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Hér eru niðurstöður verksins, samantekt á því hvers vegna bresk stjórnvöld reyndu trekk í trekk að verja hagsmuni sína á Norður-Atlantshafi en urðu stöðugt að láta undan síga (hér vantar vitaskuld tilvísanir og blaðsíðutöl).


Basic Facts

The basic facts in the history of Britain’s fight for freedom of the high seas in 1948-64 are simple. At the beginning, the three-mile limit of territorial waters was the most widespread rule in the North Atlantic. Yet it was neither universal nor undisputed and at the end of the era, after a number of conflicts, a 12-mile fishing limit had replaced the old regime.

The Norwegians began the process in 1948, when they decided to enforce their baseline-measured four-mile limit of territorial waters. Britain protested the move and the dispute was referred to the International Court of Justice. Its ruling, in 1951, was totally in Norway’s favour. Meanwhile, with the promulgation of the Conservation Law of 1948, the Icelanders declared their will to control fisheries over their continental shelf. In 1952, they followed the precedencethat had been set at The Hague by declaring a baseline-measured four-mile fishing limit. The British trawling industry, with tacit blessing in London, fought the change by imposing a ban on the landings of iced fish from Iceland. At around the same time, Moscow decided to end an agreement with Britain on fishing up to three miles off the Soviet coast in the Barents Sea. Unlike the Icelandic conflict, Britain had no means of coercion in this case. For a while, however, the Soviets graciously allowed British trawlers to work in restricted areas inside the 12-mile limit in these waters. In 1955, Britain also secured an agreement with Denmark about a partial extension of the three-mile fishing limit around the Faroe Islands. A year on, the landing ban on Icelandic catches was lifted and Britain accepted Iceland’s four-mile limit de facto.

The events of 1958 demonstrated that the decision-makers in London were not ready to retreat further. At the first United Nations law of the sea conference, they tried to advance the three-mile rule and could only consent to very minimal concessions in order to try to reach an agreement on the regime of territorial waters. The conference failed and the Icelanders moved their fishing limits to 12 miles later in the year. Britain replied by sending the Royal Navy to defend trawlers from harassment. Initially, the tension was high in this first ‘cod war’. It eased as time went on but neither side appeared willing to give in, and the conflict was unresolvedwhen the second law of the sea conference began in 1960. Despite the willingness by Britain, the United States and other traditional proponents of the three-mile rule to tolerate wider national jurisdiction, this attempt was also unsuccessful. Later in the year, Britain accepted a 12-mile fishing limit off Norway, with rights to work inside the outer six-mile zone for the next ten years.

A settlement was also reached with Iceland the following year, on March 11, 1961. The phase-out period for fishing inside the limit was only three years and wider baselines were introduced. Furthermore, the agreement contained a clause on the referral of further disputes to the International Court. Finally, in 1962, all fishing rights inside the Soviet 12-mile limit expired and in 1964 around the Faroe Islands. What was considered impossible in 1948 had become real. The three-mile rule, Britain’s ‘vital interest’, had all but disappeared.

The Five ‘P’s’

These were the principal events, and the central conclusion can only be that Britain lost, while the others won. Moving from facts to interpretations - or from explaining to understanding - the thesis has demonstrated that the main determinants of British policy - the five ‘p’s’ of pressure, precedence, principle, prestige and power - all contributed to the fault of fighting repeatedly for a lost cause.

First, the trawling industry was always able to exert too much pressure on British decision-makers. Throughout the fishing disputes, it is almost as if we can hear the statesmen in London echo Herbert Morrison’s famous rejection of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1950, and eliminate an acceptance of inevitable extensions by saying: ‘It’s no good, we cannot do it. The trawler owners won’t wear it.’ The dire warnings about ‘unbearable’ extensions should have been taken with a grain of salt. Despite the repeated warnings about ‘unbearable’ setbacks in Northern waters in the 1950s, that decade was a ‘golden age’ for the trawling industry. In addition, the fateful miscalculation that what was good for the BTF was good for Britain, not only meant that a single retreat was impossible, but also that the danger of adverse precedence aggravated the error yet further. A ‘domino-theory’ was clearly in the minds of British decision-makers. It is here that the merits of the comparative, multi-archival approach of the thesis are best visible. A focus on the Icelandic dispute, for instance, has led to the incomplete conclusion that economic interests were almost the sole reason for Britain’s flawed policy. Comparison, it has been said, ‘can have a de-provincialising, a liberating, an eye-opening effect’.

Further on these lines, Britain’s concern for the principle of narrow territorial waters must be kept in mind. On the one hand, it was inspired by the mistaken assumption that the law of the sea was fair and should more or less be maintained as it had been. Too rarely did British decision-makers admit, what Thyne Henderson once wrote from Reykjavík, that the preferred three-mile rule was ‘the result of Britain’s dominance of the sea for the last two hundred years’. On the other hand, the principle of the narrowest limits was mistakenly defended because of that illusive concept, prestige. All through the fishing disputes, the rulers in London emphasised that Britain was, to mention one expression near the end of the period, ‘to a great extent a naval and maritime power’. A state of that stature should not tolerate ‘illegal’ encroachments on the oceans by small states like Iceland or the Faroe Islands. Were it done, the prestige would vanish. The trouble for Britain, however, was that merely the decision of such minnows to go against her will indicated that the prestige was decreasing. In the words of E.H. Carr: ‘Prestige means the recognition by other people of your strength ... if your strength is recognised, you can generally achieve your aims without having to use it.’

Since the amount of prestige was clearly insufficient to avert conflicts, the apparent possession of adequate economic and military power led British decision-makers to believe that they could, and should, use it. But as with the prestige, the power had diminished. In a world of increased interdependence, military or economic superiority did not count as much as before. This thesis has underscored the contention that in the post-war period ‘the conversion of the base metal of military force into diplomatic gold has been akin to the alchemist’s frustrating search for the Philosopher’s Stone’. Moreover, the history of the maritime disputes in 1948-64 is a fine aspect of the particular decrease in British power after the Second World War. True, the legendary ‘decline’ has sometimes been overstated. ‘[W]e have certainly learned to wallow in it,’ complain the critics of such excesses. Yet it would be equally unjustifiable to go to the other extreme and assert, as some historians would like to do, that ‘“Declinism” is dead.’ It is a fact that Britain’s previous prestige and power had decreased. This research is an indisputable, if small, confirmation of that change.

The Six ‘C’s’

The decline was of course relative. Thus, it can only be properly understood by an equally detailed research into the opponents’ increased strength. The focus here has logically been on the Icelanders, the main adversary, and the work has revealed how they were stronger than Britain because of the six ‘c’s’ which determined their policy on fishing limits: the code of law, Cold War, cynicism, conservation, commitment and compassion.

            The development of the code of law aided the ‘extensionists’ on the oceans, especially because of the inclination in London to cite legal theories in support of British views. When speaking on the law of the sea in 1951, a Chilean judge at the International Court of Justice referred to a new ‘law of social interdependence’, which would correspond ‘to the new conditions of the life of peoples’. An English lawyer could only comment that he felt as if he had ‘moved into a different world’. Later in the 1950s and into the next decade, ‘decolonisation’ could be detected at sea as on land, with former colonies laying claim to the riches of the oceans and the seabed adjoining their shores. It has indeed been said of the Icelanders that ‘withoutthe worldwide trend towards recognising the rights of coastal states, they would not have got very far with their claims’.

            More important, still, was the Cold War. In a flippant manner, it could be argued that if Communism had not existed, the Icelanders would have invented it. So much did they benefit from the strategic importance of Iceland in the struggle between East and West. A self-interested Soviet Union was willing to help them and, while pro-Western politicians in Reykjavík were certainly right in warning London and Washington that opposition to moves on the fishing limits could strengthen the anti-Western camp, they consciously (ab)used the ‘Communist’ fear as well. ‘We used NATO to the death,’ an influential member of the Conservative Party was to acknowledge. Icelandic power in the fishing disputes would have diminished considerably if the authorities in London had realised what E.B. Boothby, the Ambassador in Reykjavík, asserted at the end of 1962, that ‘[i]t is virtually impossible to see how the Communist Party could seize power in this country’.

            Naturally, British decision-makers were not mainly responsible for the strategically inspired increase in Icelandic power. In Reykjavík, the ‘million dollar question’ was always what would weigh more in American minds: the three-mile principle or Icelandic contentment during the Cold War. It was a tough choice and as John Muccio said in the summer of 1958, the United States position was ‘that of an interested friend, with no direct involvement’. But while the strategic preference for narrow limits prevented decision-makers in Washington from backing Iceland unreservedly, they were more willing to put great pressure on Britain than the Icelanders. A brilliant example was President’s Eisenhower’s readiness to become the world’s greatest fishmonger and buy all of Iceland’s catches in the mid-1950s, at a time when the authorities in London were not too displeased about the trawling industry’s ban on the landings of Icelandic catches. It could in fact be said that Britain suffered from the fact that Iceland enjoyed a ‘special relationship’ with the United States. More generally, Britain also suffered from the American inclination to sacrifice fish for security, or the inclination to protect the three-mile limit of territorial waters by accepting extended fishing rights for coastal states.

            Cynicism also influenced the Icelandic stand. British intransigence encouraged the conviction that unilateral action would yield better results than negotiations and compromises. When this calculation was confirmed, more moderate parties to the fishing disputes were understandably annoyed. For instance, the settlement of the Anglo-Icelandic four-mile conflict on better terms than the Danes had secured for the Faroe Islands made the authorities in Copenhagen wonder, as Ambassador Barclay wrote, whether the only way to get true concessions from Britain was ‘by dint of being thoroughly tiresome’. Likewise, the unavoidable retreat in Soviet waters damaged the British contention about the universality of narrow limits and increased the resentment over Britain’s uncompromising policy elsewhere. As one Whitehall official confessed: ‘if we acquiesce in the 12-mile limit off Russia and then protect our ships off Iceland we shall be open to the charge that our policy is one of parcere superbis et debellare subjectos.’

            Furthermore, the clear need to conserve fish stocks could not but encourage the ‘extensionists’, with the Icelanders in the forefront. They were sometimes tempted to exaggerate the threat of depletion.Even so, Britain usually acknowledged the need for protective measures. She wanted it done at international level, however, and with the division of the fishing effort mostly unchanged. This the Icelanders, the Faroese and the fishermen of North Norway would never accept. They unashamedly wanted a bigger slice of the cake in order to grow and prosper. Hence, their commitment was greater, and it is a truism in all disputes that commitment increases power. The Vietnam War is probably the best illustration of a conflict after the Second World War where the superior side was never determined or united enough to use its full strength, while the materially weaker opponent ‘equated compromise with defeat’.

Similarly, the smallness of the North Atlantic opponents and their obvious reliance on the riches of the sea worked against Britain. References to Bismarck’s expression about the ‘tyranny of the weak’ were most fitting indeed. The Icelanders ‘have the greatest faith in the strength of their bargaining position as one of the world’s weakest nations’, wrote Henderson from Reykjavík in 1955. Both then and on other occasions they weremore responsible than Britain for the ‘absence of diplomacy’, i.e. the long periods without sincere efforts to solve the disputes. It is only fair, therefore, to ask how Britain could have been expected to avoid conflicts with such an intransigent and determined adversary?

Intransigence, ‘Pragmatism’, Power and Interests

In the midst of the four-mile dispute, Ólafur Thors met with Anthony Nutting who noted that the conversation ‘covered nothing but the old familiar ground’. Thors reiterated ‘that he would never give way, his government would never give way’. During the next conflict with Iceland, the ‘cod war’, Gudmundur Í. Gudmundsson told a NATO official that the Royal Navy must withdraw from the 12-mile zone in order to facilitate a solution. And what would Iceland do in turn? ‘Nothing’, was the reply.

            The intransigence was infuriating, and it contrasted sharply with the more conciliatory attitude of the Danes and the Norwegians. But they were not tiny, newly independent one-industry nations. Moreover, the authorities in Copenhagen and Oslo tended to use the Icelanders as ‘icebreakers’ who cleared the way for them. And, crucially, getting infuriated rarely leads to a level-headed policy. British decision-makers ought to have realised the unfavourable correlation of forces in the North Atlantic - the supremacy of the six ‘c’s’ over the five ‘p’s’. In short, Iceland was stronger. In the autumn of 1960, when Sir Patrick Reilly had just left Moscow and was about to enter battle with Hans G. Andersen and the other intransigent Icelanders, he wrote that ‘[on] the little I have been able to learn about the subject so far, it looks as if dealing with the Icelanders will be terribly like dealing with the Russians’. The comparison is fair, and may be elaborated. ‘The Russians are not to be persuaded by eloquence or convinced by reasoned arguments’, wrote Sir William Hayter:

They rely on what Stalin used to call the proper basis of international policy, the calculation of forces. So no case, however skilfully deployed, however clearly demonstrated as irrefutable, will move them from doing what they have previously decided to do; the only way of changing their purpose is to demonstrate that they have no advantageous alternative, that what they want to do is not possible.

In the fishing disputes, Britain could never convince the Icelanders that what they wanted to do was not possible. Also, the British decision-makers ought to have realised that, actually, narrow territorial waters and fishing limits were not a ‘vital national interest’. It must be remembered that trawling in distant waters accounted for less than 1% of Britain’s gross national product, and narrow territorial waters were not essential for Britain’s well-being. The Empire was disappearing and although outposts like Aden, Hong Kong and Singapore lasted a little longer, they would go as well. ‘If there was not to be a British presence east of Suez’, as J. Gallagher explained afterwards, ‘then there was precious little point in holding bastions and staging-posts’. And if there was no need for these stations, there was no need for the unchanged status of the sea lanes towards them.

            The illusion of ‘vital interests’ meant that British actions in the maritime disputes were inconsistent and contradictory. The thesis has confirmed the hypothesis that was put forward at the onset, of a vacillation between idealism and interdependence on the one hand, and Realpolitik and ‘gunboat diplomacy’ on the other. The four-mile dispute is a good case in point. At the start of the landing ban by the trawling industry, an Iceland-sympathiser at the Bank of England lamented that ‘a small and vulnerable country is being bludgeoned by the powerful private interests of a big neighbour’. The authorities in London knew that, after the judgement in the Anglo-Norwegian dispute, Iceland had a compelling right to extend the limits. Yet they could not resist the shrewd calculation that coercion would force the Icelanders to back down. But when they were proved wrong, they would not escalate British commitment. Thus, the decision-makers in London broke a cardinal rule of ‘coercive diplomacy’: ‘The adversary must be made to believe not only that one is unwilling to give way at the present level of conflict, but that one is ready and able to go even further if necessary.’

            The same indecisiveness took place during the ‘cod war’. ‘Hawks’ like Dennis Welch in Grimsby complained about ‘appeasement’ and in his militant mood, Andrew Gilchrist would question ‘whether we ought to be deterred by fear of a little bloodshed’. Britain had gone in, but she neither would nor could go all the way. A comparison with Suez immediately springs to mind. ‘Sound policy or not’, one observer wrote on that catastrophe, ‘the British government had lacked the nerve to see it through’. Off Iceland, as in Egypt, Britain got the worst of both worlds; condemnation for aggression yet not the spoils of victory. But although the policy was foolish, we must acknowledge the environment of the time, and the mindset and upbringing of the men in power. As a sailor who saw ‘cod war’ duty later described his Commanding Officer: ‘He would have entered the service as a Boy in the late twenties or early thirties and would have been indoctrinated on Nelsonia – Britain rules the waves and all that jazz.’ In other words, British policy-makers were not stupid or incompetent. It simply would have taken an almost extraordinary psychological effort to agree that suddenly the old naval power should acquiesce in adverse decisions on maritime affairs, taken in tiny places like Reykjavík or Tórshavn.

Then again, the deterministic view that what happened had to happen must also be avoided. Options were always open and, what is more, participants in the story knew this very well. Sympathetic outsiders noticed that Britain habitually lagged a step or two behind events. In London itself, this unfortunate trait was also admitted at times, as has been seen. In 1960, to take one more example, Lord Kilmuir wrote: ‘I have now had years of experience of seeing the failure to attain an agreement when, if we had been ready earlier to pay the price ultimately accepted by us, it might have been obtained.’ A skipper who retired that year also insisted that the industry needed to ignore ‘the old-timer who cannot get the limit line chip off his shoulder’, and when Harold Macmillan was trying in vain to rush through a decision on 12 miles off Britain, he stated that ‘[w]hatever the Admiralty may say, there is really nothing in the defence point’. But if only he had realised this a few years before. As Kilmuir’s grievance and Macmillan’s failed and overdue conversion bear out, a frank, progressive reconsideration of British interests and capabilities never took place. The inclination to ‘wait and see’ was always stronger. And here the decision-making machine itself was at fault as well. Often the influence on action seemed to decrease in inverse proportion to knowledge of the issue. The almost constant ignorance of the input from diplomats ‘on the spot’ was highlighted in the thesis, as was the dismissal of advice from the most knowledgeable officials in London or at the international conferences in Geneva. Departmental divisions also made matters worse. For the bureaucrats, victory in Whitehall often seemed more important than a realistic policy in the outside world.

All these flaws in the decision-making process, as well as the equally defective results, make a mockery of the rather popular description of British policy as being ‘pragmatic’, at least if it is defined in terms of adaptability and foresight. There was no strategy, only stubbornness. A final lament from Sir Gerald Fitzmaurice, the comparatively farsighted Legal Adviser whose advice was so often ignored, is worth quoting: ‘Ministers have never been prepared with this subject to take a decision in advance of it being forced upon them by events.’ So determined were British decision-makers not to cross a bridge until they came to it that they lagged behind others until they came to a watershed. Then, at last, would they wonder whether to cross, only to find out that the current had changed and the necessary bridge would have to be built elsewhere.

The fairly long-term approach of the thesis underlines further this un-pragmatic nature of British policy and decision-making. By examining the process rather than a single episode, we see that Britain repeated the same mistakes. The ‘issue-learning curve’ was disappointingly flat, and the ‘re-representation of problems’ rarely led to a fundamental change in policy. In addition, other developments support this observation. We have corroborative evidence, as it were. In this work, references to Messina in 1955 or Suez in 1956 are not simplistic historical analogies. British attitudes on fishing limits and the law of the sea have to be placed in the context of the period. Two of the most important aspects of Britain’s foreign policy – decolonisation and European integration – have of course been thoroughly examined. At the risk of oversimplification, the broad consensus among the students of Empire and Europe is strikingly similar to the main conclusions here. On the end of Britain’s imperial role, it has for instance been argued that British decision-makers could have shown more foresight. They knew that things would inevitably change and repeatedly reviewed the situation, but as one observer summarised their efforts, ‘[t]he outcome of each passing review, in short, was the conclusion that something would have to be done – but not yet’. As for Europe, it has been said that Britain always lagged behind. ‘I’ve often thought the patron saint of British European policy was Ethelred the Unready,’ said Sir Oliver Wright in a particularly colourful critique:

At key moments, we’ve always been unready, including the first key moment. We have always been unready to take decisions from which we could have derived maximum advantage instead of which so far, like Johnny come lately, we’ve had to run and catch up and accept what the others have already decided and in a sense got very little advantage from it. But if you adopt a permanent policy of Ethelred the Unready you’ve only got yourself to blame, haven’t you?

This credible complaint about short-sightedness on Europe involves fish as well. At the start of the 1970s, Britain was negotiating an entry to the European Economic Community and decided to accept the unfavourable Common Fisheries Policy. In the words of Sir David Hannay, one of the officials who took part in the negotiations,

fisheries is a bit of a black spot in my view and I couldn’t put my hand on my heart and say we did a brilliant job. … One of the reasons why we didn’t do terribly well is that we failed to spot that there were a whole number of developments in the fisheries field which were going to change all the rules of the game.

Moreover, after the developments of fishing limits and territorial waters that have been described in the thesis, the miscalculations on the law of the sea were to continue. In 1971, a new centre-left coalition in Iceland declared a 50-mile fishing limit, imposing it the following year. The regime shrewdly ignored Britain’s references to the agreement of 1961, and then a ruling against the new limit by the International Court of Justice. ‘What law? They don’t exist’, said Lúdvík Jósepsson, back at the Fisheries Ministry, when British journalists asked about Iceland’s legal obligations. Again, the intransigence was infuriating but Britain was still in the same position of apparent powerlessness. In late 1972, the Research Department of the FCO pointed out in a paper, ‘The Lessons of the First “Cod War”’, that ‘[c]onfrontation between the Royal Navy and the Icelandic coastguards is likely to be disastrous to efforts to reach agreement’. Iceland would use both her smallness and strategic importance, and a solution ‘is likely to involve substantial concessions on our part. Delay in making them will only make the price of agreement higher.’

            Nonetheless, Britain did not yield, fighting another ‘cod war’ in 1972-73 and again in 1975-76, when Iceland extended the limit to 200 miles. In both cases, defeat was inevitable and as Sir Andrew Gilchrist wrote after the final conflict:


If some reasonable degree of excuse and explanation can be offered for the British government’s actions in … 1958, surely it passes comprehension that when confronted by an identical problem in 1972 and 1975, the government should have had recourse to the same measures which had proved so ineffective and counterproductive on the earlier occasion.

But what was the alternative? Commenting on the ‘Lessons of the first “Cod War”’, Anthony Royle, Minister of State at the FCO, could not but complain that it ‘seems to be a prescription for throwing our hands in the air and giving in to the Icelanders!’ And could it perhaps be argued that a fighting retreat was better than an abject surrender? In the opinion of Ian Graham at the Fisheries Department, the policy of constant resistance was sensible because ‘if you’re going to be hanged that’s no reason to be rushing to the gallows. If you can put the day off, it’s worth putting it off, and one never knows what the future will hold.’ However, the case being made here is that if another route had been taken in 1948-64, Britain would not have entered troubled waters time after time. In the long run, an alternative path of voluntary concessions and compromises would have been more beneficial than the questionable short-term advantages of stubborn resistance. To sum up, this has therefore been a story of British miscalculations about interests and capabilities. In light of the opponents’ irritating intransigence and the somewhat indistinct nature of the decline in Britain’s power, the error was understandable. Yet it was always avoidable, and certainly regrettable.


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