Michael Dugher on the strategic defence review

At the General Election, all three main parties were committed to holding a strategic defence review (SDR) as part of their manifestos for government. Today in the House of Commons, the debate begins as to how we configure our armed forces for the challenges we face in the coming years. How Labour engages in this will be important.

In February, Labour in government produced Adaptability and Partnership: Issues for the Strategic Defence Review, the green paper which paved the way for the SDR. The document set out very well the principles that underpin Labour’s approach.

The first is that we cannot simply “defend our own goal line”. This is a response to the “troops out” message that goes out, not just from anti-war protesters, but from sections of the media and parts of the wider public, usually in response to ever-mounting casualties in Afghanistan.

We have to show that what goes on in places like the Af-Pak border, or in East Africa, has a tangible impact on security on the streets of Britain. With Al Qaeda and other Islamic extremist terrorist threats, our security at home requires us to act overseas – to “tackle threats at source”. This is surely the lesson of 9/11. Geoff Hoon talks about how, in the aftermath of the attacks of the world trade centre, the MoD suddenly had to familiarise itself with the terrain of Afghanistan, of which they had previously had little knowledge. He says: “we didn’t exactly have to get the ‘A to Z’ out, but we did know very little about the country, as compared with somewhere like Iraq”.

The second principle is that we need a cross-government response. The new government has shifted the language from ‘defence’ to ‘national security’. Its national security council, newly set up after the election, is essentially a continuation of the ‘war cabinet’ introduced by Gordon Brown in response to adverse criticisms of our handling of the war in Afghanistan. The council includes the prime minister, defence secretary, chiefs of staff, intelligence agencies, but also the home secretary. The threats we face require much closer cooperation between government agencies and departments. Military, counter-terror (at home and abroad), diplomacy and development, must all work hand-in-glove.

Unfortunately, Whitehall turf wars are older than Sir Humphrey himself. One general I spoke to last week felt that the lack of a central figure, in authority, with the power to coordinate across government departments, was still the weak point as work begins on this SDR.

Third, Labour’s green paper stressed the need to strengthen international relations to enable allies to work more effectively together. The future relevance of NATO is likely to come under closer scrutiny in the review. Despite the large number of nations engaged in Afghanistan, for instance, very few are able to ‘do the job’ that is necessary, leaving the perception of unfair burden-sharing.

The SDR is likely to shed particular light on the new government’s attitude to the ‘special relationship’ with the United States. It is a matter of explicit defence policy now that the UK will not be involved in medium or large scale operations without the American military. Liam Fox has close links to America, especially with the Republican right, but he will be anxious not to appear as Washington’s poodle.

Fox may turn up the anti-European rhetoric as a means of distracting attention away from his pre-occupation with the US. If George Bush junior was “the worst thing to happen to Tony Blair”, to quote David Miliband, then how Labour responds to questions of Britain’s relationship with the United States in particular will be crucial. We have to stress that our closeness to the US is not based on the relationship between a prime minister and a president, but is fundamental, at all levels, for Britain’s future defence needs and national security.

Despite the recent strains of managing the conflict in Afghanistan, Labour has historically had a strong defence tradition. Our support for defence is not limited simply to trade unions with large memberships in the defence industries, as important though that is.

A quick glance through history shows that Attlee’s role in supporting Churchill’s war effort is often underestimated; that it was a Labour foreign secretary, Bevin, who established Britain’s nuclear deterrent and our membership of NATO; that Labour boasts the two longest serving defence secretaries in Healey and Hoon, both serving for the better part of six years; and that the ministerial team that Tony Blair appointed to drive through the last SDR in 1998 – George Robertson, John Reid, John Gilbert and John Spellar – was described, only partly in jest, as “the most right wing collection of ministers ever assembled by any government”.

Defence is important in Labour constituencies. The Conservatives are undoubtedly closer to the officer class of the military, but the armed forces are full of young working class men and women from traditional Labour areas. When I attended the presentation of the colours for the Yorkshire Regiment recently, one of the organisers, a senior army officer, reminded me that he was “a major employer in Barnsley East”. I quite agreed.

The SDR gives Labour an opportunity to show once again that we are a party that cares about Britain’s defence and that we have something to say. Afghanistan means that defence as an issue has risen up the political agenda. Anyone who canvassed at the last election will know that worries about our involvement in Afghanistan, as well as the support we give our armed forces and their families, came up time and again on the doorstep. Organisations like ‘Help for Heroes’ are hugely important and are capable of mobilising support in communities across the country. 24 hour news gives unprecedented reporting about conditions on the front line, the state of equipment and support for our forces, and every death is rightly given due prominence in our media. Napoleon Bonaparte could have been talking about 2009 when he observed that: “four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets”.

But as well as examining Britain’s role in the world, and how best we support our armed forces and their families, and what all of this means for Afghanistan, the most difficult task of the strategic defence review is to address emerging threats to our national security. Labour’s green paper rightly concluded that Britain needs armed forces that are flexible, adaptable and quick to respond. The ability to foresee new and evolving threats, to be able to intervene quickly to defeat them, is perhaps the central challenge for this review.

Because, however good any defence review is, it will always be condemned in years to come, not simply by armchair generals and pundits, but by events themselves. No one in 1998 could foresee the events of 9/11 or the effect they would have. But how we maintain maximum agility in our defence forces is critical. Even from the opposition benches, Labour can and should have a big say in that.

Michael Dugher is Labour MP for Barnsley East.

Tags: , , , ,

3 Responses to “Michael Dugher on the strategic defence review”

  1. The R of SDR stands for Review. Not ‘doing the same bloody thing as last time, regardless of whether it worked, whether it made us wildly unpopular in large swathes of the country or whether it will work next time’.

    This is all boilerplate, justifying none of its basic assumptions, showing no understanding that the current strategic situation will not be around forever and utterly refusing to acknowledge that Britain’s standing in the world has already changed. As strategic thinking goes, it’s pretty First World War. Straight into the guns, even if it did fail the first 473 times.

  2. Denise Wilde says:

    I read with interest the support offered by Attlee to Churchill and how it was underestimated.I felt sick at the personal attack on Gordon Brown by the Tories insinuating that our troops were not supplied properly.When Cheesy went to Afghanistan and asked how many more helicopters were needed I understand he was told “None”
    I agree that it needs cross party approach if only to safeguard against the anti European rhetoric and cosying up to the Republicans in USA

  3. Henrik says:

    After 13 years of strategic failure and neglect of the underpinnings of the Military Covenant, coupled with an ill-informed enthusiasm for the use of armed force for unclear strategic ends with no defined end state and constant Treasury harrassment of the men and women actually doing the fighting and dying, it’ll be a long time before the comrades can be fit to be trusted with national defence again.

    There are no doubt comrades who “get” defence and I’m sure there must be some who are patriots and understand the use of armed force in the defence of the national interest. I just can’t think of any.

Leave a Reply