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Labour needs to build on its defence review

The Nato summit today will have a packed agenda, not least dealing with a crisis on its borders. The alliance has risen in our consciousness in recent weeks as fighting in Ukraine has intensified. The shooting down of the Malaysian passenger jet emphasised in tragic fashion the nature of the weapons being used and the willingness to use them. The reported presence of Russian soldiers in Ukraine has raised questions about Russia’s plans and the rest of the world’s resolve. Meanwhile, Islamic State continues to wreak havoc in Syria and Iraq. What should Labour’s position be?

The government is reaping the fruits of its ‘hope for the best’ defence strategy formed in the first few months of the coalition. An effective military is an insurance policy against the unexpected. It is also a support to diplomacy – not so we can throw our weight around but as a deterrent so that hostile nations and groups feel they have limited room for manoeuvre, and even so there is space to promote peace. To believe otherwise is to argue for a different role for the United Kingdom, one in which we are not members of Nato, fail to live up to Nato commitments, or work to reduce those commitments on the grounds that either the threats to Nato members are overdone or that the United States will bail us out in an emergency anyway. There are also implications for our ability to prevent terror elsewhere. And even if we did want a reduced international role for the UK, which would probably be contrary to public opinion, the very act of downgrading our status would alter our relationships with allies and enemies and probably not for the better. It would also leave us vulnerable.

We should talk more about defence on the left. We support our armed forces and recognise the risks and sacrifices they make on our behalf. The increased emphasis Labour has had in this regard in recent years has been a real positive. We also support people working in the defence industry. On the other hand, we are understandably suspicious of neoconservative agendas and we have in mind numerous other claims on public sector spending, especially when compared to the billions wasted on defence procurement. In these respects, Labour party members probably reflect public opinion.

Debating defence may be difficult but it is still a debate we need to have now, building on our defence review. It may be made easier when we recognise that there are more options available than deciding between whether to support the current government’s policy or to reject any military intervention. However, that places a responsibility on us to think more deeply about defence matters than we have in the recent past. Effective foreign and defence policy requires political judgement and long-term thinking, something often lacking with this government, and Labour should provide them. It does not mean we have to buy in to everything the defence establishment thinks we should in order to prove we are sound on defence matters. We should also rise to the challenge of making defence policy within a clear ethical framework.

Europe’s security is being tested, extremists in Syria and Iraq are massacring minorities, and there is a growing potential terrorist threat at home. In these circumstances, it matters what the UK’s next government thinks about defence and about current international concerns. Other nations and groups will be wondering if we will be weaker or stronger than the coalition. It is surely not Labour’s policy to be weaker. Therefore we should be confident about being robust on defence matters while keeping our defence policy distinct from that of the coalition.

This article was first published by Progress on 4 September 2014.

Progress, 4 September 2014, 07/09/2014

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