When Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour party in 2015, he had more than three decades of experience as a campaigner against the mainstream of UK defence and foreign policy: against foreign interventions; in favour of solidarity with liberation movements across the globe; sceptical of NATO and Atlanticism, but deeply supportive of multilateral internationalism. It was obvious in the 2017 general election campaign that the Conservatives considered national security to be a major vulnerability for Corbyn and a comparative strength for Theresa May in light of her six years as Home Secretary.
In fact, in 2017 Labour offered a tight, well-formed agenda on national security, both in its own proposals for better coordination of diplomacy, development and defence, and in criticising the consequences of austerity on domestic security, including the reduction in police numbers by 20,000 under May’s watch at the Home Office. And as the Conservatives under bus-painter-in-chief Boris Johnson would undoubtedly pull the same levers of Corbyn-criticism in the next general election (which could be sooner than we think), it is both good policy and smart politics for Labour to think seriously about its national security strategy and how a Corbyn premiership would reshape Britain’s place in the world.
Ahead of Armed Forces Day at the end of June, Jeremy Corbyn announced that a Labour government would reverse the impact of austerity on the pay and conditions of UK armed forces. This pledge was consistent with a clear commitment since the 2017 general election that a Labour government would take seriously the need to improve the conditions of service for the thousands of men and women who serve in Britain’s armed forces. That pledge is part of a wider set of policy ideas that the party has developed, focusing on how a Labour government would transform the UK’s approach to the linked areas of diplomacy, defence and development policy.
For example, in a speech at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in June 2018, shadow defence secretary Nia Griffith called for ‘a vision that is informed by the threats that we face, that is underpinned by our values, and which is not simply driven by the Treasury’. On values, Griffith emphasized that Labour is a ‘proudly internationalist party’ and that the UK ‘works best when we unite with our allies and partners’ to confront shared challenges. A key plank of this vision is upholding the authority and effectiveness of the United Nations and the wider rules-based international order. To do this, Griffith argued that the UK must adopt ‘pro-active’ engagement in international institutions and respect for international law. She quoted Jeremy Corbyn to underline this connection between domestic and international security: ‘The best way to protect the British people…is to work to resolve conflict’ across the globe.
Since the 2017 general election, Labour has developed a series of practical ideas to demonstrate how this internationalist vision would be implemented. It has proposed a substantial increase in the UK contribution to UN peacekeeping missions, including more UK equipment and capabilities made available to these missions, including intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets, logistics and medical capabilities; a trebling of the UK’s financial contribution to such operations; the offer of pre-deployment advice and support to UN troop-contributing countries; and also an offer of UK personnel to accompany UN peacekeeping deployments in advisory, partnership and mentoring capacities. All of these proposals would potentially improve the ability of UN personnel and non-governmental organizations to operate and deliver services in conflict zones. Griffith’s speech at RUSI imagined the UK military under Labour contributing to a collective UN effort ‘to prevent humanitarian challenges from becoming humanitarian disasters’.
Under Corbyn’s leadership, Labour has also consistently voiced scepticism about the rise of outsourcing in defence contracts with the private sector, both in terms of service quality (for example in housing), and the impact on employment conditions and wages. The party has explored defence procurement reform – as Griffith noted in her RUSI speech, ‘the case for buying British is clear’ – and a Labour government would try to ensure that future defence procurement decisions took greater account of the potential for each bid to bring jobs and wider investment into the UK economy.
These policies form a coherent whole with Labour’s wider national security agenda. For example, the 2017 general election manifesto called for close coordination of diplomacy, defence and development policy, to ensure that the UK pursued a human rights-led foreign policy that supported multilateralism, upheld the UK commitment to overseas development and took seriously the need to protect human rights when approving arms sales. This last point is significant as the UK government currently intends to appeal a court ruling that its arms sales to Saudi Arabia were unlawful and did not follow a sufficiently robust process for assessing violations of international humanitarian law in the Yemen conflict. It is difficult to imagine a future Labour government approving similar arms deals or adopting anything other than a policy of calling for redoubled international efforts to find a negotiated peace in Yemen.
National security and the language of priorities
But where should Labour go next? The current Conservative leadership contest is monopolising political reporting. One of the candidates – admittedly the one who is expected to lose, Jeremy Hunt – has committed to boosting defence spending by £15bn over the next five years. Boris Johnson is also likely to promise to spend money on all kinds of things – even he probably doesn’t know what yet. But whatever the different spending and tax promises made during the contest, the government is likely to hold a comprehensive spending review before the end of the year. It is also meant, in theory, to hold a review of UK national security strategy and a related strategic defence and security review in 2020. Frankly, it makes little sense to hold a major review of UK defence and security strategy after deciding departmental budgets in a spending review. Strategy must come first; resources should follow.
After an underwhelming mini-review of defence published in December 2018, and a similarly incremental review of wider national security capabilities earlier in 2018, the UK needs a fresh assessment of its national security strategy and combined defence and security requirements. This would be true for a Conservative government in the midst of Brexit-related uncertainties and would be even more true for a new, Labour government that promises a very different approach to defence and security issues and Britain’s role in the world.
Labour should therefore call for the government to align any upcoming spending review with a parallel strategic defence and security and national security review. It should repeat its 2017 pledge to undertake a fresh SDSR once it enters office. As far as possible, the starting point for such a review shouldn’t be the Treasury’s bottom line on expenditure, but rather the Labour government’s considered and comprehensive assessment of its national security objectives and the ways and means required to achieve them.
With the Conservative party in disarray, it would also be sensible for Labour to talk more about the mechanics of national security, so dispelling the notion that the party could not offer ‘strong and stable’ government. In opposition David Cameron commissioned a series of policy reviews to prepare for government, one of which produced the idea that ultimately became the national security council. Corbyn should clarify whether or not he will keep the national security council and its supporting network of advisers and committees. There is plenty of scope for reforms here, for example in opening up the system to a greater diversity of viewpoints and experiences, becoming better at challenging the analysis that supports policy recommendations and improving the process for identifying when policies are failing and how to change course. In No 10, Corbyn and the shadow cabinet will find the pace of government is much faster than in opposition, so it’s best to start planning now. And talking more about these issues can only help voters to see Labour as a serious government-in-waiting.
The 2015 national security strategy framed the UK’s approach as revolving around three priorities: the need to protect Britain; promote its prosperity; and project its values around the world. This is a very top-level framework, so vague that would be consistent with very disparate policies, but thinking in terms of protection, prosperity and promoting values is helpful because it provides as a way of framing some of the choices and trade-offs that any government will face. It’s been clear, for example, since the 2017 manifesto that on arms sales a Labour government would make decisions that put more emphasis on human rights than on business for the UK arms industry. It’s right to frame this as a choice: if Labour’s arms export policy is going to have an impact on that industry, then how will Labour address this, for example by ensuring other outlets for defence manufacturing (and research and development) in the UK? Thinking holistically helps to trace the different, overlapping effects of each decision and this understanding is the starting point to developing a coherent set of policies that address all the most important concerns
Similarly, it’s very difficult to imagine a Corbyn government using UK armed forces unilaterally or in ‘coalitions of the willing’ that lack the clear legitimacy of a UN security council resolution. This is a clear, consistent line and it also seems in keeping with popular sentiment and war-weariness after nearly two decades of unending conflict in the global war on terror. Jeremy Corbyn’s signature foreign policy theme is the promotion of peaceful resolution of conflicts across the globe (he even has a shadow minister for peace, Fabian Hamilton). In doing so, however, Corbyn needs to be mindful of Michael Walzer’s cautionary note that a foreign policy of the left must avoid overly-optimistic ‘insistence on the reasonableness of people who give no sign of being reasonable’.
For example, a Corbyn premiership would be likely to withdraw government support for arms sales to Saudi Arabia. This might well command significant domestic support in light of the suffering in Yemen. But no one should believe for a moment that this is likely to lead to a swift end to fighting in Yemen. For one thing, US support matters more. And, as unintended as it would be, one consequence of any fragmentation of international support for the Saudi-led intervention might well be that Houthi leaders and their Iranian backers redouble their efforts against an adversary that was losing international support. In the absence of outright victory, conflicts only end when both sides no longer see anything to be gained by continued fighting.
A Corbyn government would make Britain a strong advocate for peace and conflict resolution, but it would need to think creatively and pragmatically about the best options to pursue these objectives on each occasion. Of course, this can be done on an ad hoc basis, but it’s far better to start thinking about these issues as early as possible, and in as coherent as possible a manner, even if events will require flexibility and the need to recalibrate (perhaps repeatedly) once in government. A Labour government that is seriously committed to protecting Britain, promoting its values overseas, and using all the levers of government to drive the increasing prosperity that will enable it to combat inequality at home and abroad, will need to think carefully about all the instruments of national power at its disposal.
Only a full spectrum review will help to clarify and crystallise the government’s priorities, and therefore to create the platform to determine precisely which defence, diplomatic, development, and intelligence capabilities are required to deliver these priorities. The next general election might be just around the corner. As a government, you can only address today’s problems with the capabilities you have developed in the past. As an opposition aiming to meet the challenges of tomorrow, you must start planning today.