it at sea. The supreme example of this was the defeat of the Armada in 1588. Of course small invasions – Monmouth arrived with just three ships in 1685 – remained hard to spot.
This new-found capability shifted Britain’s borders from her own shores to those of the Continent. Any powerful force within British waters was regarded as potentially hostile. The Royal Navy became Britain’s first line of defence. Its job was to make a landing unthinkable. This policy served Britain well up to an including the Battle of Jutland.
And then came aircraft. Between the two world wars the power and range of these new machines steadily increased. From being a mere nuisance in World War I, aircraft became a strategic threat by 1939. The World War II equivalent of the Armada and Jutland was the Battle of Britain. The moat had lost its power to protect the precious stone.
The Modern Era
Where do we find ourselves today? Does Britain even have a frontier anymore? We have a UK Border Agency, which implies that there are borders to be protected. Yet two of the NSS threats – counter terrorism and international military crisis – have no geographical bounds. And if we turn to the actions of recent governments our borders seem to lie in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and, perhaps soon, in Syria.
No wonder defence policy today seems to be a confused response to an unspecified danger.
Richard Freeman's new ebook, Britain's Greatest Naval Battle: The Armada, Trafalgar, Jutland is out now from Endeavour Press
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