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The UK is heading for isolationism – Labour must present an alternative

In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, the government announced it is increasing the resources allocated to the military and security services. Both play vital roles in ensuring the country’s security. However, a broader analysis of the Conservative’s security strategy...


In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, the government announced it is increasing the resources allocated to the military and security services. Both play vital roles in ensuring the country’s security. However, a broader analysis of the Conservative’s security strategy reveals a government which presents a strong reaction when dealing with the symptoms of insecurity, but is weak on addressing its causes. What alternative could the Labour Party offer?

Next Monday sees the publication of the Strategic Defence and Security Review, which sets out the resources and structures used to meet the country’s security objectives. The government has already committed to spending 2% of GDP on defence but over the last few years it has also severely undermined the UK’s diplomatic capabilities through cuts to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s (FCO) budget. Furthermore, its inability to convince European allies to accept its EU reform agenda has left the UK increasingly isolated and unable to establish the multilateral relationships required to meet new and emerging security threats.

In the short-term, judgement on the Labour Party’s response to Paris will almost inevitably be dominated by a backbench rebellion over airstrikes in Syria. The real question, however, should not be whether to respond militarily or diplomatically, but on which element to emphasise.

Without ruling out military responses to ISIS, Labour needs to ensure that the broader security debate is not dominated solely by the fight on terror. Instead, the Party needs to build on the progressive foreign policy it advanced in its election manifesto. Rather than pulling up the drawbridge and focusing on defence and intelligence, the UK needs a government which can engage with international partners to meet the immediate challenges posed by terrorism, Russia and the migrant crisis and to tackle the key drivers of insecurity: poor governance, poverty, and climate change.

1.   Government policy

The government has a poor track record in developing security strategy. In a series of reports published 2012-2015, it was criticised by the Joint Committee on National Security Strategy for not setting out a common understanding about the UK’s interests and objectives and for maintaining an unrealistic assertion that the there would be no reduction of the UK’s power.

This lack of strategy has important implications for the country’s security. By attempting to maintain a full-spectrum military capacity (tanks, fast jets, submarines, nuclear weapons and carriers) and global reach, the government has limited funding for diplomacy. The FCO’s budget now comprises only 2.7% of UK international spending (compared to defence (72%), development (22%) and intelligence (4%)). The government has also tasked the FCO with finding cuts of between 25-40% in preparation for the Combined Spending Review, an aim the Foreign Affairs Committee notes as being beyond the FCO’s ability and placing a severe strain on language, analytical and diplomatic capabilities.

To meet today’s security threats and be prepared for those of the future, the UK needs to take a lead in Europe and forge strong international partnerships. Instead, David Cameron’s attempts to secure backing for EU reform have lacked substance and vision. Only last month, the Estonian and Finnish leaders said Mr Cameron had failed to provide concrete proposals. At a time when the UK should be reaching out to its allies, the Conservatives have pursued a policy to alienate them, whilst simultaneously reducing the UK’s diplomatic ability to understand its friends and foes, and the complexity of the security challenges facing the country.

2.   Labour’s strategic response

Labour needs to offer the country a realistic security strategy which acknowledges that the UK cannot go it alone. Responding to ISIS will require military action, but long-term approaches to both the terrorist threat and migrant crisis require diplomatic and political solutions to stabilise the Middle East and North African region and sub-Saharan Africa. This in turn necessitates European countries pool their resources. Instead of pulling away from Europe, the UK needs a government which enhances the EU’s capacity to undertake stabilisation missions through the Common Security and Defence Policy. Similarly, to respond to Russia, the UK should be leading in Europe and working with NATO partners to improve NATO’s rapid reaction force, strengthen its presence in the Baltic and re-establish a standing reserve force in Europe.

Labour should also present a more honest assessment of the UK’s security challenges by identifying the root causes of insecurity as follows:

Poor governance – Chronic corruption and poor governance in the Middle East and North African and sub-Saharan Africa drive illegal migration and foster organised crime and terrorism.

Poverty – The sheer wealth differentials between Europe and its neighbourhood create powerful drivers for illegal migration.

Climate change – Degradation of living conditions from climate change undermines fragile institutions and increases risks from terrorism, infectious disease, poverty and food shortages.

To tackle these, Labour must place diplomacy and development at the heart of an alternative National Security Strategy. By itself, however, the UK cannot provide adequate development solutions to address the above problems. Collaboration and integration with allies are the most efficient ways of building prosperity and addressing insecurity. Under the Conservatives, the FCO has been stripped down to a cadre of generalists. A Labour government must reinvigorate the FCO by enhancing its language and regional specialisation capacities and its ability to produce diplomats with a specialist understanding of key international issues.

3.   Internationalism

With emotions running high and a public and press appetite for a firm response to Paris, it will inevitably be challenging for Labour to advocate a security strategy based on diplomacy and development. Yet, however fraught with uncertainty, both represent the only realistic means of achieving long-term security. The Labour leadership must recognise that military and intelligence are essential to preventing further terrorist attacks. The emphasis which they are likely to be given by the Conservatives in the SDSR, however, only equips the country to tackle the symptoms rather than the causes of insecurity.

The UK needs to be leading the international agenda, not following it. Labour must be bold and expose the isolationist path the country is being led down by the Conservative’s illusions of grandeur. Labour must present itself as offering a credible, realistic strategic foreign policy, based on internationalism. It is only by building the UK’s diplomatic capacity and forging lasting alliances that the UK will be prepared to tackle today’s manifestations of insecurity and address its root causes, to create a safer, more prosperous world.

Liam O’Shea

Liam O’Shea is a policy researcher and consultant specialising in international development and security. He has also worked for two Labour MPs.

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