August 20, 2001
The British government seems to be expert at spending plenty of money abroad while stinting on spending money at home. The navy epitomises this. The present fixation with building two new super class battleships seems to be at the expense of less glamorous diesel submarines. The fact that these submarines are effectively silent in shallow waters something that nuclear submarines can never be is utterly ignored by our ruling elite. This is baffling for an island with a long shoreline and close neighbours. I also fail to see what use an aircraft carrier is in defending a large island with plenty of room for, well, airfields.
I do not wish to discuss defence procurement, but an equally baffling decision of the governments, the surrender of British fishing rights. This may puzzle some readers, so first let me explain the significance of a fishing fleet. Britain is an island nation. Therefore, the defence of the coast is vitally important. Coasts, being craggy and generally not being well endowed with straight lines, cannot be adequately defended by large battleships. Various defensive jobs, such as looking for suspicious activity, clearing mines and navigating narrow channels, suit small craft and sailors who know their local area intimately. Quite like fishing vessels, really.
What happens to the fishing fleet matters to Britain's coastal defence, and coastal defence is a vital piece in Britain's defence jigsaw. So it will come as no surprise that Britain's coastal fleet has been decimated. When Britain was utterly desperate to join the (then) European Economic Community in 1972, it allowed the fishing waters to be treated as a "Common Resource". This, in effect, meant that after some years, other community states would be allowed to fish in British waters. This may seem equitable, until it is remembered that maritime law had been taking precisely the opposite direction in those years. Countries were actually increasing their exclusion zones for as far as 200 miles. Indeed, Britain learned this in the "cod war" when Iceland extended its exclusive fishing limits, excluding British fishing vessels and humiliating the Royal Navy. It was also a one-sided bargain, as Britain had 80% of the European Community's fishing waters.
The effect was predictable. The fishing fleet has plummeted as boats and crews from other countries have taken over British waters. No matter what Britain tries to do to slow down the destruction of the fishing fleet (for example stopping British quotas being bought up by foreign buyers) it is told to rethink by its European masters. The most famous case was known as Factortame, where the European Court of Justice ruled that a member state could not make a law that is contrary to that made by the European institutions. The European Commission also tells the British Government how many vessels that they are allowed to have, and Britain rarely comes out well. So fishing dies on its feet.
Control of fishing grounds is hardly a natural area of competence for a trans-national body. Countries as small as Canada, Norway and even Namibia have all successfully controlled their fishing waters (and in fact have done a better job of fish conservation than the EU). While I do not usually take an economically nationalist position, being a free trader in my bones, I will modify my beliefs when our defence is at risk. The death of the British fishing industry has a disproportionate effect on her national security, although no one really cares.
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