Duncan Depledge is Postgraduate Research Student at Royal Holloway, University of London, United
The United Kingdom and the Arctic in the 21st Century
Britain’s interest in the Arctic stretches back over half a millennia. British explorers, companies, ships and scientists
have at various times been at the forefront of bringing the Arctic into wider global, economic, political, scientific and
cultural networks. This paper offers a glimpse into how the Arctic is seen by UK civil servants in the contemporary
British government, as well as the challenges they face in reconciling the Arctic with broader global interests. No formal
Arctic Strategy has been published although there has been a tentative declaration of intent. Lastly, the paper suggests
how the UK can make a constructive contribution to the region through the development of a formal strategy.
The United Kingdom’s (UK) interest in the Arctic stretches back over half a millennia. Shut out of
the Atlantic and Pacific trade routes to Asia by the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494) between Spain and
Portugal, English ships were among those that set sail north in search of a new corridor to the Far
East through the Arctic (Lainema and Nurminen, 2009). In the centuries that followed, British
explorers, companies, ships and scientists were often at the forefront of bringing the Arctic, and
more specifically Arctic resources, into wider global, economic, political, scientific and cultural
networks. This presence in Arctic affairs continues to be sustained by a small, but not insignificant
number of actors engaged primarily in diplomacy, military exercises, scientific investigations and the
exploration and extraction of hydrocarbons (Archer, 2011).
This chapter, firstly, offers a glimpse into how the Arctic is seen from the position of civil servants in
London’s Whitehall, the heart of the British government. In the past, the UK’s interest in the Arctic
has been overshadowed by its interests in Antarctica, but this is starting to change (Archer, 2011).
Second, the chapter suggests how the development of a formal strategy by the UK could be
constructive to pursuing its interests in the region. While this chapter refers to the UK as a whole,