Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

A new model of ‘preventative intervention’

Ed’s speech about the 10p tax rate meant that there was not a lot of coverage of Jim Murphy’s important speech on ‘preventative intervention’ last week.

That’s a shame as Jim’s speech deserved more attention and was a characteristically thoughtful contribution to debate about one of the most controversial aspects of the Blair years, the series of foreign interventions that culminated in the Iraq War, which recent events in Mali, Libya and Syria have pushed back into the forefront of political debate.

You can – and should – read the whole speech here.

Jim called for ‘a new model of preventative intervention, based on adaptable forces, superior intelligence and investing to build the capacity and capability of at-risk nations. It must be based on comprehensive working across government and within international coalitions.’ He also let slip that if he becomes defence secretary, a Labour government would run a strategic defence and security review.

Jim’s thesis is basically the opposite of the notorious Francis Fukuyama claim that the end of the cold war represented the ‘end of history’ (or at least the interesting bits of it). Instead Jim sees us as having entered ‘an era of persistent and complex instability’.

There is some terrifying stuff in the wider world that we can’t ignore given our globalised economy and society:

‘Cyber technology and chemical and biological material pose risks proportionate to their enormous potential to advance humankind. Climate change, resource scarcity and demographic shifts transcend borders and demand international responses. Weak states outnumber the stable by two to one, which means regions such as the Middle East or northern Africa have a disproportionate, albeit uninvited, role in our security strategy.’

Because the risks are diverse and complex, our defence and security capabilities need to be too.

Jim’s analysis of the problem clearly points to the need for a joined-up response across government. If you define the causes of the instability in north and west Africa as:

‘Resource scarcity, porous borders, youth bulges, high inequality, poverty and a history of regional or national conflict can all contribute to fragility. Illegitimate or weak state governance, or the absence of authority altogether, added to limited international or regional support, can further fuel insecurity. It is within this context that extremists can thrive. Parasitic in nature, extremism intersects with state weaknesses and vulnerabilities to seek sanctuary, foster grievance and build allegiances. It is highly localised factors as much as global vision which can drive militancy.’

Then tackling them is not just a short-term military task for the MoD but also a state-building and society-repairing one that DfID needs to be involved in, along with the FCO on the diplomatic front. Or perhaps some of our EU partners who are more squeamish about putting their armed forces at risk than we or the French are could contribute a greater share of the civil effort needed?

Jim acknowledged there are two huge contextual changes since the early Blair era of Kosovo and Sierra Leone. There isn’t as much cash so the George Robertson SDSR’s vision of expeditionary warfare with a full toolkit of aircraft carriers, sea lift, and air lift capabilities is looking distinctly wobbly. And Afghanistan and Iraq have destroyed public confidence that interventionism works and doesn’t just make instability worse.

He provided a stark explanation of why, despite this, we can’t give up on interventionism:

‘The threat to UK citizens and interests in the region can be fatal. Groups may develop ambition and ability to strike abroad. Britain’s proud diversity could lead to the radicalisation of a tiny subset of British youth. All of which means that the UK operates in coalitions responding to threats to our national interest – against terrorist activity, such as in Mali, or to prevent humanitarian abuse, such as in Libya.’

Jim’s justification is practical rather than ideological. Intervention is ‘a necessary response to the world in which we live.’ And he reminds us of the horrors caused by Western (particularly British) non-intervention in Bosnia and Rwanda.

The most important section of the speech is the part about response and lessons. He summarises the flaws in previous interventions as:

  • Lack of understanding of the complexity of the threat
  • Lack of understanding of the culture of specific countries
  • Lack of understanding of our local allies

These may sound obvious things to get on top of now but they weren’t in 2003, as we have learned to our cost.

Jim’s conclusion from Mali is that an earlier, lighter-touch intervention that saw off the threat before it got out of hand would have been better: ‘Mali has revealed the need for a new model of ‘preventative intervention’ based on adaptability, coalition-building, intelligence and greater cultural understanding, seeking to avoid the heavy-footprint operations we do not want to have to repeat.’

His vision is one of early intervention in troubled countries that is ‘more proactive and potentially longer-term, with units tasked with advising and implementing training, stabilisation, policing and combat-prevention ‘.

My fear is that in an era of budget cuts the Treasury seizes on this admirable vision and funds the cheaper, more humanitarian, more publicly popular early intervention capabilities, but cuts the serious war-fighting capabilities that you need if the initial trip-wire approach doesn’t work or you just haven’t been able to cover-off every at-risk country and suddenly find yourself in an unforeseen shooting war.

It also means we may lose deterrent capabilities – I don’t just mean our strategic nuclear deterrent, but also our tactical ability to deter conventional warfare by having enough forces to ensure it is not worth the while of any other power to choose to risk conflict with us. There aren’t serious threats of this nature to the UK right now but high-end military capabilities take decades of technology R&D, equipment procurement, training and doctrinal learning to develop, and can be abolished in weeks by the stroke of the Treasury pen. We need to think about how we sustain core capabilities so they are still there, or can be regenerated, in decades’ time if serious threats to the UK emerge.

Jim also acknowledges this all needs other Nato and EU partners, not just us, the US and France, to start pulling their weight. Sadly I wouldn’t hold my breath for this to happen. It is just too tempting for them to free ride on our greater preparedness to put our people in harm’s way and to pay for the capabilities needed.

Overall I am reassured that we have a potential defence secretary who is intellectually on top of the subject. His speech read better than much recent output from the actual MoD ministers, but was written without the benefit of a huge team of civil service and military policy experts.

However, I am fearful that unless Jim can sell the importance to life-and-limb of this to the rest of the shadow cabinet, in power the fiscal crunch we face, the traditional hostility of the Treasury to MoD, and the competing and more populist claims on the budget from the domestic spending departments may mean that we have a defence secretary who knows what we need to be doing but doesn’t have the cash to fund it.


Luke Akehurst is  a councillor in the London borough of Hackney, writes regularly for Progress here and blogs here.


Photo: Crown Copyright

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Luke Akehurst

is director of We Believe in Israel and a former member of Labour's National Executive Committee

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