John Healey – 2022 Speech on NATO and International Security

The speech made by John Healey, the Shadow Secretary of State for Defence, in the House of Commons on 19 May 2022.

May I start by paying tribute to the men and women in Britain’s armed forces, who are deployed across the NATO alliance as part of their policing operations, multinational battlegroups and maritime deployments? We play the leading role in some of NATO’s most important missions, both on the frontline and in strategic command, as is the case at the British-led but multinational NATO maritime command, which I was privileged to visit last month in north London.

The steps the Government have taken to reinforce NATO allies since Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine have therefore had, and will continue to have, Labour’s full support. In Labour we are proud that Britain is NATO’s leading European nation. We do not want to see that status damaged or deflected by the Prime Minister’s trumpeting of the Indo-Pacific tilt. The first priority for Britain’s armed forces must be where the threats are greatest, not where the business opportunities may lie, and that is in the NATO area—Europe, the north Atlantic and the Arctic.

Stuart Anderson (Wolverhampton South West) (Con)

The shadow Minister mentioned the Indo-Pacific tilt, which we have been looking at in the Defence Committee. There has been a miscalculation, which has allowed Putin to get away with too much for too long. We cannot make the same mistake again. Does the shadow Minister agree that, although we have to focus on the current threat, we also have to focus on future threats, and that is why the Indo-Pacific tilt is relevant and important?

John Healey

Of course the hon. Gentleman is right, but the first and most acute threat, underlined by the brutal invasion that Putin has undertaken in Ukraine, is where our first duty lies. It is where our neighbourhood lies, and it is our primary obligation to our closest allies. That forces us to confront the fact that we can no longer take peace and security in Europe for granted, as we have done since the end of the cold war. We must now face a future of persistent confrontation with Russia.

Ministers have said to me and to the House in recent weeks that it is perhaps too early to learn lessons from Ukraine, but one lesson I take is that, despite the gung-ho, go-it-alone promotion of global Britain, almost no nation can do anything alone and Britain is a bigger force for good in the world when we act with allies.

Dr Liam Fox (North Somerset) (Con)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

John Healey

I will give way to the right hon. Gentleman and then underline the point that I have just made.

Dr Fox

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. I do not disagree with the fundamental point that he makes, but does he accept that, way back in 2007, in Munich Putin told us what he was and almost what he was going to do? The point is not that we have a confrontation with Russia now but that we had a confrontation with Russia when it went into Georgia and when it occupied Crimea. We simply did not do enough about it at the time.

John Healey

No one on our Front Bench or in the House would disagree with that analysis. Our response was too little, and it was regarded as too weak. It was certainly too little and too weak to deter Putin’s belief that he could take the sort of steps that we have seen in the past three months in Ukraine.

Mr Kevan Jones

I agree. We took our eye off the ball. But I will not have lectures from the right hon. Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), who was the one who withdrew our troops down in Germany in the rushed defence review. I remember he made a great statement at the time that we would never see tanks rolling across the east German plains again. We are actually back there, ruing the decision that was taken then.

John Healey

My right hon. Friend is right. I really do not want to make these sorts of points this afternoon, but the Prime Minister declared in recent months, before the Ukraine invasion, that the period of tank battles in Europe was over and justified the Indo-Pacific tilt and the deployment of defence priorities to areas outside the NATO area.

The point that I want to make is in part to recognise the role that the Defence Secretary has played. We in Britain are a bigger force for good not when we act alone but when we act with allies. I take this example from the Ukraine experience. Britain’s supply of anti-tank and anti-air missiles to Ukraine is a fraction of the total weapons provided by the west, but we have helped a great deal more by calling donor conferences, co-ordinating the logistics of delivery and reinforcing the will of other countries to help. So Labour’s full backing for the Government in providing military assistance to Ukraine will continue as we shift from crisis management of the current conflict in Donbas to delivering the medium-term NATO standard military support that Ukraine will need for Putin’s next offensive.

Mr Dhesi

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

John Healey

Before I give way, may I in parenthesis say to the Secretary of State that the House is still looking forward to the figures that he promised to lay in the Library on 25 April about the total weapons delivered into Ukraine and the UK’s contribution to those. I will give way to the Secretary of State because I have addressed him directly, and then I will give way to my hon. Friend.

Mr Wallace

I will just, out of courtesy, give the hon. Gentleman an update. The delay is simply the other countries’ willingness to verify their information. As soon as we have the other countries’ sign-off about what they want to announce publicly, we will give an update. That is the only reason for the delay.

John Healey

I am grateful for the progress report from the Secretary of State on that commitment, which I think he implies remains.

Mr Dhesi

I thank my right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for Defence. I am glad that he is making the point about closer co-operation. Having undertaken a visit to Norway recently with the excellent armed forces parliamentary scheme, I saw some of the amazing work undertaken by our Marine commandos out in Norway. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need closer co-operation, especially with those Scandinavian nations, in view of the increased Russian threat?

John Healey

I do indeed, and I am sure that my hon. Friend also discussed Norway’s contribution to the joint expeditionary force set up in 2015 and led by Britain, which the Secretary of State mentioned. The accession of Finland and Sweden means that there are now a full 10 NATO nations in the force, and that it can become even more flexible as a potential operational first responder in the Baltics and in the Nordic areas.

Mr Baron

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

John Healey

I will indeed, but then perhaps I had better get on with my speech.

Mr Baron

The right hon. Gentleman is being very generous, and I will be brief. He mentioned weapons systems. Is not one of the lessons from Ukraine so far the speed with which one gets through the systems that are being delivered? It reminds us of the need for deep stockpiles of such weapons and ammunition—and, indeed, security of supply lines—at times like this, which we should not underestimate when we factor in defence spending.

John Healey

The hon. Gentleman is exactly right. One of the most useful and effective weapons for the Ukrainians has proved to be the British-supplied Next generation Light Anti-tank Weapon missile, but we rapidly ran out of our UK stocks. We have been very slow in getting fresh production under way, and we have had to raid the stockpiles and the production supplies set for other countries in order to continue to supply, as we must, the military assistance that Ukraine needs. I think that the question of procurement—I will say more about this later—is one of stockpiles, sourcing, and speed. Those three “Ss” are a part of the failures of the present military procurement system, which really does now require deep reform.

John Spellar

My right hon. Friend has touched on what seems to be the key lesson of the recent procurement issue, namely the maintenance of productive capacity, not just in the main equipment suppliers but right down through tiers 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. Does that not require a steady flow of orders, and should not the Ministry of Defence focus in particular on procurement from domestic industry to maintain that productive capacity, which can then be ramped up?

John Healey

I think that it does. It requires a steady flow of orders, it requires a stronger commitment to design and make in Britain, and it requires a long-term strategy so that defence industrial producers and their workforces are not faced with a stop-go of uncertain contracts and, very often in the recent past, a competition that may put them at a disadvantage with overseas suppliers.

I am looking around the Chamber momentarily before I proceed, and I will proceed now.

The bravery of the Ukrainians, civil and military alike, has been extraordinary, and we pay tribute to them in the House again today. Beyond his misjudgment of Russia’s military competence and capabilities, Putin has made two fundamental miscalculations, first of the fierce determination of Ukrainians to defend their country, and secondly of western unity. I believe that the two are linked. Just as Russia’s invasion of Crimea and the Donbas region in 2014 strengthened Ukraine’s national unity and resolve to resist Russia, this full-scale invasion of sovereign Ukraine has strengthened NATO’s international unity and resolve to resist Russia.

NATO is becoming stronger. President Biden has doubled down on the United States’ commitment to

“defend every inch of NATO territory with the full force of American power.”

Led by Germany, a dozen European countries have already rebooted defence plans and defence spending, while Finland and Sweden have overturned decades of non-alignment, with their centre-left Governments now bidding for NATO membership, a move that we, as the official Opposition, fully support. Putin is right to say that this Nordic NATO expansion does not pose a direct threat to Russia—NATO is a defensive alliance—but the man who is waging war in Europe is certainly in no position to demand conditions on countries seeking NATO’s collective security.

This afternoon the Secretary of State described NATO as the most successful alliance in history, and he was right. It is the most successful alliance in history because of the strength of both its military and its values. It pools military capacity, capability and cash, with a collective budget of more than $1 trillion, to protect 1 billion people. Alongside the solemn commitment to collective defence, the values of democracy, individual freedom and the rule of law are also enshrined in its founding treaties.

I am proud that the UK’s post-war Labour Government played the leading role in NATO’s foundation, and Labour’s commitment to the alliance remains unshakeable. The Secretary of State, having said that he did not play party politics, then did exactly that. I gently say to him that the position of Labour’s leadership on its unshakeable commitment to NATO and its commitment to the UK nuclear deterrent has been a settled position from Kinnock to Corbyn and from Blair, Brown and Miliband in between.

The Minister for the Armed Forces (James Heappey)

You missed one.

John Healey

Check the record.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Ind)

Would my right hon. Friend agree that the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, originally conceived in 1968 under the Government of Harold Wilson, was an enormous step forward and is universally supported by most non-nuclear powers around the world, and that Britain could make a very positive contribution to the NPT review conference in August this year? Would he also agree that it would be helpful if the Government did that, so that we could start down the road of ridding the world of nuclear weapons and signing up to a ban on nuclear weapons?

John Healey

My right hon. Friend is right in many respects. Some of the most significant arms reduction and arms control treaties have been negotiated and signed by this country under Labour Governments. That was true under Wilson, whom he cites, and it was also true under Blair. He is also right to remind the House that part of our unshakeable commitment to NATO and to the deterrent has been a commitment to leading multinational arms control, reduction and disarmament talks. We may have lost sight of those in recent years—they have certainly commanded little attention over the last decade from the Conservatives—but they are part and parcel of pursuing the fundamental values of NATO, of this country and certainly of the party on this side of the House.

Mr Kevan Jones

I concur with what my right hon. Friend has said, but is it not the case that we now need to be making the case for deterrence, so that when Putin is providing maps and threats of nuclear destruction for western Europe, we can say very clearly what the response would be? It is that deterrent stance that has kept the peace since the second world war, and we need to keep reminding him, when he makes those threats, of the reason that we retain a nuclear deterrent.

John Healey

My right hon. Friend is right. Clear and consistent communication is part of having an effective deterrent in place. It is not simply about the weaponry at hand.

Sir Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con)

Would the right hon. Gentleman dare to go a little further and acknowledge the truth, which is that it is the responsible possession of nuclear weapons by responsible democracies that has kept the peace, and that it would be a mistake ever to get rid of nuclear weapons entirely as that would increase the likelihood of the major state- on-state warfare that we saw before nuclear weapons existed?

John Healey

I would agree with the contention that possession has helped to hold the peace, but as my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) has just pointed out, possession is a necessary but insufficient component of effective deterrence. The communication that my right hon. Friend has just talked about is part of a picture of effective deterrence, alongside political leadership of countries and alliances.

If the House will allow me, I shall move on to the strategic concept and the weeks ahead. Next month, as the Secretary of State has said, member nations will set NATO’s strategy for the next decade, with all democracies now facing new threats to their security. NATO’s last strategic concept was agreed in 2010. It declared:

“Today, the Euro-Atlantic area is at peace”.

It sought a strategic partnership with Russia, it had limited reference to terrorism and it made no mention at all of China. The proximity and severity of the security threat in Europe now demand a clear break with the principles-based platitudes that have been the hallmark of NATO’s previous public strategic concept. The nature of the threat is both clear and urgent. Russia has attacked Ukraine, overridden the NATO-Russia Founding Act, breached the Geneva conventions, buried the Helsinki Final Act, made unilateral threats of nuclear attack against NATO and stands accused of crimes against humanity and genocide.

The Secretary-General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, said:

“Regardless of when, how, the war in Ukraine ends, the war has already had long-term consequences for our security. NATO needs to adapt to that new reality.”

Most importantly, NATO has to adapt its primary task of collective defence.

When the Labour leader and I visited Estonia in February to thank our British troops, they told us about NATO’s tripwire deterrent, which the Secretary of State mentioned, with forward forces giving ground when attacked before retaking it later with reinforcements. The horrific Russian destruction of Ukrainian cities and the brutal shelling of civilians makes it clear that such a strategy of deterrence by reinforcement is no longer conscionable. NATO must instead aim for deterrence by denial, which is the operational consequence of NATO leaders’ commitment to defending every inch of NATO territory.

I am not sure whether that is covered by the combat effectiveness the Defence Secretary spoke about, but it implies a very serious strengthening of military capability, with more advanced systems, more permanent basing, higher force readiness and more intense exercises.

Sir John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con)

I hope the right hon. Gentleman will excuse me for not being here at the beginning of his speech but, when I saw him on the screen, I rushed to hear what he has to say.

Does not this reappraisal, which is the consequence of recent events, need to recognise that, contrary to predictions until very recently that all future warfare would be high tech and entirely different from what we knew before, we now see that much of what is happening in Ukraine is very conventional and rather old-fashioned in some ways? The horror of street-to-street and trench-to-trench fighting requires a reappraisal that might mean we need just as many, or more, troops on the ground, more tanks and more of the things that we were told, not very long ago, are redundant.

I might say the same of security more widely, particularly terrorism. Tragically and awfully, terrorism has adapted to use very ordinary, everyday things. We see cars used as weapons, for example. The recent terrorist attacks have been rather low tech, rather than high tech.

John Healey

I am not sure whether the right hon. Gentleman means to catch your eye, Mr Deputy Speaker, but he makes several important points. His last point, on low tech, is right. In many ways, high tech can sometimes become low-tech weaponry. It is easy to conceive that, in the wrong hands, an unmanned aerial vehicle or drone could almost be a flying car bomb.

It is important that we continue to invest in and develop high-tech systems, which give us the edge and some of the deterrent effect we require. Like the right hon. Gentleman, one of the lessons I take from Ukraine is that, in the reality of battle, conflict and confrontation, we need “now tech” and not just high tech. That is one of the flaws in the procurement system, as the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) said in his intervention.

Wayne David

Does my right hon. Friend agree that we all have to deal with the difficulty of the Russians’ apparent willingness, in certain circumstances, to use theatre nuclear weapons?

John Healey

Indeed, there is certainly a willingness to threaten to use such weapons. The escalation of President Putin’s rhetoric at times in this conflict has been reckless. That requires responsible leaders in the western alliance to be careful, measured and consistent about the rhetoric we use. That has not always been what we have seen from some of our Ministers. It also requires us to be implacably clear that any use of such weaponry would be met with a strong, special response and that the universal opprobrium that would befall Russia must make a contemplation of this, even by those in the Kremlin, even in circumstances in which they may feel they are losing ground and losing the conflict, unthinkable.

I am going to press on, because many other Members much more expert than I want to contribute to this debate. Whatever the points the Secretary of State has made and I have made so far, NATO’s new strategic concept has to be a major diplomatic agreement on geostrategic goals first and a plan for force generation, doctrine deployment and procurement second. The NATO 2030 plan must spell out how we are going to contain Putin, what forces we will generate, what new technologies we will accelerate and how we will strengthen our homeland societies. It must set out also a strategy for our open democratic societies to deal with China, which the 2030 reflection group now rightly described as

“a full-spectrum systemic rival, rather than a purely economic player or an only Asia-focused security actor.”

As the reflection group prepared NATO for these decisions, it said:

“The line between civilians and combatants is being blurred”.

So we want the alliance to set democratic resilience as a new core task for NATO when its member nations meet in Madrid next month.

We cannot go far online without finding someone to tell us that western democracies are just as bad or even worse than Moscow or Beijing. Putin spends billions a year trying to divide and degrade our democracies. We have seen that in things ranging from meddling in elections to misinformation about covid and to criminal corruption. The waning belief in our own values has perhaps become the west’s Achilles heel. Just as we defend against attacks from beyond our borders, so we must respond to attacks within them, too. The NATO Parliamentary Assembly’s recommendations for this new strategic concept stress also the central importance of resilience in our democracies and our societies. It is the way in which we can both counter hybrid warfare and shore up support for our defence commitments.

Within days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Chancellor Scholz declared it

“a watershed in the history of our continent.”

He overturned decades-long German defence policy and boosted defence spending by €100 billion. This is now day 85 and the Government have taken no action to reboot our own UK defence plans. Instead, we are told by Defence Ministers that

“the invasion of Ukraine has proved the integrated review right.”—[Official Report, 11 May 2022; Vol. 714, c. 136.]

Well, the integrated review was billed as a “threats-led” strategy. It has a prominent section on the Indo-Pacific, yet no section on Europe. It confirms that threats to Britain are increasing, yet it cuts the Army by a further 10,000 troops. It makes no mention of a Taliban takeover in Afghanistan or a Russian invasion of Ukraine. I say to the Defence Secretary that all democracies must respond to the newly realised threats to national and European security. That is why we are arguing that he and the Government must rewrite the flaws in the integrated review, review defence spending, reform defence procurement, rethink those Army cuts and reinvigorate UK leadership in NATO.

In the run-up to Madrid, 30 or—I hope—32 democracies and their civil societies will rightly demand a say in the priorities that are set for NATO for the next decade. As the Opposition party that intends to govern Britain in the near future, so do we—yet it is a closed process, confined to Governments. It is closed to the public and closed to non-governing parties, despite the fact that national elections are due within two years in 19 out of the 30 NATO countries. That is why I ask the Government to open up the UK process to create a common British vision for NATO. I welcome the Secretary of State’s offer, in response, to discuss the strategic concept with us as it develops, but I urge him to go further and to lay out for the public, in this House, the UK’s view of NATO’s strategic goals and military priorities, as well as the contribution that Britain will make to our collective defence. I want the UK to drive the debates as NATO gives a greater focus to defence, alongside deterrence and diplomacy. I want UK leadership in NATO to anticipate areas of future Russian aggression, to respond as the Arctic opens up, to settle the alliance’s relationship with the EU and to challenge and compete with China.

Jeremy Corbyn

I thank my right hon. Friend for the remark he just made about future diplomacy. Does he not think that this moment, when defence expenditure is rising so rapidly all around the world, presents a big problem, and that we should also look at the role that the United Nations could and should play and regret the long delay between the start of the awful Russian invasion of Ukraine and any kind of diplomatic initiative by the UN? There has to be a world of peace and basically that has to come through agreements via the United Nations.

John Healey

I see it not as a big problem but as a necessary response. The right hon. Gentleman is right about the paralysis of the United Nations; that is because Russia is one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. Any UN action to try to deal with the conflict in and Russian invasion of Ukraine is therefore stymied before it starts.

I want the UK to have a unified commitment to NATO. I want our commitment to be bipartisan. I do not want it to be a conversation simply for current Ministers behind closed doors. Let me use NATO’s reflection group to underline the point. It said that political cohesion is the basis of effective deterrence and that political consultation remains the most important means by which NATO can reinforce political cohesion. Bipartisan support has strengthened Britain’s action to help Ukraine and confront Russia; it will also strengthen Britain as the leading European nation in NATO.