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Does the Royal Navy Matter? Aspects of national identity and the Navy’s vulnerability to future budget cuts

Commentary, 18 September 2009
Maritime Forces, Europe
Neither financial crisis nor a failure of policy can fully explain the Royal Navy's declining popularity. Rather, the case for more carriers, submarines and ships has fallen foul of altered political and technological circumstances and crucially, evolving notions of British national identity.

Neither financial crisis nor a failure of policy can fully explain the Royal Navy's declining popularity. Rather, the case for more carriers, submarines and ships has fallen foul of altered political and technological circumstances and crucially, evolving notions of British national identity.

By Dr Duncan Redford for

The current financial and political climate does not bode well for the future of the Royal Navy.  The wolves are circling the Navy's current and future procurement plans - the 'big ticket' items; the very term suggests financial cost rather than maritime necessity.  Some programmes have already been reduced; the Type 45 programme from twelve units to six, the Astute class SSN may, according to some navy league poster 1926reports, be curtailed at the fourth of seven submarines and the frigate/destroyer force is down to twenty-five (and might be reduced to as low as twenty-one) from thirty-two.[1]  For the future, the new aircraft carriers and Trident SSBN replacements have already been mooted as sacrificial cows in the next round of 'strategic reviews' - or budget cuts - and the Navy itself, one think tank has argued, should be based on the assumption it will not be involved directly in high intensity fighting.[2]  As the 'Save the Navy' campaign recently put it:

Unlike the first part of the last century when the population of Britain proudly followed the progress of their navy and understood how much their well being depended on it, today the majority of people have little idea of the state of the R[oyal] N[avy] or even the point of a having a navy. Many just see the armed forces as an expensive irrelevance and think the money could better spent elsewhere.[3]

The arguments in favour of a strong balanced fleet for an island nation with global financial, commercial, diplomatic and defence ties and responsibilities are compelling - or should be - and are not going to be repeated here.[4]  Yet the British seem disinterested in their Navy and this makes it vulnerable to political cuts as insufficient people will protest loudly or long enough to make not cutting Britain's fleet attractive to politicians of any political party. 

This is not to say that as a corporate body the Royal Navy has not attempted to win over public opinion; it has.  The Navy has, since the 1970s, actively co-operated with documentary and TV drama producers, carried out numerous public relations campaigns and has made widespread use of the Royal Navy Presentation Team and lobbied individuals in an attempt to influence opinion; websites have been used by special interest groups to disseminate articles detailing why the Navy should matter to the British.[5]  The end result has not been any recognisable surge in support for the Navy - and certainly not the emergence of the Navy and naval policy as a wider political issue that engages with a large sector of the population.  This article explores why the Navy does not seem to matter anymore and argues that it is not a failure of naval policy, public relations, or finance, but something far harder to address - the Royal Navy's changing role within British national identity.  Essentially, the aspects of national identity which stimulate deep-seated and vocal support for the Navy have been eroded since the early years of the twentieth century.

National Identity

National identity - 'Britishness' - despite its easy translation into a political sound bite, is not an easy issue for people to get to grips with.  Sociologists, who coined the term and led the initial research into identity issues, have not reached any definitive conclusions as to what it is, or how it is made, or communicated.  Historians, who have picked up the idea and explored it for a number of years and in a number of areas, like sociologists, cannot agree.[6]  A working definition is that national identity infers a shared imagined community, made up of numerous facets, levels, and ideas - political, legal, cultural, social, religious, geographic - whose relative importance to an individual and the shared sense of identity changes over time.[7] For non-experts, trying to unravel national identity, such considerations can present a confusing picture, especially as what really happened is not actually as important as what is thought or perceived to have happened; it involves myths - national, regional, local and personal; emotions rather than tangible facts.

The Royal Navy and Island status

The relationship between the Royal Navy and aspects of British national identity is through two broad areas, island status and national prestige or global status.  At its simplest, the Navy interacted with perceptions of island status in two ways.  First, there was the security from invasion, or otherwise, that being an island was perceived to bring with it.  For hundreds of years the sea, thanks to Britain being a collection of islands, was seen as conferring security.[8]  In such an environment the Navy was seen as the nation's first, and at times only, line of defence - in terms of national security a standing army was seen, at best, as a waste of money and at worst a potential threat to Parliament.  The periodic 'naval scares' of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, especially those during the 1880s and in 1909, can be seen as a shaking of this long-term belief in naval - and island - security.  Second, island status became to be seen from the mid-nineteenth century as a possible liability due to the need to import large amounts of food, in a way that went beyond interest in the Navy's established role of defending trade.  The threat of starvation was seen as an attack on non-combatants which Britain's island status had protected from the rages of war.  From the 1880s food security - or insecurity - concerns conferred by Britain's island status was a regular feature of expressions of a need for an efficient and capable Navy.

Given the strength of this area of interaction between the Navy and national identity, how was it weakened?  While there are a number of factors at work, it seems that a highly significant one was due to the development of a more terrifying threat for the British than invasion or starvation.  Aerial bombardment made the protection conferred by island status (and thus the Navy) seem less important; once aerial attack was viable, it demonstrated to the British that their frontier was not the channel but possibly as far east as the Rhine.  This was a security problem that could not be solved by naval power.  It was the very strength of the conceptions of island-hood within national identity that made aircraft and air warfare such a powerful force in the British psyche.  The bomber enabled, for the first time, a direct attack on anyone on the island, irrespective of the Royal Navy and the sea that had together defended Britain for centuries.  Island status was no longer a guarantor of security, especially for non-combatants.  In the light of widespread public fears about air warfare, its unknown quantity compared to the existing understanding of naval warfare and the apocalyptic descriptions of bombing in the late interwar period,[9] it is unsurprising that the Navy took on a less significant role in the construction of national identity as the perceived security of island status declined in the minds of the public and politicians.  Events, political, strategic and technological, during and after the Second World War, especially the development of nuclear weapons, only reinforced the perception that being an island - and thus naval security from invasion and starvation - was less relevant in the post-1945 atomic world.

The Royal Navy and National Prestige

In terms of national prestige and global status the Navy had an important part to play within the construction of identity.  This second area could encompass a narrow belief in the supremacy of the Royal Navy such as expressed by the Daily Mail in 1909 - 'For England "there is nothing between sea supremacy and ruin"'[10] - or a more sophisticated analysis centred on the role of seapower and Empire - 'Every one knows that if the Navy should not be decidedly superior to any other Navy the empire must come to an end, and Great Britain cease to be a Great Power.'[11]  Empire, what this said about Britain's position in the world, what this meant to be British and imperial security were inextricably linked.  The ideas of both formal and informal empire drew upon the Royal Navy as the cornerstone of their defence and Britain's resulting place in the world.  With the progressive retreat from formal empire from 1948 onwards, the role of an imperial navy was weakened and the Commonwealth, as an idea to replace a formal maritime empire, did not engage Britain.  The result was that this link into an aspect of a national identity was broken.  Increasing ties to Europe in the 1960s onwards have only increased this disengagement from the purely naval aspects of British global power and position.

Charting shifting perceptions

An interesting example of the fall in the relative importance of the Navy can be seen through the strength of the Navy League.  Formed in 1894 to campaign for a supreme Royal Navy, support for it plummeted after the First World War and its impact on naval policy declined throughout the interwar period, as can be seen in the graph below.  After the Second World War, the decline continued and much of the Navy League's efforts went into the support of its Sea Cadet Corps, so much so that in 1975 the Navy League changed its name to the Sea Cadet Association.[12]

Royal Navy League Graph

The changes in the way island status and the security it, the sea and the Navy conferred were imagined, as well as the role of global status, empire and seapower, could only have a devastating impact on the relative importance of their Navy to the British.  In the period up to 1919 conceptions of what being an island meant and that of global status were aligned with a need for seapower.  After 1919 these conceptions slowly diverged and naval power became less important in imagining what it meant to be British.  With the public disengagement from the Navy and naval strategy came increasing vulnerability to budget cuts.  At the same time, the lack of any resonant national myths regarding the Navy (unlike that of the 'Few' and the Battle of Britain with regard to the RAF) ensure that there are no images around which the Navy can be imagined which would allow popular support and new links to aspects of a national identity to develop. 

The idea that it is the relationship between aspects national identity and the Royal Navy that is at the heart of the Navy's lack of success in simulating popular interest and support for a maritime defence posture will be an extremely worrying one.  It suggests that public relations efforts are at the limit of what they can achieve as engagement and relevance at the deepest levels are lacking.  Unfortunately, this also means that strategic arguments for a stable, let alone increasing, maritime defence posture will not engage with politicians or the wider public and that the Navy's vulnerability to budget cuts and its apparent political irrelevance will continue.

Dr Duncan Redford is the Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the Centre for Maritime Historical Studies, University of Exeter.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

[1] 'Type 45 Daring Class Anti-Air Warfare Destroyers', <>  accessed 30 Jul 2009; Guardian Unlimited, 'Ministers face tough choices on weapons cut', 2 Jan 2008, <,,2250489,00.html> accessed 30 Jul 2009; The Strategic Defence Review, July 1998, paragraph 100; the 1998 SDR gave the FF/DD force requirement as 32 (supporting essay 6, paragraph 24), in July 2004 is was announced the cutting of the DD/FF force to 25, see

[2], 'CVF: For the Nation not the Navy', <> accessed 30 Jul 2009; Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), 'Shared Responsibility: a National Security Strategy for the UK'. The Final Report of the IPPR Commission on National Security in the 21st Century. June 2009. (London: IPPR), pp. 14, 50 (Recommendation 15).  A highly satirical and depressing view of the future Royal Navy can be found at <> accessed 30 Jul 2009.

[3] Save the Royal Navy, 'Royal Navy; why bother? Why not just spend it all on hospitals? <> accessed 30 Jul 2009.

[4] See for example: BR 1806, The Fundamentals of British Maritime Doctrine (London: HMSO, 1995 and subsequent editions); C. Gray, The Leverage of Sea Power (New York: The Free Press, 1992); G. Till, Seapower: A Guide for the Twenty-First Century (London: Frank Cass, 2004).

[5] Save the Royal Navy, '10 reasons why the state of the Royal Navy should matter to YOU' <> accessed 30 Jul 2009.

[6] P. Mandler, 'What is "National Identity"?  Definitions and Applications in Modern British Historiography', Modern Intellectual History,(Vol. 3, 2006), p. 271; P. Gleason, 'Identifying Identity: A Semantic History', Journal of American History, (Vol. 69, 1983), pp. 910-931.

[7] B. Anderson, Imagined Communities rev. edn., (London: Verso, 1991); M. Billig, Banal Nationalism (London: Sage Publications, 1995), pp. 6-9; A. D. Smith, National Identity (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1991), pp. 8-15; P. Ward, Britishness Since 1870 (London: Routledge, 2004), pp. 9, 170-71.

[8] For examples see C. Behrman, Victorian Myths of the Sea (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1977) pp. 38-40, 4344, 47-49; R. Colls, Identity of England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002) pp. 239-241; K. Kumar, English National Identity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) p. 8.

[9] W. Murray, 'Strategic Bombing.  The British, American, and German experiences', in W. Murray & A. R. Millett (eds) Military Innovation in the Interwar Period (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998) pp. 102-103.

[10] Daily Mail, 17 Mar 1909, p. 6.

[11] The Morning Post, 17 Mar 1909, p. 6.

[12] Marine Society & Sea Cadets, Executive Committee Minute Book vol. 35 (1960 to 1976) Executive Committee meeting, 27 Aug 1975.


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