Why the Navy should be a cornerstone of Labour’s defence policy – reviving the 1998 Defence Review

We are now beginning to see what a potential Labour government’s defence policy would look like. Labour identifies correctly how the Conservatives have allowed defence capabilities to be hollowed out and fixing this problem is one of the party’s core missions. However, Labour has so far not done enough thinking on the overarching geostrategic problems Britain faces and where the UK’s strengths lie. In essence, Labour is missing a trick by not positioning the Royal Navy as the cornerstone of its defence policy; looking back to New Labour’s 1998 Strategic Defence Review (SDR) can help provide the inspiration for what this should look like.

Since 1998, on most measures, all three services of the Armed Forces have shrunk, but none more so than the Royal Navy. In 1998 Labour understood the importance of the Royal Navy to the UK’s national security and envisioned, for a much more benign geopolitical environment, the backbone of the fleet being formed by 32 destroyers and frigates. The numbers today are almost half this, with only 17 available. So why should a new Labour government make regenerating the Royal Navy, closer to the size envisioned in 1998, a priority?

First and foremost, Britain is an island nation. On the sea’s surface container ships carry goods to and from the UK which are vital to the economy; Britain cannot sustain the needs of its population for long without imports. And below the sea’s surface is critical national infrastructure which carries internet traffic, gas pipelines, and the energy generated by offshore wind farms. These lifelines are increasingly vulnerable to nefarious actors. We have grown to assume international shipping moving freely across the oceans is a given, and forget that over the last several decades this has only been possible thanks to the protection provided by the strength of Britain and its allies’ navies. Events in the Red Sea, where commercial shipping has come under attack resulting in longer transits and skyrocketing insurance costs, is a timely reminder of this. 

The prevailing view in Labour seems to be that the UK should focus on regenerating the army to contribute more to NATO and issues closer to home. Putting aside the fact Britain has interests beyond Europe, the Royal Navy still has a crucial contribution to make towards NATO. Focusing too much on the army – although increasing defence industry output to support Ukraine is still vital – would be a wasted opportunity to lean into Britain’s strengths and provide far greater value, both to allies and the economy.

Due to Russia’s offensive against Ukraine, it is tempting to see the army’s enlargement as the most sensible reaction. But Russia’s land forces have suffered greatly, losing vast amounts of equipment and manpower, and it will take years to reconstitute them even with the shift to a war economy. At the same time NATO’s land power is increasing. Finland has joined, adding eight brigades, Sweden is soon to join adding another four, and the Poles have expanded their army by six. These additions mean that even if the UK permanently deployed a brigade, or even three (a division’s worth) in Europe, it would not add much extra value.

The story at sea is a different matter. Over the last decade Russia has spent a fortune modernising its navy with over 25 nuclear powered attack and ballistic missile submarines planned. Meanwhile, Europe has allowed its own navies to atrophy. The lack of European warships defending transit through the Red Sea is testament to this. The UK currently provides 25% of NATO’s maritime forces with much of the rest coming from the Americans. Britain provides far more value to its European allies through the Royal Navy, adding capabilities and numbers which others cannot. Labour should lean into this strength.

Further to being more useful to allies, this could also be more beneficial to the economy. Other countries, such as Germany and the US, have a firm grip on exports when it comes to land equipment and breaking into this market would be difficult. On the other hand Britain’s naval exports have seen a surge in success in recent years, albeit in terms of designs and expertise rather than shipyard orders. The Type 26 frigate has won orders in Canada and Australia, the Type 31 frigate in Poland and Indonesia, and the SSN-AUKUS submarines have been ordered by Australia. These orders will help provide or sustain thousands of jobs in the UK. 

Clearly, British expertise in ship design and building is highly sought after, and a Labour government should build on these successes. One way to enable this is to invest in building more warships for the Royal Navy, closer to the numbers envisioned in the 1998 SDR. This will also necessitate improving recruitment and retention, but Labour is already making positive moves in this direction (such as with the goal of establishing an Armed Forces Commissioner). The investment in ‘left behind’ coastal communities to build a new generation of modern, sustainable, shipbuilding which this would require is exactly the kind of policy a Labour government should be getting behind. 


If you enjoyed this piece, see William Freer’s previous blog, Lessons from Denis Healey’s tenure as Secretary of State for Defence in the 1960s.