Andy Burnham on Keeping Britain Safe in an Unsafe World

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The Rt Hon Andy Burnham, Member of Parliament for Leigh and candidate to be the next Leader of the Labour Party, outlined his view of the defence and security challenges that Britain faces, now and in the future.


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Andy Burnham at RUSIThe speech

Here we are — just over a week to go in what has felt like a long campaign.

But I go into these last days with clarity and confidence.

I am fighting for a strong, united Labour Party that looks outwards, not inwards — responding to the world as it is, not fighting the battles of the past.

Though domestic issues have dominated in this campaign, international affairs will define this Parliament — and indeed politics in our country for a generation.

Major decisions are looming — on Syria, our nuclear deterrent and the EU referendum — and how Her Majesty’s Opposition approaches them will have a bearing on Britain’s position in the world.

And the truth is that the political climate in which these decisions will be taken could not be more challenging for parties of the left.

So, before this campaign ends, I wanted to give a clear sense of the values that would drive my approach as Leader of the Opposition and Prime Minister.

And there is no better place to do that than here today at RUSI.

I would like to thank Professor Michael Clarke for hosting me.

For nearly 200 years, RUSI has helped us make sense of a changing world.

How to keep Britain safe in an increasingly unstable and unpredictable 21st century is a question that will test us all in the years ahead and the guidance of RUSI will be more important than ever.

RUSI was founded on a spirit of internationalism, of Britain playing its part in the world, and that is what I want to take as my theme today.

Analysis of the Labour leadership election has viewed the contest through a traditional left-right frame.

But, in 2015, that is not where the real energy in politics is.

Instead, it is rising nationalism and the politics of identity that defines our times — and how Labour responds to that is arguably the biggest challenge we face.

70 years ago today, Japan formally surrendered to the Allies, bringing an end to World War II and a new determination to forge peace and partnership across Europe.

Whatever people’s criticisms of Europe, it cannot be denied that the last 70 years have brought a period of unparalleled peace, stability and prosperity.

But, in this century, the wind has changed.

Growing unease about globalisation, combined with the fall-out of the worldwide financial crash, has created a new climate across Europe and the world where nationalistic sentiment is on the rise.

It is having an effect on politics right across the spectrum.

It is not just parties of the right — like UKIP in the UK, the Front National in France and the Danish People’s Party — that are prospering.

We are also seeing the rise of left-leaning nationalism, in Scotland and Catalonia.

And, dangerously, mainstream parties have begun to follow suit.

The General Election we have just come through was unprecedented and extraordinary.

Has a party of government ever so actively sought to divide its own country for political purposes?

The Conservative and Unionist Party spent an election playing to English nationalism and openly stoking resentment of Scottish nationalism.

And it continues.

Only this weekend, the Tories picked a political argument with the SNP over defence investment and Trident.

This is a dangerous game.

Courting political conflict over such crucial issues — and fuelling a clash of Scottish and English nationalism — risks leaving the nation’s armed forces caught in the middle and undermined as a result.

It leaves our country feeling more fragmented than ever and fearful of what the future might hold.

Playing to nationalism is a one-way street towards conflict, division and separation.

Once politics is trapped on this path, it very hard to break out of it.

But that is exactly what we must do — and I will.

I will always fight nationalism wherever I find it — an ugly brand of politics that seeks to divide people one from another.

In this leadership election, it has been put to me that Labour should consider making its Scottish party independent and setting up an English Labour Party.

I am reluctant to do either of those things.

Because it suggests an inevitability about the break-up of our country and I won’t give in to that.

While I accept that everyone may not see things the same way, I consider myself to be British before I am English.

As Leader of the Labour Party, I would work to hold our country together and defend the continuation of the UK at all costs as I profoundly believe that the cause of the working people here is better served by solidarity rather than separation.

But, more than that, I would make an argument for an internationalist Britain playing its part on a bigger stage.

As nationalist parties take up positions of power, membership of international alliances and institutions will be questioned.

And we know that the Conservative Party is unable to speak with one voice on Europe.

So, in this context, I believe it would be a profound mistake for Labour to leave any question hanging about our membership of international bodies such as the EU and NATO.

To do that would be to leave the many millions who believe in internationalism over nationalism without a political voice.

It risks leaving the world more fragmented, more divided and less secure than at any point since the end of the World War II.

The truth is, with an EU referendum looming in about a year from now, the country needs Labour to snap out of its period of introspection, rediscover its voice and make a confident pitch for Britain as an outward-looking nation that seeks to work with our allies to resolve the challenges we will face in the future.

That is the best way to keep our country safe in an uncertain world.

It has been suggested that the next Leader of the Opposition could opt out of the Privy Council. I believe that would be a profound mistake.

If we are to be a truly internationalist party, we need to face up to the world in all its complexity, rather than retreating to the sidelines and accept our responsibilities to others, difficult as they may sometimes be.

One of the first major decisions the new Leader of the Opposition is likely to face, possibly within days of becoming leader, will be whether to support military action against ISIL in Syria.

The defeat of ISIL at home and abroad is one of the most critical foreign and security policy challenges facing our country.

Just yesterday there were reports of patients being treated with symptoms of “mustard gas” exposure.

ISIL is a vile and evil organisation.

Britain should be playing an active role in bringing together the global community to defeat its attempt to build a caliphate in the Middle East.

This demands both military acumen and robust policies here at home, to defeat their efforts to radicalise people, and young people in particular.

Already British forces are engaged in action to strike ISIL targets in Iraq.

The Labour Party supported this action, which has taken place at the request of the democratically-elected Iraqi government. If elected leader, I will continue this support.

And I will look carefully at any proposals to extend military action to Syria.

But let me be clear about the criteria I will apply.

First, the Government must be clear about the nature and extent of any further military action and set its clear and definable objectives as part of a broader political strategy.

Defeating ISIL requires a combination of aerial power from western allies and ground support from local partners in the region.

It is clear to me that our action in Iraq passes this test. But it is for the Government to clearly set out how it believes action in Syria can be successful without clear and sufficient capacity on the ground from a viable and united opposition to Assad and ISIL.

Second, any extension of military action must be legal.

Military action in Iraq is legal because British forces have been invited in by the Iraqi government. The legality of action in Syria must be proven beyond question.

Third, and perhaps most crucially, any extension of military action must be accompanied by a credible post-conflict plan.

We were engaged in military action in Afghanistan for longer than both World Wars combined.

For the families of the 454 personnel who never came home, and for the hundreds more left with life-changing injuries, the impact of this conflict will never cease.

As a country, it is vital that we reflect on what we can learn from a conflict with an unclear outcome, and without the clear finality of a victor and a losing side.

And these are pertinent lessons because:

If we are successful in removing ISIL from parts of Syria, who would form the legitimate government of those areas?

And is it possible to bring down ISIL without allowing the advance of either Assad’s degenerate regime or forces linked to Al Qaeda?

These are major questions that the Government has not yet answered.

And, for that reason, to try to bounce the Opposition into a vote on an issue of this importance without fully answering these points would be disrespectful to our forces and to the country.

We will give any proposition careful consideration whilst recognising the danger of doing something just to be seen to be doing it; this has been the basis of many foreign policy mistakes.

If we are to get things right going forward, it does mean learning from the mistakes of the last decade.

The publication of the Chilcot report is going to be a sobering and difficult moment for my party.

It is essential that its findings are fully absorbed and embedded at the heart of our foreign and defence policy going forward.

But, equally, whilst we must be mindful of our past and learn from it — we must not be imprisoned by it.

Alongside Iraq, we must remember the decisive role that Britain played in the Balkans and Sierra Leone.

It is in the best traditions of the party I seek to lead to provide support and to make responsible contributions where we are able to do so.

This spirit should define our approach to the Strategic Defence and Security Review.

The previous SDSR was rushed, with a lack of meaningful consultation.

Perhaps most importantly it didn’t do what it said on the tin; it wasn’t strategic.

It was not a proper strategic analysis of the threats that Britain was likely to face in the future.

It was driven primarily by a need to reduce the size of the defence budget.

It began by asking what could be cut, instead of focussing on ensuring our Armed Forces are equipped.

As a result there are gaps in our military capability, and operations over the last five years have relied on capabilities Ministers had planned to scrap.

What clearer symbol could there be of a failure in defence planning than new aircraft carriers that have no planes to go on them?

James Arbuthnot, speaking as chair of the Defence Select Committee in 2014 stated: “As far as we can tell, the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review and the 2010 National Security Strategy were governed by the overriding strategic objective of reducing the UK’s budget deficit. We have found it difficult to divine any other genuinely strategic vision in either document.”

The next National Security Strategy should be published well in advance of the next SDSR, and should inform it.

The next SDSR should be properly consultative, better informed and be conducted within a timeframe that allows for a proper assessment of our nation’s key defence and security priorities.

It should take our NATO commitment as a guide, but a truly strategic review should precede spending plans, with resources matched to our defence and security priorities.

It should also seek to honour our commitments to those we put in harm’s way.

As a country, we should be making a lifelong commitment to veterans.

Under my leadership, a future Labour Government would ensure that the two underlying principles of the AF Covenant (‘no disadvantage’ due to Service and ‘special treatment’ for those who have given the most) lie at the heart of the way we treat our ex-Service community.

The review should also have regard to the viability of the defence industry across the UK — a real British success story, contributing over £22 billion of turnover every year.

It employs over 150,000 people in high-skill, high-value jobs, with thousands more indirectly employed through the supply chain.

I’d want to work with industry to grow Britain’s defence exports and secure defence jobs across the UK.

Crucially, it must resist political calls to retreat from Britain’s internationalist role.

And central to that is a key decision on our nuclear deterrent.

Let me be absolutely clear: I am committed to the renewal of our nuclear deterrent.

With the world the way that it is, now is not the time to drop our defences or take a step into the unknown. We simply do not what challenges lie ahead over the next 10, 20, 30 years.

So I am committed to the retention of a Continuous At-Sea Deterrent and we will follow the advice of experts in terms of delivering that, who say current technology means four boats.

At the same time, however, we should take another decision — to set the aim of making this the last time we renew our nuclear deterrent and with renewed resolve kick-start work to re-energise a process of multilateral disarmament.

And, as Prime Minister, I will make sure it is on the agenda when Britain holds the presidency of the G7 early in the next parliament.

This is what I mean by an internationalist approach — Britain taking the lead and facing up to our global responsibilities.

And we need to get back to doing that right now as, under the current Government, there is a dangerous absence of leadership on the world stage.

Europe today is in the grip of a major refugee crisis, with almost 4m having fled Syria alone.

This is a humanitarian crisis, not just a tedious inconvenience for British holiday-makers, as our Government might have us believe.

Many of those fleeing the region have suffered further at the hands of criminal gangs, who pack them onto unsafe vessels and leave them to drown in the Mediterranean.

It is not fair that the countries bordering the Middle East should bear the brunt of this crisis alone.

Our Government has done nothing but bury its head in the sand and deploy dehumanising language to describe desperate people.

Our approach should be to work co-operatively with the rest of the EU to come up with a fair and compassionate solution, in which every member state shares the burden of caring for genuine asylum seekers, and we have a co-operative system for returning others to their country of origin.

And, if we were to do that, I believe we would get a better hearing on the changes we want to see on EU migration and free movement in advance of the referendum.

This is why an internationalist approach is in our own national self-interest.

Britain faces a big decision over the coming year about our membership of the EU.

And it is a decision for the long term — setting Britain’s course for coming decades.

This is not the time for equivocation.

Let me be crystal clear: to flirt with exit from the EU is to endanger people’s jobs, the future of every young British person and the future security of our country.

There are issues we need to address with the EU, but these are about strengthening EU-wide action and policies to address these problems, not sweeping away our basis for joint action.

Some EU policies have been open to abuse, allowing wages to be unfairly undercut.

But the EU has also helped to protect the rights of every British worker through progressive legislation on a wide range of issues, from agency workers to employee safety.

My vision for a reformed EU is one of a social Europe, a people’s Europe — not a race-to-the-bottom where jobs and wages are undercut.

Labour under my leadership will fight to uphold protections for workers, and end abuses that harm both migrant and local workers.

I will address these challenges from a clear and positive position of wanting to remain in.

Even to entertain the notion that one of the major parties could campaign for Britain to leave the EU is a danger to our future prosperity.

And crucially, it damages our ability to act co-operatively on issues of shared concern and international importance.

I believe in the EU, but not just because I believe it’s the best way to protect British jobs and British workers.

Many of the strategic problems we face, from the environment to migration, can only be solved at a continental level.

And in a world increasingly dominated by great powers with populations measured in hundreds of millions or billions — India, China, the USA and Russia — being part of a bloc of 500 million people, with shared values on rights, justice and the rule of law, is a guarantee of our place in the world, not a threat to it.

Membership of or participation in these alliances can also be a powerful incentive for effecting change.

It can help us balance the use of hard power versus soft power.

Let me be clear, we will always need military capability, but other levers can and should be pulled as part of a complementary strategy.

For example, should countries that are not part of a binding emissions-reduction agreement be allowed to be members of the World Trade Organisation?

And in other areas, where club membership on the global stage is a badge of status, should countries with poor human rights records be allowed to take part in the Olympics or the football World Cup?

Flirting with, or in some cases advocating, exit from multinational institutions and forums only damages our ability to use these alliances as alternative vehicles for effecting change.

In conclusion

I began by asking how we keep Britain safe in an unstable and unpredictable world.

My answer is in the end a simple and straightforward one.

Choose internationalism every time and stand up to nationalism wherever you find it.

Nationalism thrives on separation and pitting people one against another and it can therefore never offer a path to stability and security.

To pander to it only adds fuel to its flames and puts us on a path to division and potential confrontation.

With all of the other main political parties in the UK playing to nationalist sentiment, Labour’s voice as an internationalist party is needed now more than ever.

While the EU and NATO are not perfect, now is not the time for equivocation or ambivalence over our membership of both.

This leadership election is taking place in a climate of huge uncertainty about Britain and its place in the world.

Coming out of it, Labour needs to stand strong.

There are millions of people in this country who are fearful about Britain’s future, who desperately want the country to hold together, to keep its place in Europe and continue to play its role helping stabilise an uncertain world.

We must be a strong political voice for them and, under my leadership, Labour will be from day one.


The Rt Hon Andy Burnham MP was educated at a local comprehensive school in Liverpool and read English at Fitzwilliam College, University of Cambridge. He worked as a journalist before entering politics and being elected as the Labour Member of Parliament for Leigh in 2001. Andy held various positions in Government, including Secretary of State for Health, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and Chief Secretary to the Treasury. In Opposition, he served as Shadow Education Secretary and, from October 2011, Shadow Health Secretary. He is now running to be the next Leader of the Labour Party.

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