Global Britain is in retreat – we must assert our soft power and invest in our armed forces
The United Kingdom is interdependent, interwoven, and inextricably linked to the rest of the world in our challenges, opportunities and responsibilities. This is a principle leaders of our great nation should understand and live-by. The notion that we can be masters of our own destiny by ignoring these truths is pure fantasy.
To prevent this century being one of further decline for our country, we need a government that will start acting like the global player, and force for good, the public and our allies expect.
While they have done the right thing on Ukraine, the truth is that on every other front, the Tories have forced Global Britain into retreat. The United Kingdom’s recent history of political turmoil, scandal, and government threats to break international law meant we arrived at the greatest threat to peace and stability since the Cold War with our name carrying less cachet and our word less consequence.
The Tories have failed Britain’s troops and taxpayers, and the refreshed Integrated Review risks being too late to repair the damage
What can we do about it? Meeting the challenges of this century requires a new internationalism that reasserts British soft power while guaranteeing the capability of our hard-powered armed forces.
First, the basics. Between Liz Truss insulting the French President, Boris Johnson using Afghanistan as a bolt-hole, and the current Prime Minister until very recently considering legislation that would break international law (the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill) or dilute human rights (removing Britain from the European Concention on Human Rights (ECHR) our reputation has been sullied. While the recent agreement on Northern Ireland has been a welcome step, the next Labour government must do more to repair damaged relationships and, where advantageous, align the UK with our European allies who share most of our foreign policy objectives.
Second, we must restore foreign aid to 0.7 per cent of Gross National Income (GNI). Rishi Sunak's decision to cut aid spending by £1.7bn was as mean as it was self-defeating, particularly when you consider how much money has been wasted.
The moral case notwithstanding, improving international stability will blunt mass-migration, which will only get worse as climate change causes greater displacement. If the Prime Minister honestly wanted to “stop the boats” long-term, he would never have slashed the aid budget.
But soft power is not just food parcels and diplomacy. It's the British Council that promotes our values overseas but had to close 20 offices after cuts from this government. It’s our musicians who can no longer tour because of this government’s botched Brexit deal. It’s the world’s most trusted news source, the BBC, struggling with its international output after government funding was scrapped over a decade ago. A Labour government should enhance our soft power capabilities, not least Britain’s precious cultural exports.
Finally, with more hostile actors confident about showing their military strength, a Labour government must guarantee our armed forces are properly resourced to counter these threats. Shamefully, the Tories have slashed full-time personnel by over 45,000, axed 20 per cent of the Navy’s surface fleet, and decommissioned 200 RAF planes in the last five years alone. Boris Johnson even wanted to scrap the tanks we are now sending to Ukraine.
As a United States general put it, Britain no longer boasts a “top-level” fighting force. The Defence Secretary himself conceded that the Conservative government has “hollowed out” our forces, and when the need has never been clearer, they have not clearly resiled from their plan to cut a further 10,000 troops. Adding insult, they have blown £15bn through bungled MOD procurement. That’s enough to pay the wages of 50,000 personnel for nearly a decade.
This is a failure in the most fundamental duty of the state – to keep its people safe. While we rightly supply defence equipment to Ukraine, and should consider further opportunities to support, the government’s myopic defence policy means we now need to worry about what might be left should crises erupt elsewhere, not least if tensions with China escalate.
Shadow Defence Secretary John Healey is right, the Tories have failed Britain’s troops and taxpayers, and the refreshed Integrated Review risks being too late to repair the damage. Britain must always be Nato’s leading European nation and Keir Starmer has been unequivocal, Labour’s support for the alliance is unshakeable. Seventy years after Nato was spearheaded by a Labour foreign secretary, I know we can provide the leadership and strategy our allies expect and deserve.
Britain should always punch above its weight. We can and will again, but that means facing up to some hard truths. More than one year on from Russia’s invasion, now is as good a time as any. In an age of uncertainty, the UK needs a government with a strategy that understands shouldering our global responsibilities is interwoven with our security and prosperity.
As President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on the steps of Westminster Hall, "The world needs your leadership, Britain, just as it needs Ukrainian bravery."
Dan Jarvis, Labour MP for Barnsley Central and former British Army officer. Part of the Best for Britain Rose Book series.
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