When Labour’s foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, introduced the North Atlantic Treaty to Parliament in 1949, he outlined how Nato followed the United Nations as the next stage in creating our post-war international architecture.
He told the House of Commons that “unity against aggression has become more than ever important” and this “aggression usually comes when one man, or a small number of men, start by getting complete control of their own country and then create an atmosphere of fear and mistrust among those around them.”
Bevin could have been talking about the actions of President Putin 70 years later, now amassing more than 130,000 troops and high-tech weapons on the borders of Ukraine. This is driving a dangerous escalation in tensions and demonstrating Russia’s continuing disregard of international law and human rights.
During my visit to Kiev last month with our shadow foreign secretary David Lammy, Ukraine’s former prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk told us that “western unity is Ukraine’s best defence”. Nato builds unity and Ukrainians especially welcomed this at the recent Nato-Russia Council, when every one of the 30 Nato nations spoke to reject Russia’s aggression and to support Ukraine.
Bevin was a central figure and essential force in its creation. He viewed Nato as a “constructive and defensive” alliance of democracies. Labour values are embedded at the heart of Nato, with its founding treaty enshrining democracy, freedom, peace and the rule of law, as well as collective security. It embodies British and Labour internationalism at its best.
Labour is the party of Nato. All wings of our party supported its formation, and I am proud of the leading role Attlee’s government played in forging this successful post-war pact. Labour’s dedication to Nato remains unshakeable. Mutual defence through Article V is the cornerstone of our commitment to Britain’s security, and we want to see the alliance strengthened as a force for security and peace.
Deterrence and diplomacy continue to be core functions for Nato, as the secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, stressed regarding the current crisis around Ukraine. Stoltenberg said: “Nato firmly believes that tensions and disagreements must be resolved through dialogue and diplomacy. Not through force or the threat of force.”
That is why Keir Starmer and I have travelled to meet Stoltenberg today at Nato’s headquarters in Brussels. We are underlining the united UK support for Ukraine and stance against Russian aggression. The government has Labour’s full backing to help Ukraine defend itself, and our support to deploy British forces to reinforce Nato allies on our eastern flank.
This is the most serious crisis in European security since the Cold War. Russia has a vastly stronger military than any European country, with one million full-time troops, over 12,000 tanks and the most advanced weaponry. Britain by comparison, now has 227 tanks and the smallest army for 300 years, which ministers plan to cut by another 10,000 soldiers to just 72,500 by 2025.
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Nato’s alliance of democratic nations is needed to guarantee our security. This is why I argued ahead of the government’s Integrated Review last year that UK defence planning must give the highest priority to our Nato area – Europe, the North Atlantic and the Arctic. The Ukraine crisis now underlines the Integrated Review’s misplaced focus on the Indo-Pacific. Our defence efforts must be directed to where the threats are, not where the business opportunities might be.
We in the UK have been subject to the same type of aggression which Bevin warned about. The Russian government has murdered dissidents, used chemical weapons to kill people on British soil and launched cyber-attacks against British government departments and organisations developing Covid-19 vaccines.
While Ukraine is not a Nato member, and not covered by the mutual defence obligations of Article V, any Russian invasion that breaches the country’s integrity will have serious consequences for wider European security too. Our response has to be swift, severe and unified.
Britain’s backing for tough international sanctions must mean long-overdue action at home to clean up London as the destination for the dirty money that keeps Putin in power. It must mean British forces standing ready to bolster other Nato allies. And it must mean ministers halting any further cuts to the British army’s numbers.
Over 70 years on from Bevin’s speech, Nato has proven one of Britain’s most essential and successful alliances.
John Healey is the Labour MP for Wentworth and Dearne and shadow defence secretary
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