Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Where Britannia still rules the waves

ONCE upon a time, the map of the world was splotched with red patches. We (or, at least, those a generation or so older than me) were supposed to be proud of them. They were the British bits.
Today the British Empire, the empire on which the sun was never to set, is a thing of history.
A thing to look back on with nostalgia and – according to upbringing and inclination – a sense of either loss or guilt.
Both emotions being equally inappropriate. For did you personally benefit/exploit (strike out according to upbringing or inclination) those non-British citizens of the map’s red bits? No, nor me. Not consciously or deliberately, anyway.
The benefitting/exploitation is over. Or is it?
I’m not thinking just now of the well-being or otherwise of those former residents of ex-British lands now building new lives and communities on this island.
I’m thinking, rather, of other islands entirely.
Look closely and you’ll see that the world map may have got over the worst of its red rash, but there are still spots. A surprising number of them, in fact.
Here, in order, is a list of territories in the world over which the Union flag still flies, where the British crown, and the British government, still claim sovereignty:
• South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands
• Pitcairn Island
• The United Kingdom (including Rockall and the Isle of Man)
• Tristan da Cunha
• The Chagos Islands (British Indian Ocean Territory)
• The Falkland Islands
• Bermuda
• Saint Helena
• Ascension Island
• The Turks and Caicos Islands
• The Cayman Islands
• Anguilla
• The British Virgin Islands
• The Channel Islands
• Montserrat
• Gibraltar
In order? So how come the UK itself lies only third in the list, behind some islands whose total population could travel quite happily on one double-decker bus?
Because I’ve put them in order of size – not of population, or land area, but of the Exclusive Economic Zone of the sea surrounding them.
Since 1982, that’s been set at 200 nautical miles from the coast. So South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, for example, claim rights over 559,667 square miles of sea. Or about 20,000 square miles per person. (Never mind a bus, the entire population of South Sandwich could share a taxi in comfort. If there were any taxis in a place with no roads.)
Put all these little red spots – and the rather bigger areas of blue around them – together, and it all adds up to 2,627,651 square miles of sea.
And that makes Britain the fifth largest sea-owner in the world, behind the USA, France, Australia and Russia, and just ahead of New Zealand and Indonesia.
Argentina, despite having one of the world’s longer coastlines, comes in only 28th in that list, behind such giants of the world stage as Madagascar, Fiji and Mauritius.
With the world only just waking up to the enormous potential of the oceans to provide power and minerals, that ranking list is starting to look significant.
Which may help explain why Argentina continues to dispute the British right to South Georgia, the South Sandwich Islands – and the Falklands/Malvinas (strike out according to inclination or nationality).
And why Britain remains keen to go on asserting that right, 30 years after we went to war over the right to “self-determination” of a population about the size of Wickham Market, of whom 90 per cent are of British origin.
Not that that is, or ever was, what it was really about.
In 1982 it came in very handy for both Margaret Thatcher and Leopoldo Galtieri to perk up their flagging popularity at home with the jingoism that always accompanies an outbreak of military adventurism.
David Cameron has other controversial military involvements to worry about.
But offshore oil, for example, may have huge importance in the fairly near future. And there could be room for argument about whose shore it’s off.


IN 1982, when the Falklands War broke out, I was living and working in Barrow-in-Furness, an off-the-edge sort of place entirely dependent on its naval shipbuilding yard.
It was where most of the major vessels in the Task Force were built, including the flagship, HMS Hermes, and Britain’s most prominent casualty of the fighting, HMS Sheffield. It was widely rumoured around the town (falsely, as I now know) that half the Argentine navy was also laid down in Barrow.
I was playing pool in my local when film of the General Belgrano’s sinking (by the only British nuclear sub not Barrow-built) came on the TV.
I don’t recall exactly what remark I made, but it wasn’t pro-Thatcher or pro-war. Next thing I knew, I’d been felled from behind with a pool-cue.
I might almost have been the subject of Elvis Costello’s finest song, Shipbuilding, written around that time.
“Somebody said that someone got filled in for saying that people get killed in the result of this shipbuilding,” sings Costello (or, in a better version, Robert Wyatt).
It’s that word “result” that really says it all.
Weapons – or warships – aren’t made because of war; war is made to sell weapons.
A sad, near-universal, truth too seldom admitted.

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