Britain cannot afford a defence review that repeats the mistakes of the past
Britain cannot afford a defence review that repeats the mistakes of the past, writes shadow defence secretary John Healey| PA Images
The greatest threat to our national defence is the continued poor treatment of our military personnel. This review must do more for the men and women of our Armed Forces
Defence stands at the heart of any government’s first duty: to keep its citizens safe. Our Armed Forces provide our nation’s security and resilience, as we have seen in the military’s essential role in helping the country to respond to the Covid-19 crisis. They are keeping us safe, and it is right that we do everything we can to keep them safe.
Labour will support the government when it does the right thing on defence and security, and when we act as a force for good in the world. That is part of our duty as the UK’s Loyal Opposition. Equally, it is our duty to challenge ministers and hold the government to account for mistakes, failures and poor decisions. This will be the hallmark of my approach as Labour’s shadow defence secretary.
This is a critical time for defence in the UK and in Western democracies. That is why I want Britain to play a stronger role in leading and backing Nato. It is the cornerstone of Western alliance and will remain central to Labour’s defence and security policy.
The government is conducting its third defence review in just 10 years. As Britain faces more complex threats and conflicts, it is imperative ministers do not repeat the mistakes of the past. In the last two defence reviews, the government has over-promised and under-delivered. Both reviews have been used as a cover for cuts. So we must ensure the government not only delivers on its promises but matches its commitments with resources. Patriotism should be realistic not romantic.
For Labour, first and foremost, this review should safeguard Britain’s capacity to maintain a world-class fighting force. Technological change has long been a driver of strategic threats, but today’s access to technology and the interconnected nature of our world has supercharged the dangers governments must deter, confront or mitigate against.
So of course it is right that this review must focus on emerging threats, hybrid warfare and new domains of conflict. However, we cannot ignore our greatest asset, and that is the men and women of our Armed Forces.
As former chief of the defence staff General Sir Nicholas Houghton said: “We have to ensure there is a balanced investment in our people as well as our equipment. I would argue most strongly that it is our people that give the UK’s Armed Forces our qualitative edge.”
Since 2010 the Conservatives have cut the strength of British Forces by a quarter, with 40,000 fewer full-time troops now than 10 years ago. Our military has never been smaller since Britain fought Napoleon more than 200 years ago. Forces’ pay is down, and an Army private would be on £1,979 more a year if troop salaries had just kept up with inflation. Forces’ morale is down, and satisfaction in service has fallen by 15 percentage points in 10 years, with one in four military personnel now saying they plan to quit before the end of their contract. We need to end this decade of decline. So I want to see the government act on three fronts.
First, give military personnel the priority they deserve with a full chapter in the government’s Integrated Defence and Security Review later this year, just as Labour in government did in 1998. Second, overhaul the country’s Armed Forces Covenant with serving Forces to make good the failings of the last decade. Third, speak up more strongly in public to support the very special service the men and women in our Armed Forces pledge to Britain, including to help the country through this dreadful and still-continuing Covid-19 crisis.
John Healey is Labour MP for Wentworth and Dearne, and shadow defence secretary