What Does a Labour Win Mean for U.K. Defense Policy? – Foreign Policy gnewsplus24

The United Kingdom may have a population of only some 67 million, but militarily it punches far above its weight. It has a large army (though not large enough or as large as it used to be), a powerful air force, and a globe-spanning navy.

If Britain wants to continue to punch above its weight, it needs to spend much more on defense—and such funds aren’t currently available. Think 4.12 percent of GDP—Poland’s current defense expenditure—rather than the slightly more than 2 percent the U.K. currently spends.

An unenviable squaring-the-circle exercise faces the U.K. defense secretary. Fortunately, the new office-holder, John Healey, is a well-respected politician with decades of legislative and governmental experience. Better yet, he spent his time as shadow defense secretary examining every detail of the U.K. military.

In parliamentary democracies, cabinet ministers famously have a habit of arriving in their post with little expertise in the subject matter. Recent U.K. defense secretaries whose appointments I recall include Gavin Williamson, who de facto appointed himself when Michael Fallon resigned in 2017 and a replacement quickly had to be found. (Williamson had no background in national security.)

When Ben Wallace resigned last summer, Grant Shapps was appointed not because he knew anything about defense but because he’s a dependable performer in media interviews. Wallace, who served for an unusually long period of four years, was also unusual in having a military background and, even more so, in seeming genuinely interested in the job. His immediate predecessors, Penny Mordaunt and Williamson, failed to leave a strong mark.

There’s nothing wrong with cabinet ministers arriving in their departments without expertise in their new portfolio: Once in the post, they can quickly pick up a considerable amount of knowledge. The point of cabinet ministers in a parliamentary system is, after all, that they represent the electorate and have their own power bases.

Compare that to the U.S. system, where cabinet secretaries essentially function like state secretaries, European ministries’ No. 2 post (which is often occupied by a civil servant). But today the security situation facing the U.K. and the rest of Europe is such that it’s crucial for Britain to have as its defense secretary someone who can immediately tackle the enormous tasks facing the country’s armed forces.

Luckily for the U.K., Healey is also the person best equipped for the job. He has served the voters in his Yorkshire constituency since 1997; he was also one of the few members of Labour leader Keir Starmer’s shadow cabinet with ministerial experience.

As a minister, Healey had portfolios including finance, local government, and adult skills, and as a member of the shadow cabinet, he especially looked after housing. But for the past four years, he tackled the shadow defense secretary portfolio with extraordinary determination and attention to detail—knowing, of course, that should Labour win, he would likely preside over a ministry facing massive demands and little money.


What happens now that Labour has won and Healey is defense secretary? Initially, not very much, and that’s noteworthy. A Labour win under Jeremy Corbyn five years ago would likely have resulted in reexaminations of Britain’s nuclear deterrent and perhaps even other pillars of its military. Under Starmer and Healey, Britain’s allies don’t have to worry about radical changes.

Indeed, “Labour’s first duty in government will be to keep our country safe,” the party pointedly writes in its manifesto. “Our commitment to NATO as the cornerstone of European and global security is unshakeable,” the party further notes in the manifesto, in which it also lays out its commitment to the nuclear deterrent.

For the past couple of years, Healey and David Lammy, the new foreign secretary who also had the shadow portfolio, have energetically been visiting foreign capitals, especially Washington, to establish closer links with officials and legislators—and to reassure allies that a prospective Labour government would nurture Britain’s international relationships. The two new cabinet secretaries have also been building relationships with Ukraine because steadfast support of the country is another pillar in Labour’s foreign and defense strategy. Indeed, Healey’s first trip—within 48 hours of being appointed—was to Ukraine.

At home, Labour promises to “establish a fully functioning military strategic headquarters and a national armaments director to create a strong defence centre capable of leading Britain in meeting the increasing threats we face.” Perhaps most significantly, the party plans to tackle the divide between the military and the defense industry. Arms-makers’ order books are full, and they can’t quickly expand production, especially since there simply aren’t skilled defense manufacturing workers waiting to be employed.

Governments should be keeping production steady with a larger stream of orders during peaceful times, the defense industry says. Governments, though, are understandably wary of spending large sums on weapons in peacetime. Speeding up arms production when more weapons are needed requires close collaboration between government and industry.

The almost complete lack of such defense industrial strategy has caused the current delays in weapons deliveries to Western armed forces—and in weapons Western governments have decided Ukraine needs. Governments need to work with the defense industry and its considerable supply chain so companies can keep innovation and production going during peaceful times and accelerate their output when international relations take a darker turn.

In its manifesto, Labour makes a valiant attempt at addressing this, promising to “bring forward a defence industrial strategy aligning our security and economic priorities. We will ensure a strong defence sector and resilient supply chains, including steel, across the whole of the UK. We will establish long-term partnerships between business and government, promote innovation, and improve resilience.” If a Labour government succeeds in executing this strategy, allies would be able to adapt and adopt it, too.

But Labour will have to square other circles—most crucially the one concerning Britain’s military ambitions and the defense ministry’s fiscal reality. Even though most Britons have a foggy understanding of what the armed forces do, they take for granted that the military will always be there when something happens.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the armed forces even transported oxygen. Other countries, too, expect the British military to step up in a crisis. That’s why the Red Sea coalition striking the Houthis is fronted by the United States and Britain. Why not France or Germany? Well, that’s just the way the world’s expectations go. And as maritime and terrestrial (and even celestial) realms far from the British Isles become more volatile, the world will expect the U.K. to assist there, too.


Military defense has long tormented social democrats across the world. They want to do what’s best for their country, sure, but over the decades, many leading social democrats have considered a focus on the armed forces and, even worse, weaponry incompatible with their worldview. As chancellor of then-West Germany, Helmut Schmidt went to war, so to speak, with large parts of his Social Democratic Party when he called for U.S. nuclear weapons to be stationed in West Germany.

Four and a half decades later, it took the Russia-Ukraine war to get his successor Olaf Scholz interested in defense. Scholz’s first defense minister, Christine Lambrecht, didn’t seem particularly interested in rebuilding the German military, which led to widespread recriminations and her eventual resignation.

Scholz then realized he needed a serious person in the post and appointed Boris Pistorius, who—unlike most male German Social Democrats—actually did his military service. So successful has the appointment been that Pistorius is now Germany’s most popular politician and has been tipped as a possible successor to Scholz.

In Britain, when Corbyn was opposition leader, Labour’s anxieties over the military reached new heights. More than once, Corbyn, a longtime opponent of NATO and U.K. nuclear weapons, even appeared to side with Russia. After the ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter were poisoned in Britain six years ago, the then-Labour leader wrote an op-ed decrying the attack—while arguing “that does not mean we should resign ourselves to a ‘new cold war’ of escalating arms spending, proxy conflicts across the globe and a McCarthyite intolerance of dissent.”

What a difference five years makes. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Labour’s likely defense policy after this election is how free of ideological hang-ups it is. That’s a good thing for Britain’s security—and for that of its allies.


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