Boris Johnson’s announcement yesterday of a £16.5 billion increase in defence funding has surprised and shocked many people, especially at the height of a national health crisis in which there would seem on the surface to be rather more deserving recipients of his largesse – like children going without their school dinners. I wonder whether Dominic Cummings would have approved? Maybe the new policy has something to do with the latter’s departure.
Apparently most of this money is going to the Royal Navy, in order, as Johnson puts it, to ‘restore Britain’s position as the foremost naval power in Europe’ (https://news.sky.com/story/boris-johnson-vows-to-make-uk-foremost-naval-power-in-europe-with-boost-to-defence-budget-12136302). That seems to me to be far more Johnsonian than Cummingsy in its emphasis. In the sixth edition of my The Lion’s Share (published last month) I have quite a bit on Boris’s and other leading Tories’ obvious imperial nostalgia (pp. 323-36), reflected especially in their ambition to take advantage of Brexit to turn Britain – or to turn her back – into a ‘global’ rather than a merely European power; for which a revivified Navy would seem to be a prime desideratum. The oceans, after all, are global; and the idea of Britannia ‘ruling the waves’ has a longer pedigree than the image of her as ruling an ‘empire’. Navies were also romantic – Nelson, Jolly Jack Tars, and so on – which may be thought to tie in with aspects of Johnson’s character; and don’t necessarily require soldiers to keep them going, or ruling places, which might have conflicted with his professed libertarianism. Johnson always denied wanting to revive the British Empire in a literal sense: ‘Heaven forfend’, he once wrote, and indeed it does seem rather ludicrous; but the global status signalled by all those warships with their fluttering Union Jacks may have appealed to the old-fashioned Etonian, Hornblower, buccaneering side of him, in a way it wouldn’t to a less history-obsessed and more down-to-earth sort of politician. It’s a way of ‘making Britain Great again’, if only in appearance. And appearances are all-important to Boris’s kind.