This week, a British oil tanker was menaced by the Iranians in the Gulf of Hormuz. It was rescued by the presence of a Royal Navy frigate: a reminder of why we need a global military capability if we are to be a global trading power.
Alas, as Jeremy Hunt writes in this newspaper, Britain has “run down its navy too much”. In 1982, we had 35 frigates; today we have just 13. After a period without any, Britain finally has an aircraft carrier (and is building another) but HMS Queen Elizabeth recently sprung a leak and was forced to return to port early.
Overall, our defence spending sits at just two per cent of GDP. The UK deserves a pat on the back for at least reaching the Nato contribution target, unlike, say, Germany or France, but it is still not good enough; especially considering the threat posed by regimes such as Iran, which has tried to hide its aggression behind the veneer of legitimacy granted by Barack Obama’s nuclear deal. One of Donald Trump’s objections to the agreement was that, while the Iranians observed a narrow definition of compliance, they were simultaneously financing terrorism and imperialism across the Middle East. But they are not even obeying the deal anymore. On the contrary, they are using potential infraction as blackmail. Tehran has told the Europeans that unless they grant the regime its “full rights” to an economic relationship, they will increase uranium enrichment beyond the limits agreed in 2015. It is reported that Iran has also been developing new rocket technology so that, when the deal does expire, it might be in a stronger position than ever.
Meanwhile, the world has to prepare for further tensions in the Gulf: Mr Trump considered a military response to the shooting down of an American drone by the Iranians but decided against it. The president is obviously practising brinkmanship, which alarms many, but blame for this situation lies squarely with Iran – which, never forget, still holds Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British citizen, in jail under false charges.
As an island nation, Britain needs to have a strong navy to protect its shipping against rogue states, and it would be a good start to Brexit if we used this moment of re-calibration to move away from the Continent and towards the rest of the world to rebuild our naval capacity. We simply cannot expect to enjoy security on the cheap.