Shadow Defence Secretary Jim Murphy said defence was the first responsibility of government, as he launched Labour’s consultation on the party’s vision for UK defence policy earlier this week.
The consultation laid out three key areas of focus: the current security landscape and threats to the UK; our strategic approach in terms of national values and international collaboration; and defence infrastructure including kit, equipment and capability.
Having never heard Mr. Murphy speak before, I have to say I was impressed. Speaking at Policy Exchange, he was supportive of the Afghanistan mission (noting though, that it is increasingly “calendar-led”, rather than “conditions led”) and agreed with Foreign Secretary William Hague’s recent comments that the Arab Spring will be as defining for the international security landscape as 9/11. However, when the inevitable criticism of Coalition policy came, it was delivered with a dry wit and he came across as an incredibly reasonable man.
Quick to position Labour as a defence-friendly party, Mr. Murphy was particularly critical of the Government’s cuts to the Ministry of Defence budget, saying “David Cameron has shown an ambivalence towards defence policy which lies in stark contrast to the commitment shown by previous leaders, including Tony Blair or even Margaret Thatcher… The government’s rushed review has been driven by savings not strategy. The government did not match ends with means, precipitated strategic shrinkage by stealth and has left us with dangerous capability gaps.”
While light on detail – perhaps to be expected from a shadow minister in a consultation document – there were three points that points in particular that stood out:
- BIOTERROR. I was expecting cyberterrorism to be pointed to as a key threat, but not bioterror. While I agree in the long-term, in the immediate future I’m of the mind-set that more damage can be done through cyberterrorism than with anthrax, small pox or virulent strains of bird flu
- The C-word: there’s not a politician in town that doesn’t use the c-word…cuts. What was interesting, though, was the language used by Mr Murphy, referring to a “coalition of cuts” when describing how countries – particularly those in Europe – should collaborate on defence policy in terms of budget
- Values, not just interests: refreshing to hear a politician acknowledge in plain English that defence policy is at least in parts driven by values – not just national interests; in other words, let’s be clear that we’re not in Afghanistan strictly to protect Britain from terrorism, but to also build a democracy. Values usually get lumped with development policy, and Mr. Murphy and one of the other speakers, RUSI’s Malcolm Chalmers, both reiterated that defence and development could not operate in isolation. Maj. General Tim Cross also spoke, and he made compelling points about the need to consider the infrastructures of peace when entering in to conflict – this resonated with me in particular given my work with the Global Peace Index
I was expecting more meat on the policy bones, but I was nonetheless impressed by Mr. Murphy. Time will tell whether Labour is in fact the “party of defence” that it is trying to position itself as, but I certainly expect to see more from Mr. Murphy in the future.