Vernon Coaker MP – Speech to RUSI

Vernon Coaker Labour MP

This is a transcript of the speech delivered by the Shadow Secretary of State for Defence, Vernon Coaker, at RUSI earlier today.

I am honoured to speak to such a distinguished audience at the home of Defence policy and strategic thought: RUSI, which has been at the forefront of many of the best ideas in the field for almost two centuries.

So there is no better setting for me to share my views on the future role of Defence in the UK.

I believe that the time is right for a genuine, far-reaching debate on this issue.

UK defence policy is at a crossroads: UK service personnel will have withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of 2014; plans are already underway to withdraw from Germany; and the repercussions of the economic crisis require the MoD to be more strategic with its resources.

This offers the opportunity to reconsider our vision for Defence from very first principles.

And to ask the most basic and fundamental of all questions: What role do we want Britain’s Armed Forces to play in the world?

Today, I would like to outline the key principles which underpin my thinking and that of the Labour Party.

I want to offer a view of UK Defence priorities that is both ambitious and realistic.

Ambitious: because I believe that to withdraw from the world is not just undesirable, but impossible, and because I believe Britain can play a positive role in the international community.

Realistic: because there are no gains to be made from promising what cannot be delivered.

Ambitious and realistic: These two words will guide my approach as Defence Secretary.

I believe the role of Defence Secretary is not to be unnecessarily hawkish while others seek non-military solutions.

Nor is it to be just an accountant, focusing solely on budgets with little regard for the implications of policy.

Rather, I believe the role requires one to be a leading player on the global stage, promoting British values and acting in Britain’s interests.

I would like to use today’s speech to start a much needed public debate about the role that the UK and our Defence Forces should play in the world; a debate for which there is huge public appetite.

Some are convinced that the results of the Parliamentary vote on Syria last August show that Britain is in the midst of an isolationist transition.

One in which the UK closes itself off from the outside world.

But I disagree.

I believe it shows that, following long and hard conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the public are increasingly wary and weary of foreign military interventions.

Before committing to military action in the future, they understandably expect the Government to ensure that any armed intervention is properly thought-through, with a clear set of well-communicated strategic objectives, and robust exit strategies in place.

We have learned the lessons from the past.

We acted to stop the rush to military action in Syria last summer. Intervention was being pushed too quickly, on a timetable set elsewhere, and without due process being followed.

At the time, Ed Miliband made clear that Labour would only consider supporting international action in Syria if three conditions are met:

Firstly, that the Government produce a set of credible military objectives.

Secondly, that any action is specifically limited to deterring the future use of chemical weapons.

And thirdly, that any proposed action has a clear legal basis.

Of course there are circumstances where intervention can be justified and successful, as demonstrated by the UK’s role in the Falkland Islands, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, and most recently in Libya.

So to ensure that Britain does not sleepwalk into isolationism, I want to make the case for a pragmatic, progressive, and internationalist approach to UK Defence.

The old maxim that the first duty of any Government is to look after its citizens is well-worn, but it is so for good reason.

For us in the Labour Party, this is not an abstract concept, but one which has formed the backbone of every Labour Government over the past century.

I am extremely proud of my Party’s internationalist roots.

Our approach has always been driven by what is in the national interest and our core values of equality, social justice, and democracy.

These ideals have always been reflected in our historical commitment to Defence and to the Armed Forces.

That is why I am proud that my predecessor in this role—Jim Murphy—and my colleagues in the Shadow Defence Team—set up the Labour Friends of the Forces organisation: to better reflect and strengthen our close ties with Forces communities.

We must be ready to face the scale of responsibility that lies before us.

Britain is at its best when we are at our most ambitious, and when we are not afraid to tackle the big issues and answer the big questions with which we are confronted.

Our Defence policy is values-based, multilaterally engaged, progressive, and reformist.

This is the One Nation approach to Defence at home and abroad that I am committed to.

It is one that the people of this country can rightly be proud of; one that is both ambitious and realistic.

Patriotic, but not jingoistic.

Defence is an issue of supreme national importance, so in Opposition, we have always sought to work with other political parties to do what is right in the national interest.

But by the same token, we must also hold the Government to the highest possible standards on Defence.

Anything less would be to compromise national security and to let down our Armed Forces, who selflessly sacrifice so much to protect our country.

In recent years, Defence has at times become too much of a party political issue.

It does not have to be so.

As Defence Secretary, I would ensure that Members from all parties are able to engage appropriately with Defence matters.

To date, the Government has failed to hold an open and far-reaching debate on Britain’s strategic vision.

So today I call on Ministers to re-introduce regular House of Commons debates on Defence and Security, which were lost in the Government’s package of parliamentary reforms.

The weaknesses of the 2010 Security Review have been well documented, so it is not for me to re-hash them at length here.

But we have been clear: the SDSR was fundamentally flawed for lacking in strategy.

The Review was driven primarily by financial considerations, a view shared not only by the incumbent Chief of the General Staff, but also by the Defence Select Committee.

For this reason, I call on the Government to follow our lead in ensuring that the process leading up to the next SDSR is inclusive, involving a series of conferences which are open across the country to the military, academics, and commentators alike, as well as to our allies around the world.

UK Defence does not exist in a vacuum, so the next SDSR must be aligned with and reflect the UK’s broader international agenda.

Labour supported the establishment of the National Security Council, and it is vital that we see the NSC deliver the long-term strategic direction that it was originally established for.

A Labour Government will ensure that the current strategic void will be filled come the next SDSR.

We will ask the questions that the public want asked, and provide the answers that our Armed Forces need answered.

The need for strategic direction is paramount in today’s world.

There is an inherent unpredictability in global events, and the security landscape is continually evolving – as highlighted by the largely unforeseen events of the Arab uprisings and recently in Crimea.

The rise of Asia represents the biggest shift of economic power in recent history, and it has been matched by a geopolitical shift which has seen the US increasingly turn towards the Pacific.

So the nature of Britain’s partnerships with European allies and those further afield is likely to become even more crucial in the years ahead.

While globalisation has produced real possibilities to deliver economic prosperity, spread political freedom and promote peace, it has in some places also led to increased social fragmentation.

Coupled with existing levels of poverty and inequality, this can lead to a rise in conflict, extremism, terrorism and criminality that today spread across borders and can threaten our own security here in Britain.

In a globalised era, it is also true that security threats no longer emanate just from state actors.

From Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines to the floods in the South of England, the effects of climate change are being felt globally.

Similarly, new types of threat—such as cyber—will increasingly test the resilience of UK Critical Infrastructure Networks.

In the face of increasing sophistication, serious questions need to be asked about the nature of the cyber threat facing the UK.

What are the rules of engagement regarding cyber attacks?

Does the concept of deterrence apply in cyber warfare as it does in conventional warfare?

And is the MoD doing enough to recruit the skilled people it needs to enhance cyber defence capabilities?

As we have seen with the recent cyber attacks on NATO websites during the crisis in Ukraine, this threat is now a reality.

Labour has already called on the Government to ensure that every company working with the MoD, regardless of its size or the scale of its work, signs up to a cyber-security charter.

Building on this, we will also consult on the prospect of creating a statutory requirement for all private companies to report serious cyber-attacks threatening the UK’s national infrastructure.

All of these developments demonstrate that we are facing an uncertain set of threats in an uncertain future.

But one thing is certain: these are threats from which Britain cannot afford to shy away.

We must be both ambitious and realistic in how we choose to meet these threats and mitigate the risks.

To do so, we must build on the strengths of the three Services, enabling them to respond to emerging challenges and promote British values and interests.

I am proud of the professionalism and courage of our Armed Forces, some of whom I was fortunate enough to meet on my recent trip to Afghanistan with Ed Miliband.

Our service men and women are the envy of the world, and it is worth re-emphasising again the outstanding job they have done in Afghanistan, together with the hard work that still lies ahead.

Your country is proud of you.

Our Forces have never been held in higher esteem by the British public.

But there is a real danger that once the glare of the media spotlight fades and service personnel return home, they could be forgotten.

We must ensure this does not happen.

The welfare of our Armed Forces must always be our priority.

We will build on the Armed Forces Covenant, to provide the through-life care and support worthy of the sacrifices made by our servicemen and women—and their families.

And we have announced that one of the first acts of a Labour Government in 2015 will be to outlaw discrimination against the Forces and veterans.

But we would be doing our Forces a disservice if we did not restructure them too, in order to meet future challenges.

That is why we support the rationale behind the Future Force 2020 proposals.

I want to see a larger reserve force, with reservists more closely woven into our communities and more effectively integrated with their Regular counterparts.

However, questions remain unanswered about how integration between the Regulars and Reserve will work in practice.

Today I am calling on the Government to hold a series of regional trial military exercises to assess how integration will work on a day-to-day level.

This has been recommended by the Defence Select Committee who have said—and I quote—that “the MoD should set out in more detail, with specific examples, how the plans for Army 2020 were, and are, being tested and challenged”.

These trials will allow for the early identification of any problems and provide sufficient time for their resolution.

I am ambitious because I know that the prize of Armed Forces reform is a great one, and that it builds upon the Services’ best traditions of adaptability and renewal.

But I am also realistic because I believe it is right to be asking questions about the deliverability of these reforms.

With Defence budgets under increasing pressure, we must do more with less. Sound fiscal planning at the MoD must be integrated as part of the UK’s strategic direction.

This will mean coordinating and leveraging our soft—as well as hard—power.

It will mean projecting smart power, developing our partnerships with existing allies and cultivating new ones.

In doing so, we will amplify our international influence.

NATO must continue to be the cornerstone of our multilateral security arrangements.

September’s Newport Summit provides an important opportunity for NATO to reconfigure its strategic direction following drawdown from Afghanistan.

However, ongoing events in Ukraine and elsewhere require continuing discussion from now until the Summit.

But we must also continue our cooperation with our partners throughout the European Union.

I have concerns that the Prime Minister’s approach to the EU is making it more difficult for the UK to take part in crucial debates about the future Defence and Security priorities of the EU.

The uncertainty created by a commitment to an in/out referendum in 2017, on an arbitrary timetable, is also damaging to British Defence companies.

I will ensure that we have a robust strategy for the defence industry in place – one which gives industry the confidence and certainty it needs.

And we will continue to support the Defence Growth Partnership, which has so far been successful, and we look forward to the implementation plan this summer.

And let me say it is incumbent on all of us to point out the damaging consequences of a ‘yes’ vote in the Scottish referendum—including to future jobs and prosperity in the Defence sector—as highlighted recently by for example BAE and Babcock.

Bilaterally, the US has been a longstanding key ally for the UK and we must maintain these close ties, which extend into many aspects of our Defence and Security agenda.

This is an important relationship I strongly believe in.

I will soon visit the US in my capacity as Shadow Defence Secretary, and in Government I would continue to work with our American partners where it is in both countries’ interests.

But our international partnerships must not be viewed just in terms of operational co-operation. As Defence Secretary, I would wish to see greater interoperability, where appropriate.

Operational co-operation must be matched by effective training, equipment, procurement and intelligence-sharing partnerships too.

The signing of the Lancaster House Treaties in 2010 was a positive step forward, which we will look to build on.

Driving out duplication where possible must be at the heart of an ambitious and realistic approach to Defence and Security.

But of course maintaining sovereign military capabilities will remain essential.

That is why Labour has said we are committed to a minimum, credible independent nuclear deterrent, which we believe is best delivered through a Continuous At-Sea Deterrent.

With other nations possessing nuclear weapons, and nuclear proliferation remaining a deep concern, now is not the time for unilateral nuclear disarmament.

And we will continue to scrutinise evidence to ensure the most cost-effective and strategic way of delivering this capability.

In my time as Shadow Defence Secretary, wherever I have gone in the world and whoever I have met, one thing has always struck me.

And that is how deeply other countries in the world care about what the UK thinks, what we are doing, and the direction in which we are headed.

We are a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.

We are a leading nation in the EU, NATO, the Commonwealth, the G20, and the G7.

We have wide-ranging security arrangements with many allies including the Five Power Defence Arrangements.

We have a number of Overseas Territories, such as those in Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands, whose sovereignty and self-determination we are committed to.

And we look forward to bringing at least one operational aircraft carrier into service, which will be an invaluable asset for the projection of UK force.

So we must be confident—but not arrogant—about how much influence we have on the global stage.

As recent events in the Middle East and North Africa have shown, when conflict breaks out, the costs to affected countries can be enormous.

Lives are lost, economies are shattered, and lost generations risk perpetuating cycles of violence.

Nor is the impact confined to state borders, with political upheaval in one country destabilising those around it.

We must recognise the importance of Defence Engagement for stabilisation and upstream conflict prevention in helping to prevent future threats and conflicts.

This is why UK deployment of Non-Commissioned Officers—within a United Nations framework—to countries like Kenya, Malawi and Ghana, is so important.

It enhances relationships with local government and military structures to bolster indigenous security apparatuses in at-risk nations.

Such action will be most effective if it is conducted with clear strategic objectives, working with regional and local partners, and under the framework of multilateral institutions.

These relationships must also be enduring to establish the knowledge and cultural leverage necessary for Defence Engagement to have real results.

I know discussions for deeper Defence Engagement strategies are underway and I welcome this development.

UK forces have done excellent work at the Afghan National Army Officer Academy, our ‘Sandhurst in the Sand’.

Service men and women have successfully worked to increase the capacity and capability of the Afghan National Security Forces so that they can effectively protect their own security post-2014.

Building upon this legacy will be an essential part of any future Labour Government.

We must ensure that our Forces are equipped with the language skills, and the depth of historical, cultural, and strategic knowledge that will be required for such re-orientation. For a start we believe there should be an official history of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts so that lessons can be learnt.

We will look to find ways to build on the excellent work done at our defence academic institutions at Shrivenham, Sandhurst, Cranwell, and Dartmouth—as well as the Defence Sixth Form College at Welbeck—to improve the levels of strategic thinking in the Forces.

As well as preventing conflict, I believe Britain has a leading role to play in keeping peace.

The UK has long played an active part in United Nations peacekeeping missions, and we are the world’s fifth largest provider of assessed contributions to the UN peacekeeping budget.

British military personnel are currently serving with distinction in UN peacekeeping missions in Cyprus, the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan, helping to foster regional peace and security.

Today’s multidimensional peacekeeping operations are called upon not only to maintain peace and security, but for a host of other things too.

To facilitate the political process.

To assist in the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of former combatants.

To support the organisation of elections.

To promote human rights.

And to assist in restoring the rule of law.

Our service personnel – whether infantry soldiers, engineers, medics or communication experts – have the skills essential for successful peacekeeping.

The roles currently played by our Forces in such operations are far-ranging.

From the facilitation of humanitarian activities and the supervision of construction work.

To building the capacity of national police forces.

To reducing the threat posed by armed groups.

I wish to see the UK continuing and deepening our support for such operations and to help provide vital security and stability across the world.

With the deployment of Royal Navy ships, Army helicopters, and RAF reconnaissance and transport planes as part of the recovery effort in the Philippines, we have seen the immense benefit that UK Forces can bring in the wake of natural disasters and humanitarian crises.

We must continue to play our part in responding to such events, providing much-needed logistical support for the timely delivery of life-saving aid.

On all of these issues there is a need for greater cross-departmental cooperation between the FCO, the MOD, and DfID.

And indeed across government.

We would look to build on existing structures to ensure government is better integrated in pursuit of the UK’s strategic objectives.

I believe that Britain must be ambitious about the skills, abilities, and potential of our Armed Forces and their role in the world.

UK Defence policy must reflect our strongly-held values, and we should not shy away from our view— my view— that advocating such values does not stop at our borders.

We must be realistic about what we can and cannot achieve alone, and acknowledge that working with a wider range of partners and multilateral institutions can offer our best chance of realising our strategic ambitions.

UK Defence is at a crossroads, and the public is ready and willing for wide-ranging and open debate on the way forward.

We will lead, encourage and shape that debate, which I hope today’s speech has gone some way towards facilitating.


Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments