The UK’s National Security Strategy

This Wednesday the British Government will publish the UK’s  first ever National Security Strategy. This is a big moment for Gordon Brown and comes with great expectations.  Don’t be surprised if there is no Minister on the Today Programme discussing the strategy’s pros and cons on Wednesday morning – this will be Gordon Brown’s opportunity to kill lots of birds with one mighty strategic stone (so lets hope he does wait and announce it in Parliament).

Dignity and gravitas will ooze from every pore of the front bench as Brown steps up to the dispatch box and announces the strategy. MPs from all sides of the House will nod and mouth their agreement. In the gallery sketch writers will pen columns for Thursday’s newspapers about how important Parliament is. For a brief moment the Government will look in complete control of its destiny – polls will even show the Labour party jump ahead of the Conservatives.

Some British newspapers are already trailing the announcement. The Telegraph suggests that ‘a national security council will be created, staffed by senior politicians including, potentially, individuals from other parties, intelligence and military chiefs, and scientific experts.. and that Paddy Ashdown has been suggested as a possible leading opposition figure with the experience to be invited to serve alongside senior Government ministers’. The Guardian points to the fact that ‘officials were divided about how broad they should paint the security threats facing Britain, and whether they should include such issues as social cohesion, for example,’ while The Times believes that a ‘group of veteran specialists will advise Gordon Brown on all aspects of national security, ranging from terrorist strikes to pandemics’. Finally the Financial Times writes that Sir Paul McCartney has been ordered to pay his estranged wife Heather Mills £24.3m.

Below are some thoughts ahead of the publication of the UK NSS.

1. A few of the old school / former diplomatic elite will not like the strategy and will be vocal in their thinking. Sir Jeremy Greenstock, the UK’s former ambassador to the United Nations, is quoted in today’s Telegraph saying the strategy will be too vague and undermined by funding cuts.  The fact that he has completely missed the point is irrelevant it won’t stop the media listening. Men and women with experience are given lots of oxygen by the media on the assumption that they have the necessary expertise. This is a false assumption. I am reminded of a quote by my former boss:

‘At times of revolution our experiences can be fatal baggage. We can no longer assume that, because something we did worked well in the past, it will continue to do so. We will need to make a correspondingly revolutionary shift in the way we think about both the risk and the response.’ 

2. While I am on the topic of the experience I am not sure it’s such a great idea to staff a national security council solely with veteran specialists (as per The Times). Surely a mixture of talents and experience would be better. (70% -30% in favour of young/ middle age individuals would be better).

3. The Ministry of Defence could potentially be the biggest loser from the NSS. Three qualifications. Firstly the Comprehensive Spending Review has been signed off with budgets agreed  so there won’t be any dramatic changes. Secondly if you accept that there is a broader spectrum of risks (threats – such as terrorism and hazards – natural disasters) then you need to question whether the majority of your cash goes on defence or on a mixture of defence, diplomacy, aid, crisis management/ civil contingencie. See page 79 of National Security for the Twenty-first century for the analysis. Thirdly this does not mean the British Armed Forces will be worse off – it will however mean a re-balancing of departmental budgets in future decades.

4. The Strategy could be undermined by the current political debate around new ‘surveillance powers’. While this is a very important subject the story risks shifting the focus of debate and making the NSS a political football (like the current CT legislation is). The UK NSS is an opportunity for a political consensus unseen in recent times. Each party has set out or is in the process of setting out its own version of ‘national security’… don’t lets waste this opportunity.

5. The media will generally get the ‘news’ right but the analysis wrong. This will be because they will focus on secondary issues and micro stories not the macro narrative. Unlike the French Government (currently doing a similar thing to the UK in terms of national security) which sees defence as a subset of national security the UK media sees national security through the lens of defence, principally because of the debate over defence cuts is an ongoing story.

6.  The UK NSS will be meaningless unless it leads to change in how the Government is organised at the centre.

7. Current debate over national security  in Government /media circles is like a game of ‘how big is your risk?’. We were told four years ago that climate change would be the biggest threat to the UK, two years ago that it was energy security, then terrorism then flooding, and so on. The point is that this conversation reflects the Cold War mentality of focusing on a single threat – the so-called big one. But today we face a broad spectrum of risks, and some will be more of a priority than others at any one time. Some individuals find this idea very difficult to comprehend. It’s even more painful to plan for… but we are going to have to start thinking about this.

8. If you still are yet to be convinced about the need for a national security strategy read this.

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About Charlie Edwards

Charlie Edwards is Director of National Security and Resilience Studies at the Royal United Services Institute. Prior to RUSI he was a Research Leader at the RAND Corporation focusing on Defence and Security where he conducted research and analysis on a broad range of subject areas including: the evaluation and implementation of counter-violent extremism programmes in Europe and Africa, UK cyber strategy, European emergency management, and the role of the internet in the process of radicalisation. He has undertaken fieldwork in Iraq, Somalia, and the wider Horn of Africa region.