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How Grant Shapps exposed Britain's grand imperial delusions

The story of Britain’s decline from empire was unwittingly and excruciatingly laid bare in a recent speech by the UK's defence secretary
Britain's Defence Secretary Grant Shapps delivers a speech on defending the UK and its allies, at Lancaster House, London, 15 January 2024 (Henry Nicholls/AFP)
Britain's Defence Secretary Grant Shapps delivers a speech on defending the UK and its allies, at Lancaster House, London, 15 January 2024 (Henry Nicholls/AFP)

There was an eye-catching moment last week when imperial rhetoric and post-colonial realities in British foreign policy collided.

In a watershed speech at Lancaster House, London, on 15 January, UK Defence Secretary Grant Shapps praised "our brilliant Royal Navy" who "had to act to defend itself against the intolerable and growing number of Houthi attacks".

Meanwhile, in the new Royal Navy base in Bahrain, meant to open up an East of Suez area of operations for the first time since British forces withdrew from Aden in 1967, two British Navy mine-hunters collided in port, the one tearing a 20-foot hole in the hull of the other. 

The Houthis might feel that any navy that cannot avoid disabling its own vessels is a limited threat to them. But the wider significance of Shapps’ speech should not be missed, for it was intended as a landmark statement of a new aggressive foreign policy.

Opening and closing with references to Margaret Thatcher’s 1989 post-Cold War speech at the same venue, Shapps gave full vent to the Tory right’s reimagining of Britain’s contemporary role in the world.

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Any supposed peace dividend from the end of the Cold War, always more talked about than experienced by voters in the UK, was now over, Shapps argued. We are not in a "post-war world" but a "pre-war world", the defence secretary told his listeners. 

In a phrase worthy of Dr Strangelove, he said that we cannot assume that "the strategy of mutually assured destruction that stopped wars in the past will stop them in the future". In the past, the British were dealing with "rational actors", but now our enemies are "far more unstable, and irrational".

As the paranoia deepened, Shapps worried that all of the UK's enemies were connected and that "in five years' time, we could be looking at multiple theatres involving Russia, China, Iran and North Korea".

Departure from reality

The threat sufficiently exaggerated, Shapps outlined his counter-measures. He called for defence spending to be hiked above the Nato requirement to a historically high 2.5 percent of GDP, although he has also publicly called for it to rise as high as 3 percent of GDP.

The Nato alliance was sacrosanct, but the UK had to take on commitments on a global scale that far exceeded the defence of western Europe.

Support for the "valiant Ukrainian fighters" must not waiver. Indeed Shapps unveiled the UK-Ukraine Agreement on Security Cooperation as "the start of a 100-year alliance we are building with our Ukrainian friends".

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The Aukus pact with Australia and the US is another global commitment that ties the UK into the US rivalry with China in the Pacific. A new air defence agreement has been signed with Italy and Japan.

Mass military manoeuvres with Nato, marine exercises in the Arctic, new Dreadnought submarines, the new HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier, and new F35 fighters are all evidence of Britain’s world-spanning military capacity.

The problem with all this is that Shapps’ speech has almost completely departed from the actually existing reality of Britain’s post-colonial power. Seasoned watchers of Shapps will not be surprised. 

Even in a government full of individuals who have failed upwards to occupy ministerial rank, Shapps deserves a special mention, having held nine positions of high office, if we include chairman of the Conservative Party, since 2010.

At a rate only slightly higher than one a year, Shapps has successively been minister for housing, minister without portfolio, minister for international development, secretary of state for transport, home secretary, secretary of state for business, secretary of state for energy, and, now, defence minister. 

He has happily served under prime ministers David Cameron, Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and, now, Rishi Sunak.


Let us just review some salient facts and gaping omissions from Shapps’ speech. There was, for instance, no recognition from him of the fact that Britain and its armed forces have just gone through a succession of humiliating political and military reverses. 

In Afghanistan, the war that began in 2001 was a catastrophic failure, leaving the very Taliban it was fought to remove still in power when western-backed rule collapsed in 2021. Moreover, during the conflict, the British army was decisively defeated by the Afghans in Helmand province and had to be rescued by US forces.

Britain's HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier at Portsmouth Naval Base, on England's south coast, 1 May 2021 (Adrian Dennis/AFP)
Britain's HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier at Portsmouth Naval Base, on England's south coast, 1 May 2021 (Adrian Dennis/AFP)

The Iraq war was an even bigger disaster. Not only is the current Iraqi government pro-Iranian, exactly the opposite of the US’s war aim of a stable pro-western government, but in the very week that Shapps delivered his speech, the Iraqi government demanded that all US troops get out of its territory.

And Iraq was simply humiliating for the British. Even before the war began, President George Bush told UK Prime Minister Tony Blair that, since he was facing such enormous pressure from the anti-war movement in Britain, the UK need not be part of the invasion of Iraq.

There was no recognition from him of the fact that Britain and its armed forces have just gone through a succession of humiliating political and military reverses

Infamously, Blair insisted that Britain would be part of the invasion anyway.

But Bush’s offer made the complete dispensability of the British contingent obvious. And when they got to Iraq, the British were so little able to control Basra that they had, again, to be rescued by US troops.

But not before their treatment of Iraqi prisoners had given birth to the Islamic State (IS) group. And then Libya, a country destroyed from the air, was reduced to an ungovernable war zone with no effective central government. Then Syria, a war with another outcome directly contrary to the West’s intended aims.

Meanwhile, the aircraft carrier of which Shapps boasts is plagued by problems, not least that it has very few viable aircraft to carry. Even far-right columnists in the Daily Telegraph are complaining that it is useless. 

Small, over-armed, declining power

All of this may not have the Houthis quaking in their boots. The Yemenis survived a war of colonial liberation against the British in the 1960s, and just recently a nine-year war with Saudi Arabia, a war in which the Saudis were armed and trained by the British.

Nor have the recent raids by the British and the US diminished the Yemeni Ansar Allah movement's ability to interdict Israel-bound shipping, as even President Biden has been forced to admit.

And this is just one small aspect of the diplomatic isolation that Britain now faces because it backs Israel and the US in prosecuting the war in Gaza.

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However militarily devastating, this war has been a political and diplomatic disaster for Israel and its allies. Accused of genocide by the one country in the world whose moral standing on the issue of apartheid is unchallenged, South Africa, the Israelis have lost in the court of public opinion even before the verdict of the International Court of Justice is delivered. 

The EU has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, so has the UN. More court cases from Mexico and Switzerland are piling up against Israel.

The British state is not bestriding the world like a colossus, as Shapps imagines. It is a small, over-armed, declining industrial power shackled to the US, the declining imperial power of the age. 

The majority of its citizens have had more sense than to approve the imperial follies of the post-Cold War hot wars.

They see that the age of major powers, simply because they are wealthy and well armed, telling other peoples how to run their societies is damaging to global peace and costly for the working people of the countries who have to pay for these overweening global ambitions.

They are right. The days of that colonial mindset are over, whatever Grant Shapps may think.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

John Rees is a Visiting Research Fellow at Goldsmiths, University of London, and a co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.
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