Nov 19 Editorial

I write this overlooking a tempestuous Atlantic Ocean from a vantage point in the south west of Eire. Why is that important?

Because it proffers a metaphoric viewpoint looking back at the UK at this watershed moment in our history. But does that view offer more clarity? Well the wilds of the Irish coast certainly turns down the volume on the cacophony of an increasingly vitriolic debate in the UK(if debate is still an apt description given the threatening and overly aggressive language now employed by all players in the Brexit maelstrom).

But no, geographical separation doesn’t magically deliver insight other than, perhaps, allowing a nagging question to surface above the noise –is truth now a victim? My conclusion: no, it is just a tool. Say things with authority and deny them the next day. But in doing so, right or wrong, the seeds of doubt have been planted. A school child is asked by his teacher what is seven times eight. “Fifty-six” the child confidently answers. “Wrong,” says the teacher wielding his authority, “it is fifty-seven.”

The child knows this is wrong but is torn between what he is told by the hitherto respected authority and what he believes is correct. So what? The child is conflicted and, whilst puzzling what to do, the teacher moves on to his next agenda item. Thus, irrespective of whether the answer is right or wrong the child is now on the back-foot, out-manoeuvred and vulnerable to further manipulation.

And those in that position to manipulate can only benefit from such chaos – in other words chaos that delivers control. So am I being cynical or a realist – how can one explain some of the inexplicable contrary positions now taken by those in authority?

But as I wrote above, I can offer no clarity. So rather than attempt to reflect on events as they now unfold (or don’t – this edition will hit your doorsteps the day after the Government’s self-imposed deadline for Brexit), perhaps inklings of clarity might be found from adopting a ‘day after’ starting point; what must we be looking for to make our way in the world when Brexit is all over, irrespective of the outcome of our collective short-term machinations ?

Thus, this edition of your Review is principally focused on asking whether we can develop insight into our global futures and how they might impact on our Naval Service. This assumes, of course, we are fundamentally wedded to the need to succeed in trading externally, as self-evidently our internal market is incapable of sustaining the growth necessary to support a viable UK. In pursuit of this theme, I make no apology in publishing articles that will undoubtedly challenge or swim against received wisdom.

Indeed, this edition specifically sets up an experiment by publishing two anonymously authored ‘strawmen’ articles that reflect no organisations’ or persons’ position but highlight a binary choice (or perhaps not) between ‘poise’ (with an emphasis on regaining warfighting credentials) or ‘presence’ (recovering lost decades of RN global presence in support of more assertive influence as we pursue national interests at range).

I hope these ‘strawmen’ promote discussion, and are followed by response articles and letters from members in next February’s edition of the NR. In my opinion, for what it is worth, we must first understand who we are – not what we were in some sort of reflection of past glories – in order to understand possible futures towards which we might set our course. To sunny shores where our international standing, influence and beliefs in a fair rules-based system is realised in an increasingly complex geopolitical environment.

This isn’t some ‘unicorn’ issue but a matter of our national worth and our future security and prosperity. And if like me you adhere to the Mark Twain school of thinking – that history never repeats itself, but it doesn’t half rhyme – one should remember that although understanding of history is crucial, such knowledge must not be constraining. We can learn from it but can’t recreate it (as some now seemingly advocate) because the context, that geopolitical landscape, is so very different today.

Front and centre to that vista is the Chinese dimension and re-emergent competition between new ‘Great Powers’.

Accordingly, key threads, running through this edition, discuss our relationship with China, how we must adapt to the shift of global economic power away from, in particular, Europe and how we best serve our national interests (not just our security interest) in the IndoAsia-Pacific region. And how we must rebuild our credibility as a first division maritime war-fighter and peace promoter. Not mutually exclusive capabilities but, in all probability, competencies that should sit on either face of the same coin.

And as you will see in this issue, this leads to calls for substantial spending increases on the Naval Service if its credibility and its efficacy is to be assured.

Which brings me to some penultimate thoughts in this edition. What is your Review? It is a journal, and associated on-line facilities, that is effectively the Royal Navy’s journal of academic record. But it is also a wholly independent entity where critical debate, free from undue political or Service control, enables truth to be held up to power – albeit in a more personal, less public format.

In essence it is a means by which we might intellectually exercise and reaffirm our common belief in the Royal Navy in a changing world; drawing-off a century’s worth of writings to help us guard against wasteful re-inventions of the wheel and avoiding the knee-jerk consequences of more cursory social media debate. As someone aptly said, “don’t mistake your Google search for my PhD” – only with the latter approach does one get the intellectual rigor that delivers robust and tested ideas and solutions.

So what? The journal lives or dies by contribution to debate and an expanding membership. And growth of such membership is largely down to recommendation and promotion by our members. With momentous changes afoot in our nation, and with a Naval Service now more on the front-foot in terms of its development, the need for us all to grow debate, in pursuit of ideas or solutions, is ever more urgent. So, a plea from me, please, to continue writing and to ask you to go out and recruit at least one new member to the NR in the next six months – I will be looking to reward those who do so.

Finally, I can’t let the moment pass without marking a sad farewell to VAdm Sir Donald Gosling. Later in this edition is an obituary to him. But here I would like to recognise the colour he brought to the Service he truly loved. Colour focused on betterment of sailors’ and marines’ conditions. Over many years his largess benefited all parts – the great and small – for which we all must remain hugely grateful.

Bruce Williams