Even prior to delivery, Jim Murphy’s speech on why the UK needs a new model of preventative intervention, had elicited controversy as a result of the decision to have the Henry Jackson Society host the event. Defence and security policy is still a sensitive subject, at least among Party members and supporters; and the issue of whether it was right to invade Iraq has yet been laid to rest, despite Ed Miliband’s 2010 conference admission that the Iraq war was ‘wrong’.
Heralded as a major policy intervention, the question is whether Jim Murphy’s speech announced a new direction for Labour defence and security policy. The speech outlines a new model of preventive intervention to be utilised to protect British interests in situations where instability and weak governments permit extremism to thrive. The approach should be comprehensive – encompassing development, diplomacy and defence – and proactive – seeking to prevent threats from materialising. Intervention would be by the invitation of local governments, with UK forces working in partnership with their hosts. As Jim Murphy states: ‘The core component of preventive intervention must be an enhanced focus on investing in the capacity of at-risk nations to defend themselves’. Also highlighted are the needs for Britain to cooperate with other European States in doing so, and to engage with regional organisations, helping them to improve their ability to respond to local crises. More precise, technical prescriptions are also advanced.
However, prevention cannot always work and: ‘Military intervention will of course at times be necessitated in response to events’, by reference to Sierra Leone and Kosovo (but not to Iraq). According to Jim Murphy:
‘Such action should rest on the principles of international law, certainty of strategic objectives; acting under the banner of multilateral institutions; working with regional partners; and clarity over our national interest.’
Here, it might be thought, is the rub, at least for those viscerally opposed to the use of military force.
In his 1999 speech on the doctrine of the international community, Tony Blair set out five considerations for deciding whether or when to intervene militarily: Are we sure of our case? Have we exhausted all diplomatic options? Are there military operations we can sensibly and prudently undertake? Are we prepared for the long term? And do we have national interests involved? A reading of Jim Murphy’s speech does not suggest a new approach.
There is less rhetoric about the international community and more talk about interests rather than values; but these are simply differences in nuance. The new model is one proposed for reasons of efficacy, not least given the UK’s necessarily limited resources, not of the result of a decision to eschew, as a matter of principle, the use of military force abroad.
One might think Labour’s credibility in defence matters demands no less, despite the reservations of elements within the Party. But, as the past has proved (and many consider that Tony Blair did not practice what he preached when deciding to participate in the invasion of Iraq), it is when applying general principles to specific cases that difficulties arise, particularly when some of those principles are very general indeed. Given this, perhaps the decision to have the Henry Jackson Society host the event should be seen as the signal which some of the group’s detractors claim it to be.
Matthew Happold is a member of Labour International and the Lëtzebuerger Sozialistesch Arbechterpartei