The first duty of any government is to defend the nation and its people. The Paris attacks have demonstrated yet again the complexity and seriousness of the threats we face.
So in an increasingly dangerous security environment, it is clear that the UK needs flexible interoperable capabilities that are able to respond to the terrorist threat, as well as meet our international obligations of collective security to our allies in Nato and the EU. We must also continue to assist with a range of humanitarian interventions – like disaster relief in the Mediterranean and the work done by our forces to combat Ebola – and international peacekeeping via the UN.
UK forces are currently involved in 23 operations of varying types around the world. The number of operations British forces are involved in has increased in recent years because of the complexity of threats that we face. Throughout all of this, we must of course honour our promises to our brave forces personnel through the Military Covenant. Working alongside the Royal British Legion, the Labour Party is proud to have campaigned in the last parliament to get the Military Covenant enshrined in law.
Next week’s Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) needs to spell out how the UK will achieve all of this, whilst also anticipating and preparing for the future challenges that will arise. It is clear that, this time around, the government will need to put forward a Defence Review substantially more thought through than its 2010 predecessor.
That Review was a short-sighted, Treasury-led exercise. It was an SDSR that was strategic in name only, and failed to articulate a coherent vision for the UK’s place in the world. It cut up the Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft, leaving us without the ability to patrol our own waters. It scrapped the Harrier jump jets, leaving us with an aircraft carrier without any aircraft. And it gave us the smallest army since the Napoleonic wars, which is now 2,000 below its minimum target strength. These are decisions the forces and the country are still living with today.
To make matters worse, with thousands of redundancies across the services, pay capped, and pensions eroded, it is no wonder that the morale of our forces has plummeted on David Cameron’s watch. Some personnel have even received redundancy notices in theatre, sometimes days before they would have been eligible for improved pensions. That is no way to treat our servicemen and women, who do so much to provide the security which all of us cherish.
This week, the government will say they are protecting spending at the Ministry of Defence. However, the reality is that they cut defence spending by 14.1 per cent in real terms during the last Parliament. It is becoming clear that only by fiddling the figures have they been able to meet the symbolic Nato target of spending 2 per cent GDP on defence.
Labour has a proud record of supporting our armed forces. The defence budget under the last Labour government rose by an annual average of 1.8 per cent, resulting in the modernisation of the services. We published Britain’s first National Security Strategy, delivered the first cross-governmental approach to forces’ welfare, and strengthened medical care and welfare support for those serving in Afghanistan.
The 2015 SDSR will be judged on how strategic it is, how it fills the gaps created by the botched 2010 Review and how it enhances the UK’s security infrastructure across government. Any reductions to the UK Border Agency, the National Crime Agency or the UK’s diplomatic network would clearly harm the UK’s security.
Crucially, reductions in mainstream, frontline policing would significantly impact on their ability to provide support and incident responses. And cuts to local neighbourhood policing would have a detrimental effect on intelligence gathering. Any such steps would seriously undermine the credibility of SDSR 2015.
News of a UN Resolution on Syria is of course welcome, and must be understood as part of an overall effort to accelerate moves towards a comprehensive settlement in the region. But with the UK facing such a complex set of serious threats to our national security – from Isis, to cyber attacks, to more conventional risks, to name just three – the country cannot afford another Defence Review like the last one.
This Strategic Defence and Security Review must not only spell out how the government intend to make up for the mistakes of the last five years, but, in an an increasingly dangerous world, also outline how they will prepare the UK for the security challenges of the future.