Last time I wrote an article on defence it started ‘the first duty of government is to protect its citizens’. This may sound like a statement of the obvious until you consider how low a priority defence has become in British politics.
Ipsos MORI’s Issue Index tracks how important voters consider different issues. Defence is usually towards the bottom of the list. Major equipment projects are promoted in terms of the jobs created rather than their military impact. Even the cabinet post of Defence Secretary is no longer reserved for big hitters like Denis Healey or Michael Heseltine. Since 1997 it has been the first cabinet job for five of the nine people to hold the role.
Labour’s defence policy has been reduced to a bitter fight over one issue: Trident.
Whether it is Conference battles, angry CLP meetings or replacing a shadow defence secretary who agrees with Party policy with one who doesn’t; on defence we have allowed ourselves to become a single issue party on an issue we violently disagree over.
I have written before on why I support Trident, so I won’t rehash the arguments; save to say we live in an increasingly uncertain world, in which Russian bombers routinely probe NATO airspace and North Korea tests ballistic missiles (launching another yesterday). Trident is our ultimate insurance policy.
By failing to engage with the subject we have let the Tories off the hook for spectacular mismanagement of the ministry of defence. They have wasted billions in procurement projects, reduced the Army to its size during the Boer war and relied on creative accounting to meet our two per cent NATO commitment.
Labour’s defence review gives members an opportunity to confront the big issues in national security. Cynics suggest the review is merely cover for ending support for Trident. Given public support (only 20 per cent favour scrapping nuclear weapons) and that the Main Gate decision will be taken before the next election this would be bad politics as well as a wasted opportunity.
In 1981, defence secretary John Nott conducted a review that saw drastic cuts to the Royal Navy. These had to largely be reversed the following year when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands. This shows how poor planning can leave us unable to defend ourselves.
The review gives Labour a chance to capture the initiative on defence policy and create the moral frameworks in which modern warfare takes place. How do we defend national infrastructure against cyber-attacks? To what extent can drones play a role in military action while keeping our forces safe? How can Labour become a champion for veterans and our forces’ families?
Labour’s 1945 government provided genuinely radical thinking on defence in the immediate post-War period. With Clement Attlee acting as his own defence minister and the hard work and ingenuity of Ernest Bevin, Labour founded NATO and created Britain’s nuclear deterrent. We should resurrect this spirit of ’45.
The defence review closes tomorrow and you can respond here. Bring to mind that famous Kitchener poster. Your party needs you, to contribute to a forward thinking defence policy that moves Labour’s policy on from unhelpful debates and tackles the modern security challenges we face as a nation.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.