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Will Sir Keir Starmer’s new defence commitments undermine peace advocacy?

In an op-ed published in today’s the Daily Mail, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has laid out an unequivocal vision for the UK’s defence policy, reinforcing his party’s commitment to the nuclear deterrent and seeming to align closely with existing Conservative narratives on national security. His declaration, heralded by some commentators as ‘Labour is the party of defence’ represents a significant moment for his party, suggesting a strategic alignment that could redefine the party’s more recent stances on defence and military engagement.

Sir Keir himself summed it up in a social media message: “My changed Labour Party is totally committed to our nation’s defence. We back our Armed Forces. We back our nuclear deterrent. We back Britain.”

Sir Keir’s article notably underscores a commitment to reinforcing the UK’s nuclear capabilities, a promise that includes the construction of new Dreadnought submarines and maintaining a continuous at-sea nuclear presence. This focus on a strong military and enhanced national security capabilities appears to align Labour more closely with Conservative viewpoints, which traditionally emphasise heavy defence spending and robust military preparedness.

Of note, the Daily Mail, in the right up to the piece noted: “The Mail is demanding an immediate cash boost for the Armed Forces after Chancellor Jeremy Hunt dismissed calls for a big rise in funding in the budget. Our Don’t Leave Britain Defenceless campaign is calling for an immediate rise from 2.3 to 2.5 per cent of national income, and at least 3 per cent by 2030.”

Does this mean Labour is willing to contemplate this campaign seriously?

Whatever the answer to this, Starmer’s bold stance raises concerns from a disarmament and peace-building perspective, particularly for organisations like Action on Armed Violence (AOAV).

AOAV, which advocates for a critical examination of military expenditures and their broader implications, can only view Labour’s current positioning with caution. Perhaps this is just a vote-winning tactic, but in writing for a paper which has a clear advocacy for increased defence spending, especially in the realm of nuclear armament, will Labour perpetuate the UK’s deep engagement in the military-industrial complex, one that has harmed civilians around the world in ways unimaginable in recent decades?

We cannot forger Labour’s history, particularly its involvement in military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan under Tony Blair. These interventions have left a lasting impact on the regions where British troops fought and died and even more civilians lost their lives. By advocating for significant investment in nuclear and military capabilities without a corresponding emphasis on rigorous oversight and strategic justification, there is a risk that the lessons from these conflicts might be overlooked.

A more balanced approach is necessary — one that not only secures national defence but also actively contributes to global stability through diplomacy and international cooperation. This approach would involve greater transparency in defence spending, increased parliamentary scrutiny over defence decisions, and a broader public debate on the role the UK should play on the international stage.

Sir Keir’s assurances to the Daily Mail’s readership about Labour’s unwavering commitment to defence may resonate with a segment of the electorate concerned with national security. However, for those advocating for non-military solutions and questioning the expansion of the military-industrial complex, these commitments raise red flags.

So, while Sir Keir Starmer’s robust defence manifesto in the Daily Mail aims to position Labour as a guardian of national security, it risks entrenching the UK further within a military-industrial framework. His approach, if it bends too much to the Daily Mail’s world view, may overlook critical lessons from past military engagements and the pressing need for a defence strategy that incorporates ethical considerations and the protection of civilians at the heart of its call.

It is imperative for Labour to foster a comprehensive dialogue that balances the imperatives of national security with the moral and strategic imperatives of international peace and cooperation. This balance is essential not just for the integrity of Labour’s policy platform, but for the broader health and ethical stance of the UK on the world stage.