Trident, Afghanistan, Labour’s Defence Review

I’ve said in previous posts, and in the House of Commons, that we in Labour need to rethink our position on key aspects of Foreign and Defence Policy.  Trident and Afghanistan are uppermost in many people’s minds, yet our approach to those issues remains sluggish – indeed we are presently in danger of being outflanked by the Government on at least one of those issues.  The resignation of the UK’s envoy to Afghanistan, Sir Sherard Cowper Coles, and the sacking of General McChrystal, this week are both important events. Essentially, the McChrystal assumptions about Afghanistan make too much play of the military and too little of the diplomatic and political.  These assumptions drive the US policy which President Obama is committed to. We in the UK remain wedded to a policy, if we can really call it that, of waiting to see what the United States tells us to do next.  Crucially, though, David Cameron is quietly making it clear that he expects some kind of modest early change in the level or nature of our commitment next year and a lot more the year after that.  Liam Fox, the Defence Secretary, has also been careful to sound ambivalent about the current state of play.  Labour, meanwhile, is committed to our pre-election stance to the extent that we show no appetite at all for new thinking.  In truth, on foreign and defence policy our position is more conservative than the Conservatives and that is a fundamentally bad place for us to be.

On Trident replacement, not really a Defence issue at at all but rather a cold national strategic and political one, the Lib Dems and Tories remain determined to leave our nuclear deterrent out of the Strategic Defence Review.  Their official justification is that we voted to replace the old subs back in 2007 and the matter should rest there.  No-one at all truly thinks this is a serious attempt to justify an otherwise inexplicable decision to leave our largest strategic defence asset out of a strategic review of defence.  Of course, the argument presented by the government at face value would mean little else would change with the new government, since many things have been voted on since 2007.  And that would be nonsensical.  So, of course, we are left to assume that the government is afraid of the geopolitical implications of a decision by the UK to look seriously at its nuclear deterrent.  But why is Labour afraid?  Is it really correct to assume that a call to include Trident replacement in the Defence Review would lead the public to assume that Labour had returned to the desperate days of the early 1980s?  That’s the assumption under which we are operating at present.  And it’s so terribly flawed.  A sensible call to look carefully at Trident replacement, and indeed at our present strategy on Afghanistan, would be welcomed by the great majority of people, I think. They want to see us look for the best ways of protecting people and the best ways of spending public money – not obsessing about the cold war context of 30 years ago.

We in Labour should commission our own Defence Review – one which includes Trident.  We should be prepared think imaginatively and boldly about our foreign and defence policies, including – most pressingly – Afghanistan.  I sense that some important players agree with that now, and if the argument gathers pace then Labour and the nation can only benefit.

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By-election STATS

Just driven back from Springburn, in Glasgow, where I was alerted to Dave Maddox of the Scotman’s point that the Falkirk West by-election of Christmas 2000, where I was the beneficiary of a quite brilliant Labour campaign, was the highest ever turnout in a by-election.  It made me think of two things.

The SNP actually recorded more votes in the by-election than it did in the subsequent General Election.  That’s not a slur on the SNP, more of a testimony to parties’ abilities to get the vote out when it matters.  It’s a striking statistic.  In fact, my by-election was held a few days before Christmas and the relatively high turnout is all the more amazing for it.

In addition, David Kerr, who was my opponent in 2000 and whom I think has probably lost again tonight  (Springburn is very Labour and Willie Bain is a very strong, local, candidate) surely deserves a list MSP seat for the SNP in 2011.  I found him to be a thoroughly decent man and his successful career at the BBC was not a small thing to pass over (for the second time) in order to take on another task always likely to be beyond the reach of the SNP.  Again, I don’t mean to disparage the SNP; it’s simply a comment on David Kerr’s personal sacrifice for his cause.  It’s the wrong cause, of course (!) and he’s chosen to take the risk on, but the fact is that it’ll be hard for the BBC to take him back again and folk who stand up for something they believe in deserve a bit of support from those who can help.