A century on from Jutland the UK faces a key decision.
If nothing else the Battle of Jutland a hundred years ago, is famous for one particular saying. Vice Admiral David Beatty lost two battle-cruisers from his advanced squadron and remarked: “There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today.”
After the initial encounter Beatty turned north and led the Germans onto the Grand Fleet. Later on May 31, 1916 Admiral John Jellicoe brought his ships into battle but despite twice crossing the High Sea Fleet’s lines, cutting the Germans off from their base, and hitting them harder, they later won the propaganda war, claiming a tactical victory.
Strategically, however, Jutland proved as decisive as Trafalgar in 1805, with the High Sea Fleet only making three further (but minor) sorties. Like the French after Trafalgar, the Germans were forced to turn to commerce raiding.
Winston Churchill once remarked that Jellicoe was the only man who could have lost the war in an afternoon, had he allowed the Grand Fleet to suffer heavy losses. Yet, 100 years on, has Britain after all lost the war?
France and Germany have often tried to establish hegemony over Europe. In the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815) Britain was often left alone to resist by arms, and through its wealth, the so-called evil empire of France.
In the War of 1812 Britain was even sapped of energy it needed to fight Napoleon by a nascent USA. As recently as 1940 Britain stood almost alone against another evil empire, that of Hitler’s Germany, yet it is a French system of law, the Napoleonic code, which today covers most of Europe.
It is their economic might that makes the Germans – twice defeated in two world wars – paymasters of Europe. Britain’s historic, strategic aim has been to maintain a balance on the Continent, and specifically to keep the Low Countries (Holland and Belgium, from where an invasion might be mounted) out of the hands of any major power.
This policy, conditioned by Britain’s geopolitical position as an island off the mainland, spurred the development of the British navy. It led to the theory of a British way in warfare. Britain has been most successful when eschewing heavy continental commitments in favour of a strategy that uses the Royal Navy to project power against the enemy’s weak points.
Specifically, for most of the 19th Century and into the 20th Century, Britain maintained a two-power standard for her Navy, meaning that it should be as strong as the next two navies combined. In this sense the last 71 years of peace have been an aberration, with Britain maintaining a standing army on the Rhine, and becoming involved in two continental wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan. This has gone against the grain of what has been seen as a sensible defence strategy for Britain.
After two gruesome wars across the Continent, European leaders set up the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) whose aim was to unify Belgium, France, West Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Algeria (then a part of the French republic) in such a way as to make war impossible.
Even Winston Churchill made a speech declaring that “We must build a kind of United States of Europe”, though he did not envisage Britain being a full member of that united Europe. More often Churchill spoke of the importance of English-speaking peoples. After all, he had led an island nation and a Commonwealth determined to stop the German domination of Europe. The founders of the ECSC anticipated that it would transform Europe step-by-step towards unification of two political blocs, which during the Cold War were separated by a Soviet-imposed Iron Curtain.
Out of the ECSC has grown the European Union (EU), which has blossomed from five or six countries to 28, and with the EU so, too, has NATO expanded from 12 to 28 members. Leaving aside the character of its President, it is little wonder Russia feels threatened by this seemingly relentless eastwards expansion.
It can be no surprise that Russia saw the potential accession of the Ukraine to the EU as a precursor to that country joining NATO – with the alliance’s forces, therefore, camping on Russia’s front doorstep in the Crimea. Not long before the Crimean annexation in 2014 NATO mine-hunters did indeed visit Sevastopol, the bastion of Russian naval power in the Black Sea, at the invitation of Kiev.
It was to Moscow like a red rag to a bull and seemed an indication of things to come.
It is another matter that Putin has given the world a master-class in hybrid warfare, and now threatens the Baltic States and even Finland and Sweden.
Meanwhile, inside the EU there are serious concerns. The one-size-fits-all, German economic model does not suit every country. In countries like Greece, and among Republicans in Spain, there are deep folkloric memories of the Germans at war, and grim thoughts that what Berlin failed to get with tanks and aircraft via Blitzkrieg, it has now achieved by economic muscle. Despite the claims by some, the EU is unreformed, there is a gross democratic deficit, accompanied by layers of bureaucracy in Brussels seemingly designed to perpetuate rule by an unaccountable oligarchy.
Meanwhile, the common currency, the Euro, lurches from crisis to crisis. Could things change? Will the outcome of the in-out referendum turn the British lion into a toothless pussycat inside an unreformed EU? A pussycat whose interests can be ignored in a headless rush towards ever-closer union? Or will the British Lion become a wild cat outside the EU, free to pursue policies tailored to its interests?
The Royal Navy is not going back to even a one-power standard no matter what happens. Under one possible outcome Britain’s fisheries will be re-nationalised, European competition rules that see British cruise-liners being built in Hamburg will be lifted and Britain might be freer to pursue policies that favour its merchant seamen. A larger Merchant Navy will inevitable mean a larger Royal Navy. As Churchill famously said: “If Britain must choose between Europe and the open sea, she must always choose the open sea.”