Why Britain needs a new defence strategy

by Jim Murphy

The driving focus of the shadow defence team is to develop a defence policy fit for modern times, responsive to a dramatically changing world which enables us to maintain a position of global influence.

That is why today we have published a consultation paper, ‘21st Century Defence’, to launch the shadow defence review.

Defence is important to Labour for two reasons. First, defence must be the first duty of any government and therefore also the first duty of any party aspiring to govern. Our credibility as an alternative government relies on our credibility on defence.

Second, the Arab spring is the tip of the iceberg of the change we are likely to experience over the next decade.  New and emerging threats, from cyber to bioterrorism, demand new policy responses.  Constrained fiscal circumstances due to the downturn limit expenditure and potentially our global reach.

Global trends – from climate change to new economies – are creating new threats and recasting the global power balance.  These trends come amidst the immediate pressures and priorities of stabilisation in Afghanistan, countering extremism, preventing proliferations and confronting the fresh turmoil in the Middle East. There is massive potential for disruption.

In that context Britain needs a defence policy which can keep up. It must be flexible and agile, with new and wide-ranging capabilities. It must prioritise coalition-building, be attuned to the threats and trends of the future and co-ordinate defence with development and diplomacy.

The government’s rushed review fell short. It did not match ends with means, precipitated a strategic shrinkage by stealth and left us with dangerous capability gaps.  Libyan operations succeeded in spite of the defence review.  Tough decisions must be made – we have been clear about that – but we disagree with some of the decisions and the manner in which they were taken. There is more than one way to spend an annual defence budget of almost £35bn. Labour is committed to being fiscally responsible and true to our own progressive principles.

We need a new defence strategy consistent with financial circumstances but also with strategic context.  Lasting more than a year, this consultation is open to all military, industrial and academic figures, all parties and the general public.

We will conduct the review in three parts, looking at long-term changes to the security landscape, the values we want to guide our policy and how this will shape the structure of our forces.

There are some key challenges for defence policy we must address. One such is co-operation between European nations.  The US will remain our primary ally, but the shift announced in their recent security strategy that it “will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region”, combined with our collective withdrawal from Afghanistan and reduction in defence spending, signals a reorientation which makes their priorities more numerous at a time of more limited resource.

It’s untenable that the US president announces that this is a moment of transition and European nations act as if this is a period of status quo. European nations have to get serious.  We must do more together to preserve our reach.  The time has come for a conversation on how European NATO nations could co-ordinate spending reductions and changes to force structures.  We need to explore how a “coalition of cuts” can help us end the practice of fighting conflicts together but preparing for them individually.

Another crucial area is on defence and development. Investment in education, democratic reform and viable economies can hinder the spread of conflict. The careful prevention of development policy can be so much better than the painful cure of military action.

New threats and the nature of weaponry are rapidly developing.  While the security environment of the 20th century was dominated by physics the next may see biology centre stage.  Bioterrorism both exposes significant weaknesses in our security architecture and is a threat which could cause mass suffering.  It is unclear whether the UK and our allies are sufficiently prepared.  Biosecurity is one of the great global security challenges of the 21st century and yet the SDSR announced no new funding or strategy to counter it.

Finally, immediate threats are as important as those on the horizon. We have 10,000 troops in Afghanistan, a timetable for withdrawal and yet no clarity on the reasons determining the pace of withdrawal or the post 2014 settlement.

We have moved from a conditions-led to calendar driven approach, and without a game plan for a long-term, representative political settlement the nation’s fragile fortunes could be reversed.  Just because the government doesn’t talk about this – the nation’s biggest defence priority – the challenge does not become any less pressing. The government has to work at maintaining the consensus with the public – and that means demonstrating clear political strategy to match military might.

These are just a few of the issues we need to consider as part of a review of defence strategy. Please do get involved.


Jim Murphy is the Labour MP for East Renfrewshire and shadow secretary of state for defence

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2 Responses to “Why Britain needs a new defence strategy”

  1. Andrea says:

    Somewhere in your organisation there is bound to be a kind-hearted editor. Please bribe them with tea and buns to turn this sad little piece into something fit for purpose.

    Asking your readers to translate such confusions as – ‘The careful prevention of development policy can be so much better than the painful cure of military action.’ … The careful prevention of development policy. Really?!

    Back to the whiteboard, I suggest.

    And try using plain English, instead of management-speak.

  2. swatantra says:

    There are only 3 things that need mentioning
    1 Cut defence Budget by 50%
    2 Cut ties with the USA and work with Europe and stop policing the World
    3 Cut Trident.
    If those aren’t the conclusions then Labour isn’t going anywhere.

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