Healey: “Britain needs a national strategy which is relentlessly pragmatic”

John Healey
© Richard Townshend/CC BY 3.0

Below is the full text of Shadow Defence Secretary John Healey’s speech to the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) this evening.

Thank you all for your interest and attendance this evening. And a special thank you to RUSI for hosting me here at the IoD. The whole country is concerned that government gets decisions on defence and security right, and I know this is what motivates many of you to contribute so expertly to public policy and debate – I thank you also for this.

In my last speech to RUSI, I set out a series of tests for the government’s integrated review (IR) one month before it was published in March 2021. Now, before next month’s updated integrated review and spring Budget, I aim to do the same.

Back in 2021, I also outlined Labour’s four core principles on defence and security: our unshakeable commitment to NATO and the UK’s nuclear deterrent; our highest priority as the UK’s security in Europe, the North Atlantic and the high North – the NATO area; our dedication to international law and human rights, as well as the treaties and organisations that uphold them; and our determination to direct British defence investment first to British business, with a higher bar set for decisions to buy abroad. These Labour principles have not changed. But the world has.

What the integrated review described in 2021 as a new era of systemic competition has blown up into the largest war in Europe since 1945. The UN charter’s prohibition on changing international borders by force – the central principle of our current global order – has been brutally disregarded. We have war in Europe. A Chinese build-up around Taiwan. The collapse of Western presence in Afghanistan. The withdrawal from Mali. And the Iran nuclear deal in danger.

While the war narrows the space for international cooperation, the world still needs to tackle the global problems that confront us all – climate change, growing food poverty, mass refugees, pandemic infections and spreading economic protectionism.

This is why David Lammy recently outlined Labour’s vision for Britain Reconnected. David and I both served in the last Labour government. We’re good friends and we work very closely as Shadow Foreign Secretary and Shadow Defence Secretary. We know, as George Robertson said in Labour’s 1998 SDR, that “sound defence is sound foreign policy”. That’s why the first goal for FCDO’s mission under a Labour government is for “Britain to Reconnect to defend the UK’s Security, with strong armed forces and resilience against 21st century threats.”

We are approaching the first-year anniversary since President Putin launched his illegal invasion of Ukraine. A bloody milestone. A grave moment. In Kyiv last year, just before the invasion, their former Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenysuk said to David and me that “Western unity is Ukraine’s best defence”. We told him then that there would be total unity here in the UK, total solidarity with Ukraine and total condemnation of Russia.

Because we understood: Putin’s aim is not simply to take Ukraine. We are facing a dictator ready to use armed force to redraw the map of Europe. He displays contempt for international institutions, humanitarian law and rules of military conflict. He wants to destroy the unity of the West.

A year on, there is no sign Putin’s strategic aims have changed. Russia is far from a spent force, despite the massive damage Ukraine has inflicted on its military. And Putin is expanding his war effort, massing troops and fire power for further offensives with his industry on wartime production. Ukraine has been fighting Russia for nine years now, not one. This is long term. The next government will inherit the Ukraine conflict and Russia’s wider aggression.

With a general election, there may be a change in government, but there will be no change in Britain’s resolve to confront Russia’s threats, pursue Putin’s crimes and stand with Ukraine. The UK’s crisis response to Ukraine has been strong, and I certainly give credit to the Defence Secretary for his action since the invasion. I welcome the £2.3bn the government allocated for Ukraine last year and this year; and the £560m for stockpiles.

On Britain’s military help to Ukraine and on reinforcing NATO allies on the Russian border, the government has had – and will continue to have – our fullest Labour support. But ministers must move from ad hoc announcements to more systematic support. That’s why Labour is arguing for ministers to set out a full 2023 action plan for military, economic and diplomatic support to help give Ukraine confidence in a sustained stream of future supplies; to urgently ramp up our own industry; to encourage allies to do more; and to make clear to Putin that things will get worse, not better for Russia.

As a former National Security Adviser told me recently: “Ukraine changes everything.” In truth, there has been a void in government vision about “what next”. No country comes out of a war as it went in, and there’s been strategic inertia from British ministers over any domestic or international rethink.

The central question is: Can this government rise to respond to this challenge in next month’s new integrated review and spring Budget? Or are ministers too concerned with week-to-week survival to face the major decisions to secure the country’s future?

Since the Ukraine conflict began, 25 NATO nations have rebooted defence plans and budgets. Chancellor Scholtz discarded decades-long German policy and boosted defence spending by E100bn. President Macron has promised the same budget increase. Poland, Estonia, Lithuania will all raise spending to 3% of GDP on defence this year. Finland and Sweden overturned decades of non-alignment and applied to join NATO.

One year on, where is Britain’s reboot in defence planning or spending? Labour has argued for this since last March. Not just to respond to Putin’s invasion but to fix the flaws in the integrated review, which were clear at the time and have become much clearer after Ukraine.

So we welcomed PM Liz Truss’ announcement of the IR update. First promised before the end of last year, now due before the spring Budget. She also pledged to spend 3% of GDP on defence by 2030, though this has proved no more than a pitch to win the Conservative leadership election. We must judge ministers by their actions, not their words.

Since the invasion, there has been no new money allocated to the defence budget. None. There was no new money for defence in Kwasi Kwarteng’s £160bn ‘mini budget’, nor in Jeremy Hunt’s autumn statement. In fact, as the Conservatives have crashed the economy, weakened the pound and sent inflation soaring. Defence budgets are being squeezed even further, just as threats against the UK are increasing. Of course, it’s not just how much you spend on defence that counts, but also how well you spend it. Over £5bn has been wasted since 2019 alone in poor MoD procurement. This is failing British troops and British taxpayers.

We look forward to the Budget next month, when the Chancellor has promised: “The Prime Minister and I both recognise the need to increase defence spending.” Next month’s IR and Budget together will show whether this government has the strength to secure the country’s future or whether they’ll fudge the finances and delay major decisions until after the next election.

When we look back at the integrated review, there are many positives which we need to preserve. Britain needed a statement of UK grand strategy post-Brexit. We have great strengths to draw on, so we should have the national ambition to become a “science and tech superpower by 2030”. The IR rightly said: “State threats to the UK are growing and diversifying.” It identified Russia as “the most acute direct threat” to the UK and China as a ‘systemic competitor’. This designation given to China should stand. It is well-grounded and consistent with our allies approach in NATO. And there was also a need – before the IR – to increase spending on defence equipment and infrastructure to catch up on a decade of cuts since 2010.

But there were serious flaws in the IR. It was trumpeted by Boris Johnson as a national tilt to the Indo-Pacific – economic, diplomatic, trade and military; so there was no vision for the UK’s leading role in NATO. Conservative Ministers could barely bring themselves to mention the European Union; so by taking defence and security out of Brexit negotiations, Boris Johnson has left a Europe-shaped hole in British security strategy. It was heavy on the go-it-alone view of ‘Global Britain’; so there was insufficient recognition that Britain is a bigger force for good in the world when we act with allies.

The 2021 IR failed to foresee a Taliban takeover in Afghanistan four months later; or anticipate that Putin could invade Ukraine less than a year later. This is not to be wise after the event but to make the most important point that we were unprepared for such possible future conflicts, which is a failure of military and political leadership.

Importantly, the government’s strategic objectives were undermined by the IR process itself, by the spending cuts that were decided at the same time and by a mismatch between IR strategy and departmental plans.

The last IR was largely conducted behind closed doors. Even within government, it was anything but ‘integrated’. Work was carried out in silos. Some decisions, like merging DFID, were taken entirely outside the IR, and there’s no mention of how the FCDO was going to deal with the sudden cuts in overseas development assistance that are doing such damage to the UK’s reputation as a reliable international partner.

With threats increasing, the IR boasted Britain’s military will [to] pursue “persistent global engagement”, yet the MoD is cutting another 10,000 troops, scrapping Hercules planes and dropping to 148 Challenger tanks. These are the troops reinforcing NATO allies. The planes used in the Kabul airlift. The tanks being sent to Ukraine. And the £16.5bn pre-IR boost to defence capital spending was quickly swallowed up by the MoD’s budget blackhole. Leading the National Audit Office [to] conclude in its more recent assessment of the MoD’s equipment plan that the government cannot currently afford to develop all the capabilities set out in the 2021 integrated review.

For the new integrated review, let me offer some new tests. The UK’s strategic priorities have to be clear. The gung-ho promotion of ‘global Britain’– which all too often means ‘anywhere but Europe’ – must end. This is no time for ideology to drive policy. Labour accepts Brexit. We will not be rejoining the European Union, the single market or the customs union. But the Tories’ post-Brexit blindspot on Europe must be corrected. We must rebuild relationships with our European allies to make Brexit work. Which is why Labour will seek a defence and security pact with the EU and new defence agreements with leading European allies like Germany.

Britain’s security strategy must be ‘NATO first’. The first priority for Britain’s armed forces must be where the threats are greatest, not where the business opportunities lie. This is in the NATO area – Europe, the North Atlantic, Arctic. This is our primary obligation to our closest allies. After Ukraine, European allies will have to take on more responsibility for European security.

The IR update must secure Britain as NATO’s leading European nation – which will be a Labour mission in government. It must outline the contribution the UK will make to NATO as it focuses on future Russian aggression, the Arctic opening up with climate change and a strategy to challenge and compete with China. And it must ensure our NATO obligations are fulfilled in full, answering the growing questions about critical capabilities that undermine the UK’s commitment to the Alliance – the size of the British Army, problems with AJAX, delays to Wedgetails, doubts about fielding a war-fighting division.

As the broad Western coalition imposing sanctions on Russia has shown, some of our strongest and most reliable allies are in the Asia Pacific. We share their concerns about China’s growing military power and assertiveness. We can support them with UK technology, capability, diplomacy. And of course, closer defence industrial cooperation like AUKUS and the Tempest future fighter programme.

However, our Indo-Pacific military commitments need realism. British Armed Forces are ill-served by leaders pretending they can do everything, everywhere. Especially as – over the last 13 years – UK full-time forces have been cut by over 45,000, one in five of the Navy’s surface ships have been scrapped and over 200 RAF planes have been taken out of service. Just as we would not expect Japan or Australia to deploy much of their military to Europe, nor does it make sense – especially at this moment – for UK forces to devote an increasing share of their scarce resources to the Indo-Pacific.

Responding to the challenges of China goes beyond what we do in the Indo-Pacific. As NATO’s secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said last week in Japan: “Ukraine demonstrates how security is interconnected, demonstrates how what happens in Europe has a consequence for East Asia and also what happens in East Asia matters for Europe.” Security is not regional but global.

The Defence Secretary himself conceded to me in the Commons last week, that “we have hollowed out and underfunded” our forces. This is a frank admission of failure over 13 years of Conservative government. Time and again, visible capabilities – especially large, expensive platforms which would only come into service in the long term – were given priority over effective capabilities needed for military use here and now. Time and again, a modernised war-fighting division has been promised, but each time a decade away.

Today, the biggest risk facing the UK military is that large parts of it are underprepared for conventional conflict in Europe. Lacking spare parts, munitions and specialist personnel. NATO is rightly doing what it can to avoid escalation to direct conflict with Russia. But deterring such escalation means we need to be prepared for it.

So like 2021, alongside a new IR, we should have a new defence command paper. This must make clear how we meet NATO’s demand for greater force commitments and should halt further cuts to the British Army.

There is also the immediate need for a stockpiles strategy to sustain support for Ukraine and rearm Britain. Ukraine is depleting our military stockpiles, and the government is acting too slowly to replenish them. Take the NLAW anti-tank missiles that have been vital to Ukraine. It was 287 days after the invasion before the MoD got its act together and signed a new contract, with the first newly-made NLAW not due until 2024. We need to shift parts of our defence industry and MoD procurement on to an ‘urgent operational footing’, both to support Ukraine for the long term and to rebuild UK stocks for any future conflict.

These concerns will be the basis for Labour’s own strategic defence and security review within the first year of government. But let me end where I started. The war in Ukraine is raging now. Global threats and challenges are increasing now. Britain needs a national strategy, which is relentlessly pragmatic and patriotic in promoting the security and prosperity of our people. That’s why we want the government to get this new IR right. If it does, then Labour will be the first to support it.

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