Labour has an ambitious and realistic vision for UK defence


Vernon's LabourList article published 24th March 2014:


UK Defence policy is at a crossroads: UK Service Personnel will have withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of the year; plans are already underway to draw down from Germany; and the repercussions of the economic crisis require the MoD to be more strategic with its resources.


This opportunity allows us to reconsider our vision for Defence from very first principles. Above all, it allows us to ask the most basic and fundamental of all questions in this debate: What role do we want Britain’s Armed Forces to play in the world?


This week, I have used my first major speech as Shadow Defence Secretary to outline the key principles which underpin my thinking and that of the Labour Party. I want to offer a view of UK Defence priorities that is both ambitious and realistic.


Ambitious, because I believe that to withdraw from the world is not just undesirable, but impossible, and because I believe Britain can play a positive role in world events. Realistic, because there are no gains to be made from promising what cannot be delivered.


Some are convinced that the results of the parliamentary vote on Syria last August show that Britain is in the midst of an isolationist transition, one in which the UK closes itself off from the outside world. I disagree, and believe that it shows that—following long and hard interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan—the public are wary and weary of foreign military interventions.


Labour has learnt the lessons of the past. We acted to stop the rush to military action last summer because intervention was being pushed too quickly, on a timetable set elsewhere, and without due process being followed.


Of course there are circumstances in which intervention can be justified and successful, as demonstrated by the UK’s role in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, and Libya. So to ensure that Britain does not sleepwalk into isolationism, I want to make the case for a pragmatic, progressive, and internationalist approach to UK Defence.


Labour’s approach has always been driven by what is in the national interest and our core values of equality, social justice, and democracy, which has always been reflected in Labour’s historical commitment to Defence and the Armed Forces. We are at our best when we are at our most ambitious, and when we are not afraid to tackle the big issues and answer the big questions with which we are confronted.


However, with Defence budgets under increasing pressure we must learn to be realistic about what we can and cannot achieve alone. Sound fiscal planning at the MoD must be integrated as part of the UK’s strategic direction.


This will mean better co-ordinating and projecting smart power, developing our partnerships with existing allies and cultivating new ones. We must also seek to enhance our equipment, procurement, and intelligence-sharing partnerships too, through which we can amplify our international influence. Driving out duplication where possible and maintaining sovereign military capabilities will remain essential.


As recent events in North Africa and the Middle East have shown, when conflict breaks out, the costs to affected countries can be enormous. Lives are lost, economies are shattered, and lost generations risk perpetuating cycles of violence. So we must recognise the importance of Defence Engagement, working with at-risk nations at their invitation, enhancing relationships with local government and military structures to bolster these countries’ security apparatuses.


I know that discussions for deeper Defence Engagement strategies are underway, which I welcome. I will ensure that our Forces are equipped with the language skills, and the depth of historical, cultural, and strategic knowledge required for the future.


As well as preventing conflict, I believe Britain has a leading role to play in keeping peace, which is why I wish to see the UK continuing and deepening our support for UN peace keeping operations, helping to provide vital security and stability across the world.


In addition, new types of threat—such as cyber—will increasingly test the resilience of UK Critical Infrastructure Networks. Labour has already called on the Government to ensure that every company working with the MoD, regardless of its size or the scale of its work, signs up to a cyber-security charter. Building on this, we will also consult on the prospect of creating a statutory requirement for all private companies to report serious cyber-attacks threatening the UK’s national infrastructure.


I believe that Britain must be ambitious about the skills, abilities, and potential of our Armed Forces and their role in the world. UK Defence policy must reflect our strongly-held values, and we should not shy away from our view that advocating such values does not stop at our borders. However, we must also be realistic about what we can and cannot achieve alone, acknowledging that working with a wider range of partners and multilateral institutions offers our best chance of realising our strategic ambitions.


UK Defence is at a crossroads, and the public is ready and willing for a wide-ranging and open debate on the way forward. Labour will lead, encourage and facilitate that debate.


Vernon Coaker MP is the Shadow Secretary of State for Defence


Click on the link below to read the article on the Labour list website: