Vernon Coaker on our duty to those who do their utmost to defend our democracy and freedom
As we prepare to celebrate Armed Forces Day, we are reminded of the sacrifices made by our personnel, their families, and veterans. Theirs is the ultimate public service, and tomorrow gives us the opportunity to recognise their efforts and to say ‘thank you’ – including for their help during the past year in the battle against Covid.
Labour will always be proud of our service personnel, and we will always speak up and speak out on their behalf. It is a real privilege to take up the role as our defence spokesperson in the Lords. It is our mission to make sure our Forces and their families are supported during service and back into civilian life – whether by providing quality housing or proper employment. We have this week launched a Veterans Survey to gather the views of former personnel, to learn from their experience and improve what is provided.
Warfare is changing – with the lines between war and peace becoming increasingly blurred. The statement that followed the recent NATO summit confirmed that “we face multifaceted threats, systemic competition from assertive and authoritarian powers, as well as growing security challenges to our countries and our citizens from all strategic directions.” Even the government’s integrated review recognised how “threats to the UK, and to our allies, are growing and diversifying”.
How we shape our Forces to deal with these new emerging threats is crucial. But over the next three years, the government will implement a plan to reduce troops. Concern for this has only grown since the review was published in March. Even former military chiefs on the Lords’ crossbench have said that further cuts would mean the UK was "no longer taken seriously as a military power" and that it would "damage our relationship with the US and our position in NATO."
While it is right to recruit new cyber and tech specialists, it is wrong to reduce the Army down to the lowest levels in 300 years. We still need personnel to defend our territories, contribute to peacekeeping missions, help with civil emergencies, and support our allies. How the UK's strategic objectives and obligations can be achieved with fewer troops remains very unclear.
The last Labour government clearly recognised this – something our esteemed former Defence Secretaries in the Lords have reinforced. I share their indignation at the decade of decline we have seen under the Conservatives. So, when the Armed Forces Bill arrives in the Lords after the summer, we will take that opportunity to protect personnel. We will also remind ministers about the importance of numbers whether soldiers, planes, or ships.
Not many people are without contact with the Forces, particularly if we look back through family history. I am named after my Uncle Vernon, who was killed on D Day, aged 23. I have a son-in -law who not only served in Iraq but, as an active reservist, helped with testing in the early days of the pandemic. As a former Shadow Secretary of State, I met personnel at Army, Navy and RAF bases both at home and abroad, including some on active service; and many of the organisations and charities that give them support.
All of this has left me with an immense pride in the sense of duty that motivates those who do their utmost to defend our democracy and freedom. Armed Forces Day is therefore the opportunity to reaffirm our own commitment to them – something that should in fact be our duty.
Lord Vernon Coaker of Gedling is Shadow Defence Minister in the House of Lords. He tweets @Vernon_Coaker
Published 25th June 2021