By CivilServiceWorld

14 Mar 2013

The National Security Council has improved Whitehall’s planning and coordination. But it’s been busiest where the bullets have been flying, and there are doubts over its scrutiny of less obvious dangers. Stuart Watson reports.

Since taking power the coalition has confronted a battery of foreign crises, such as the seizure of an Algerian oil well by Islamists, a series of terrorist spectaculars in Afghanistan, and the Arab Spring – the multifaceted catalyst of major events including the Libyan uprising and Syrian civil war.

In each case, the National Security Council (NSC) has been at the forefront of the government’s response. However, on 28 February a joint parliamentary committee published a report raising concerns over whether the NSC is realising its full potential (see box).

The NSC was created in 2010 to co-ordinate responses to the dangers that the UK faces, by integrating the work of departments and agencies and providing a forum for high-level discussions on strategic security issues. Chaired by the prime minister and supported by a secretariat run by national security adviser Kim Darroch, it holds weekly meetings attended by cabinet ministers and senior armed forces and intelligence services chiefs. Darroch’s team is also responsible for security policy across government, including the National Security Strategy (NSS).

The report published by the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy (JCNSS) – a cross-party group bringing together MPs and peers – criticised the NSC for failing to consider the big strategic picture and probe some issues that have the potential to impact on the UK’s security. In particular, it mentioned the eurozone crisis; the referendums on EU membership and Scottish independence; and the USA’s ‘pivot’ to make the Asia-Pacific region its top security priority.

Committee chair Margaret Beckett tells CSW that JCNSS is “very supportive” of the NSC, but “inevitably there is a danger of government being besieged by day-to-day problems, and overlooking something that is the next big problem around the corner. We think the opportunity that having the NSC creates may not be being taken.”

The impact of climate change and the widening global gap between rich and poor should be added to the list of strategic challenges, says Professor Paul Rogers, an international security expert and the former head of Bradford University’s Department of Peace Studies. “There was a real hope that the NSS would go beyond defence, but it seems to me to have become more reactive, more tactical rather than strategic. It is not delivering on what was expected,” he says.

Former government security and intelligence co-ordinator Sir David Omand agrees that the committee’s concerns are “reasonable.” However, he adds: “The focus has inevitably had to be on the more short-term and operational stuff because there seems to have been rather a lot going on in the world. One hopes that as events allow they will become a little more strategic and focus on some of the further-ahead issues.”

Civil servants will be important here, Omand says: “It requires very good staff work to prepare material for [NSC] that prompts the right kind of discussion. Cabinet Office is perfectly capable of producing that, but it does require time to discuss it and agendas have probably been rather crowded recently.”

Sir Malcolm Rifkind, chair of the Commons Intelligence and Security Committee, defends NSC’s record on considering strategic issues: “Obviously it is right and proper they should look at immediate crises when decisions are needed, but it’s certainly my impression that they do quite a lot both directly and through their staff on the more strategic questions, so I don’t entirely agree with that criticism,” he says.

The JCNSS also expressed worries about the extent of cross-departmental co-operation, arguing that individual departments had made significant policy changes without discussion at the NSC. “What has surprised it is certain bits of business that have not come to the NSC at all, which [the JCNSS] would have expected to, particularly when they have long term consequences for strategic capabilities,” says Professor Sir Hew Strachan, Chichele Professor of the History of War at All Soul’s College Oxford, who advises JCNSS. “For example Army 2020, the restructuring of the Army, has not been to NSC at all. I personally find that extraordinary and so does the committee.”

A Cabinet Office spokesman responds: “We reject the suggestion that the government has failed to discuss the issues relating to Future Reserves 2020 and Army 2020. There are other forums, outside of the NSC, where that subject was addressed sufficiently”.

Despite his wider concerns, Omand is sanguine on this point: “What the NSC has no doubt discussed is the overall level of capability that can be generated,” he says. “Exactly how the reserves are organised is principally a matter for the defence secretary.”

The creation of the NSC is an evolution of attempts made under the last Labour government to improve co-ordination on national security matters, argues Matt Cavanagh, who worked in the Prime Minister’s Policy Unit from 2007-2010 as a special adviser on national security. “It was always frustrating that the different departments tended to pursue their priorities without talking enough”, he recalls.

Cavanagh argues that the current NSC secretariat is not large enough to carry out independent work and impose a more strategic agenda on departments. He also calls for the appointment of a politician or military figure as national security adviser, rather than an FCO official such as Kim Darroch or his predecessor Peter Ricketts: “If you wanted someone to lead cross-government work in a way that transcended the departmental agendas, you wouldn’t just need a senior Foreign Office diplomat rotating through that role. You would need a different kind of person,” he says.

The committee has urged NSC to step up efforts to produce a new NSS, updating the 2010 version. Beckett believes that would help to expand NSC’s work: the kind of horizon-scanning required to produce an NSS “reminds you all the time that you’re supposed to be doing something much more strategic as well as dealing with the day-to-day [issues],” she says.

Although opinions differ on the extent to which NSC is fulfilling its early promise, it has attracted well-wishers from across the political divide and throughout the civil service. Beckett describes it as a “valuable extra contribution to the workings of government”, while Rifkind says its performance so far has been “quite impressive.”

“NSC is a brilliant innovation,” comments former cabinet secretary Lord O’Donnell. “It works because it is a forum that combines the use of expert official advisers with the key political decision-makers. I hope this innovation is continued whoever is in government.”

In a little over two years, the NSC has become an established part of the Whitehall landscape. In the face of increasing global political and economic instability, its success or failure will be judged by how the British government deals with the crises to come – or how, better still, it averts them.

Read the most recent articles written by CivilServiceWorld - Bid to block whistleblower’s access to ministers

Share this page