This article appeared in the Fabian Review, the journal of the Fabian Society, in April.
Peter Apps is a global affairs columnist for Reuters news agency. He is also a member of the British Army Reserve and the Labour party.
By the time the next Labour government takes power, the United Kingdom may well be facing the most complex defence, military and security challenges at any point in recent memory.
International tensions are rising and the future of some of the most basic international structures and assumptions – the EU, NATO, a United States heavily invested in the rest of the world – is being thrown into question. Meanwhile, changing technology and growing social strains across the world are generating new, deeply unpredictable dangers.
This kind of volatility isn’t new. When it was elected in 1997, few in the Blair government would have foreseen how much it would come to be defined by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Cameron government was confronted by the Arab spring and war in Libya within a year of taking office.
What is needed above all else, then, is not just flexibility but a worldview and degree of sophistication that allows the UK to deal with a wide range of possible scenarios.
In doing so, however, we should remain fundamentally true to Labour’s core values: defending not just territory and peoples but liberties and principles. Military service is a risky occupation, and those who take it on accept that. Still, their welfare – as well as that of the rest of the nation – must be a driving concern, whether in taking action overseas or making spending decisions at home.
A significant portion of the party has often viewed Britain’s military and its activities with a healthy degree of scepticism. Their views should not be discounted – not least because in recent history, they have more than once been proved right. Our forces and the population of the Middle East would have been better served if we had listened to those who marched against the Iraq war.
Priorities, though, are important.
Deterring a catastrophic attack has been at the heart of British defence policy since the days of the cold war. It will continue to be so: tensions are going to keep rising with Russia and perhaps also with China. North Korea might have a missile that can reach the United Kingdom within a decade or so. We shouldn’t delude ourselves that Trident – and the replacement Dreadnought class submarines that will carry it – protect us against all dangers. But they are the only line of protection we have ever found against that kind of existential threat.
Beyond that, planning becomes ever more complicated, not least because the time it takes to construct some of the more sophisticated military platforms is growing ever longer. The first plans for building Britain’s Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers were announced in the strategic defence review of 1998. The ships themselves will only enter service at the end of this decade, finding themselves in a rather different world from anything anticipated in the late 20th century.
They will also, like just about every other piece of military equipment, have proved dramatically more expensive than initially anticipated.
In recent decades, British governments have tended to try to use military procurement to shore up a relatively small defence industrial base. There’s no doubt that that’s helped ensure that some companies remain big employers. But where possible, defence procurement decisions should also be aimed at growing broader, peacetime industries. That is already the case, at least up to a point, in aerospace. It hasn’t been in shipbuilding. Any future Labour government needs a much more comprehensive plan for this than any which has preceded it.
At its heart, however, defence is about people and it is those who serve who have ensured that Britain’s armed forces remain amongst the best in the world.
If you talk to members of those services today – particularly in the ranks – they are pretty underwhelmed at how successive governments, of whichever political persuasion, have treated them. There’s a feeling that they have been used – and in some cases, suffered serious casualties – without sufficient planning. But also a clear sentiment that there has been far too little attention paid to what military life is really like.
That’s somewhere where the Labour party could really be upping its game. With Nia Griffith as shadow defence secretary, there are signs it is beginning to do so. Labour is beginning to make much more noise on substandard accommodation, better career structures and lifestyles.
At the end of February, we relaunched Labour Friends of the Forces, which we hope will be at the heart of this campaigning.
In some respects, what the electorate wants from defence is not so different from what it expects from the welfare state and social welfare net. Individuals have a reasonably good idea of some of the situations they will be in and services they will require – education for their children, social care for their relatives as they age. But they also want protection against the unexpected – catastrophic ill health, redundancy, violent crime or natural disaster. With defence too, we need to be ready for the dangers we can’t predict as well as those we can.
That means having a plan, staying within budget and valuing those who actually provide the services the country needs. Getting that right in a complex century is going to be a challenge – but it’s one we have to meet.