Monday, December 31, 2018

Pretensions of glory? Gavin Williamson turns the clock back to 1955...

I was, I admit, intrigued by this week’s suggestion by the Secretary of State for Defence that, post-Brexit, we could open military bases across the globe. Guyana, Singapore and Brunei are three of the possibilities floated by Gavin Williamson.

Putting aside the rather brutal truth that we currently can’t afford to put aircraft on our shiny new carriers, successfully recruit soldiers, or even maintain our current capability without sizeable additional investment, it does strike me that the obvious question is, why would we need such things? Of course, I’m not old enough to remember a time when we had a worldwide collection of bases, but the reason for having them was simple - we had a vast empire, obviously, and a need to control trade routes.

In the early twenty-first century, however, I find myself puzzled as to what the purpose would be now. Mr Williamson seems to suggest that we could supply moral leadership, which indicates a degree of obliviousness to the impact our Brexit debate has had on the view others have of us. I find myself wondering what a Trudeau-led Canada would think of such a ‘generous’ offer but suspect that the response might not be entirely positive. And, in any event, you don’t really need military forces to offer moral leadership - and I offer Norway as an example of a country which punches well above its weight in the moral sphere without the need to project its military power.

So, one must ask the question, what does he think Britain’s future role is to be, and what is a modern, liberal alternative?

As a nation, we already (just) meet the 2% of GDP NATO target for defence expenditure, which puts us within a surprisingly select European grouping - Estonia and Greece, from memory - and that doesn’t appear to be enough to maintain our current strength. Hardware and ammunition don’t come cheap, and having soldiers, sailors and pilots without equipment is a futile exercise. So, we need to have a clear set of goals, and an understanding of what is possible and necessary.

An obvious means of maximising our options is to pool resources, but NATO is a military alliance ill-suited to political intervention and is heavily dependent on its American pillar. Some sort of European Union might offer a better medium, but the Government is currently ruling that out - much to my personal regret. That leaves forming some sort of bilateral or multilateral arrangement beyond what currently exists but, for that to really work well, some pooling of sovereignty, apparently out of fashion for now, is required.

And what are the goals to be? Defence of democracy? Humanitarianism? Mutual defence against terrorism? Or simply to ensure a defensive capability against hostile forces?

That’s a difficult choice, if you intend to be consistent, and reflective of your preferred ‘will of the people’ - for all political parties are selective in that sense, consciously or unconsciously.

For me, military resources are, foremost, to defend and protect the citizenry but, when not needed for that, they should form part of a toolkit with diplomacy and development aid, to support administrations who share our values and to promote those values elsewhere. Admittedly, you probably wouldn’t use military force for the latter element.

So, what sort of military do you need for that? Flexible, obviously, with the ability to transfer troops and their support quickly and efficiently, key in delivering humanitarian objectives. And, for me, that doesn’t mean maintaining your own bases. In a world of terrorists who can simply melt back into the local population, permanent bases offer easy targets, aren’t necessarily convenient for where you need them to be, and tie up valuable resources. The ability to work co-operatively with like-minded friendly nations, using their bases as required, taking part in joint exercises to build trust, understanding and easy co-ordination seems to offer a more effective means of operation. In truth, if you can’t achieve that, you probably don’t have the ability to intervene effectively anyway.

Building friendships is easier, more flexible and cheaper than building new bases which give a perhaps unworthy sense of attempting to create Empire 2.0. A surprising number of people, not all ordinary members of the public, seem to think that the Empire is merely sleeping rather than dead, but that doesn’t make the concept anything less than utterly absurd.

Of course, Gavin Williamson may just be posturing for the support of the sort of people who vote in Conservative Party leadership contests, but he might really mean it. And whilst such a strategy offers some potential humour, liberals need to think more closely about what we want from our Armed Forces is we want the United Kingdom to play a key role in building a better world.

A gentle stroll in the Three Cities...

Malta is, perhaps surprisingly, a very densely populated place, with a higher population density than Bangladesh. And, when you arrive here, it is much less surprising, as Valletta is ringed by communities that climb the slopes around the capital, coat the surrounding peninsulas and cluster wherever building is even remotely possible.

We were meeting a historian friend of Ros, and his partner, who have been staying here for the past six months, and had offered to show us Valletta. And so, we caught another bus which hurtled along, around the Sliema peninsula and through Floriana to the Valletta bus station, which stands outside the city gates, next to the Triton Fountain.

United with our hosts, we set off to examine Valletta on foot, only to get a bit distracted by the view across the water to the south-east. That led us down a elevator to the shoreline and a small water taxi which took us to Birgu, which occupies a finger-like peninsula which protrudes into the Grand Harbour.

Refreshment was required, so we sat at a cafe in Victory Square, in the St Lawrence district, as something of Maltese life was explained to us. Each community has its own Saint, and there is a political edge to much of community life, with bands and fireworks and a bit of occasional ruckus. Our cafe was the Labour cafe, as opposed to the Nationalist one, although, as an outsider, I wasn’t overly aware of any political aspect.

The Maltese love their fireworks, to the extent of manufacturing their own at home, with the occasional unplanned explosion adding to the general buzz of urban life. Indeed, they don’t wait for darkness, as we were entertained by a firework launch at noon. I suspect we haven’t heard our last firework...

We walked along the shore, stopping for lunch and talk of Brexit, enjoying the opportunity to eat outside in December. The problem is that, the more you talk about it, the less rational it sounds, and you find yourself wondering if Britain hasn’t suffered a collective mental collapse. But I digress...

We resumed our stroll, crossing into Senglea, developed by the Order of Saint John in the sixteenth century. Senglea is another peninsula, and is all narrow streets and alleyways, designed I suspect to keep the streets shady during the hot summers, and to allow greater density. The architecture is interesting, and one of the main features is the gallarija, an enclosed shallow balcony with glass windows, painted in a different colour to the rest of the frontage.

Coffee and cake was required by this time, as the sun began to set in the south-west, and it was, sadly, soon time to head back to San Giljan, catching a bus from outside the police station. Malta has adopted a two hour ticket, allowing you to transfer as necessary to get to your destination, which puts London’s recent introduction of a similar idea into perspective. And that allowed us to transfer through Valletta, making an easy connection to the San Giljan bus and getting us back to our hotel for some refreshment and a relatively early night...

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Broadening our horizons just a little bit in San Giljan...

Day 2, and a pleasant breakfast awaited. I enjoy breakfast, especially if it involves pork, and our hotel does this to a sufficiently high standard, with proper bacon and rather decent sausages. The service here is thorough, and friendly, which helps.

We weren’t in any hurry, as the morning was set aside for proper relaxation - I was booked in for a sea salt exfoliation and foam massage in the hammam. And yes, it is a proper hammam, with marble, and sinks with buckets, something I’m quite intrigued by, despite having never spent any serious time in Turkey.

It was, in truth, not entirely like a Turkish hammam - for one thing, my masseur was female, not male, as would be traditional - but the experience of having my skin salted and scrubbed was very satisfying, and little beats being pampered, as I’ve noted here in the past.

But it was time to get out of the hotel, so we found the bus terminus not far from the hotel and caught a bus to Sliema, following the shoreline for the most part, before finding a restaurant for lunch. I had a very nice risotto with prawns, whilst Ros had the octopus, this time in a tomato-based sauce. Maltese cuisine, as you might expect, does heavily feature fish and seafood, although there is more to it than that, and there’s also quite a strong Sicilian influence, it seems.

We walked back to the hotel, taking the less obviously scenic route, but one which allowed us to take in some of the traditional architecture, rather than the seafront property, much of which is fairly recent and not as interesting.

There was more afternoon tea to be had, before a dinner in a local grill just down the street. Some excellent steak was had by me, as well as a local handmade sausage which was very good too.

I have a nasty feeling that, if this keeps up, I’m going to need to go on a serious diet when we get home...

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Welcome to Malta - we have sunshine...

So, here I am in St Julian’s, or San Giljan, as I might more correctly call it, for I am on a smallish island in the Mediterranean, not far from Tunisia, but closer to Sicily. The Maltese sun is, if not warm, tolerably mild, and I am somewhere I haven’t been before, which is always good.

At the end of what has been, to some extent, a rather trying year, albeit not a personally trying one, it is nice to escape the horror that is British politics, and just relax and recuperate. Our hotel is very nice, with friendly, helpful staff, good food and some nice views across the rooftops to the sea.

We arrived yesterday, after one of those entirely uneventful, surprisingly efficient journeys that you often wish for but never get, despite having to make an early start from an airport hotel.

I have to admit that the words ‘airport hotel’ generally evoke a rather tired property with weary, slightly irritable people, all of whom know that they’ll only be there for one night (that goes for some of the staff, I suspect), but the Holiday Inn - Gatwick Airport was perfectly acceptable, with enthusiastic staff (most of whom were evidently EU nationals whose futures are doubtful given their likely salaries) and basic but comfortable rooms. And, in any event, we were going to be out before 6 a.m...

In the end, we were up early, on the airport shuttle by 5.15 a.m. and, courtesy of a lightning transit of check-in and security, we were in the lounge before 6 a.m. for our 8.05 a.m. flight. And yes, it was slightly delayed, but we still managed an on-time arrival. An equally efficient passage through immigration and baggage reclaim at the other end, a swift taxi ride in the sunshine to our hotel, where our room had been upgraded and was available on arrival, two hours prior to the normal check-in time, and by 2.30 p.m., we were unpacked and having a rather nice afternoon tea with dainty little sandwiches, some excellent baked stuff and even fruit scones with jam and cream.

Not bad in just over eight hours, if I say so myself...

A gentle explore of the neighbourhood was followed by happy hour in the hotel lounge and a rather good seafood dinner in the hotel’s restaurant down by the beach - the barbecued octopus was excellent, just chewy without being rubbery, and the stuffed calamari was better than I had hoped. Given that I’m not by nature an enthusiast for seafood (it always seems like hard work), it was all very nice.

I think that we’re going to be happy here...