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British foreign and defence policy in an election year

Although the exact date has not yet been set, 2024 will see a general election in the United Kingdom (UK). It will also be a year of considerable challenges geopolitically, a time when the country will need to support allies and partners and continue to build military capability, all while facing up to a belligerent Russia, a more powerful People’s Republic of China (PRC), and turmoil in the Middle East. Given all of this, it is important to assess how the two main political parties approach foreign and defence policy as the election draws nearer – and there is good news to be found when doing so. 

Foreign and defence policy is not a subject that animates the British electorate. Recent UK in a Changing Europe polls show the economy, healthcare, and crime as voters’ top three issues, with foreign policy significantly behind. This is unsurprising given the cost of living crisis, the effects of Covid-19 on the NHS, and other big domestic issues that the British government must grapple with. 

The largest foreign policy issue for Brits over the last decade has been Brexit, which defined and polarised debate for a considerable period both before and after the 2016 referendum. The implementation of Britain’s departure from the European Union (EU) was a top issue for voters during the last general election in 2019, but it has now receded into the background. Given that both Labour and the Conservatives agree that the UK will abide by the results of the referendum and not rejoin the EU, this is no longer an issue that will affect people’s voting choices to such an extent. 

Indeed, the stances of the Conservatives and Labour on foreign policy coming into this year’s election are more in agreement on most big issues than they were in 2019. Back then, the Conservative manifesto was in keeping with traditional positions on foreign affairs, highlighting Britain’s position as a global player and the importance of military and economic strength. The Labour manifesto under Jeremy Corbyn, however, took a markedly different tone, with an overt focus on multilateralism and ethically driven decision-making. Had Corbyn become prime minister, the UK would likely have acted very differently on the international stage. 

In contrast, Labour under Keir Starmer looks to have broadly similar views on big-picture international issues to the incumbent Conservative government. Both are committed to British membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO); both wish to continue considerable military support for Ukraine; and both recognise the challenges to the international order from the PRC. Even on the Israel/Palestine conflict, a matter that has caused a great deal of turmoil within Labour and the left more generally for decades, Starmer has moved away from the Corbyn-era policy of unilaterally recognising Palestinian statehood, instead bringing his party back to the position of supporting a two-state solution via a negotiated settlement – a position shared by the Conservatives. While the parties’ election manifestos are not yet published, it would be a surprise to see significant disagreement on any of these important bedrock issues. 

The picture looks similar when we turn to defence policy. Both parties are committed to spending at least the 2% of gross domestic product target for NATO members, to the AUKUS deal, and to the renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent. Both want to recruit and retain servicemembers while improving the UK’s military capabilities, with a boost to British manufacturing. Labour have mainly focused publicly on the need for defence procurement reform, but the impact of procurement issues on military capability means that this is an ongoing priority for the Conservatives as well. The differences will be in the granular detail – in the specific approach to solving these problems, not in the commitment to solving them. 

If they win the general election (as the current polls predict), Labour will most likely enact a strategic defence and security review swiftly, apparently similarly broad in scope to the review that occurred after their last big election win in 1997. This is an understandable plan – it is difficult to comprehend the defence bureaucracy from the outside at the best of times, much less to make detailed plans on how to fix it, so the most logical approach is to get in the doors of the Ministry of Defence and take a good look under the bonnet. However, the current government has completed several similar reviews recently, and going over the same ground may result in wasted time rather than new answers. 

Given the degree of agreement on the issues facing the UK and the challenging international situation, this author hopes that an incoming Labour government builds on the work already in place, rather than ripping everything up and starting again for the sake of it. 

Ultimately, the good news is that this election will not be causing uncertainty around the world. While the electorate will be making their voting choices based on significant domestic issues, the core of the British position globally will not change. The UK will remain committed to allies and partners, active in solving the problems that it faces, and cognisant of the need to tackle myriad threats to the international order. The British military will continue to build up and improve its capabilities in order to meet its duties. These facts will not change whoever triumphs in the election.

Dr Emma Salisbury is the Robert Whitehead Associate Fellow in Military Innovation at the Council on Geostrategy. She holds a PhD from Birkbeck College, University of London, and is a senior staffer for a Member of Parliament as well as an Assistant Editor at War on the Rocks.

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