By Matt.Ross

28 Jun 2010

The new National Security Council will draw a range of departments into crucial decisions on security. Matt Ross reports on the coalition’s attempt to win cross-government consensus in a complex and unpredictable world.


If you were designing a governmental structure for a world of complex, international social and environmental problems, in which fast-expanding information technology and transport networks offer people, data and resources unprecedented levels of mobility, you probably would not end up creating a system of stand-alone, vertically-organised, theme-based departments. After all, such challenges tend to evolve rapidly and cut across departmental remits; it is difficult for such a government to ensure that its response does the same.

This is probably most true within the field of security, which draws in both foreign wars and home-grown terrorism; international aid exports and smuggled narcotics imports; divergent national interests and shared environmental threats. “We need a realisation that one of the most important elements of the modern structure of government lies not with internal departmental organisation but with each department’s ability to work with others,” said last year’s Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) report, Shared Responsibilities. Produced by a panel of top politicians, officials, soldiers and academics, the report argued that “Today, it is the docking points and interconnections that matter most. Nowhere are these more relevant or more needed than in the relationship between the Department for International Development (DfID), the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), and the Ministry of Defence (MoD).”Under Labour, there was significant progress in fostering cross-departmental collaboration on security. As the former defence secretary Bob Ainsworth explains, Gordon Brown chaired a National Security and International Development (NSID) cabinet committee on which sat the foreign, international development and home secretaries, the security minister and Ainsworth himself. “And we had all the intelligence agencies represented, with the chief of defence staff and other ministers as required,” he adds.
Reaching across government

Although plans in 2007 to create a single security budget never came to fruition, the government did run a pooled conflict-prevention budget to encourage collaborative working at the complicated intersection of nation-building, development work and counter-insurgency. Establishing interdepartmental teams such as the Stabilisation Unit and the Afghanistan Drugs Interdepartmental Unit also improved collaboration at the front line – where different arms of government had sometimes previously found themselves working at cross-purposes. “There’s a gearing mechanism that needs to be got right between the FCO’s diplomacy, the military’s action and DfID, which wouldn’t want you doing things that would come back on you further down the road,” says Ainsworth. “I think we got that joined-up working right in places like Afghanistan.”

Late in Labour’s tenure, Ainsworth’s defence green paper backed the development of a broad-based national security strategy as the basis for a strategic defence review. “There was quite good coordination when the MoD produced a green paper earlier this year,” comments Professor Paul Rogers, an international security expert and the former head of Bradford University’s Department of Peace Studies. “They were prepared to look more widely – though two years ago they produced a national security strategy looking at these bigger issues, and they didn’t follow through.”

In the run-up to the general election, the Conservative Party’s national security green paper promised the establishment of a National Security Council – and on 12 May, immediately after the formation of the coalition, the NSC held its first meeting. Bringing together the key ministers, and served by a high-powered national security adviser – former FCO permanent secretary Sir Peter Ricketts – supported by a dedicated Cabinet Office team (see box, right), the NSC is tasked with developing a national security strategy and overseeing the subsequent strategic defence and security review (SDSR).

A warm welcome

The NSC received a welcome that spanned the political divide. Paddy Ashdown – who co-chaired the IPPR panel – told Civil Service World: “If this takes Whitehall away from 19th century structures and towards a modern, 21st century networked structure so that government departments work together, then it is a very good idea.” Patrick Mercer, a Tory MP who stood for the chairmanship of the defence select committee, agrees that: “in the past, the machinery of government has worked very much in silos, in stovepipes. If these departments are drawn together and can analyse situations in detail as they develop, that’s got to be a good thing.”

Mercer accepts that Labour did undertake some “ultimately successful work – in creating the Office of Security and Counter-Terrorism, for example”; but the NSC is, he says, a “simpler and more discrete body” than Labour’s NSID. And whilst Ainsworth argues that the transition to the NSC is a shift in “presentation rather than substance; the new government wants to be seen to do something different”, he doesn’t oppose the move. “Of course those structures need to develop; they’d have developed under us,” he told CSW. “We were driving in the right direction. I hope they are too.”

The NSC’s creation is, then, an evolution rather than a revolution. “The apparatus that the new government has set up builds on, and has a similar underlying approach to, that of the previous government,” says Lord Mottram, a former defence permanent secretary who’s also run the UK’s intelligence operations from the Cabinet Office. “And I personally think that is helpful. Both governments have recognised that we need to rethink security, concentrating less on conflict between states and more on the whole range of risks.”

Same direction, but faster

Nonetheless, Sir David Omand – a former GCHQ head, Home Office permanent secretary, and Mottram’s predecessor as intelligence chief – argues that the NSC’s creation sends a strong signal “to ministers and their advisers that the government is serious about better coordination in dealing with threats overseas; and probably – though I don’t have evidence for this – in ensuring coherence between what’s done domestically and overseas.”

The NSC is likely to meet more regularly than its predecessor, and the establishment of a single, unified secretariat will provide the required breadth of vision and help ensure that committee decisions are enacted. “I and Richard Mottram looked after the intelligence community and homeland security [from the Cabinet Office], but we didn’t deal with defence and overseas policy,” says Omand. “Peter Ricketts is bringing all those domestic and international threats together, and that must be a good idea.”

In fact, says Mottram, the appointment of a national security adviser is a bigger development than the creation of the NSC. Ricketts “has the capability to improve the coherence of the whole effort – because that’s what we need: more coherence in Whitehall and on the ground,” he says. Over at RUSI – the armed forces think-tank – a well-informed source suggests that Ricketts’ team will be able to plug an obvious gap in the government’s security operations to date. “Each part of government has its own people for identifying future troublespots, and there’s never been a systematic attempt to, every few months, take stock and look across departments so that there’s a discussion across government on whether there should be a reorientation of assets,” he says. “I think that will now come in relatively quickly.”

The source adds that some past national security advisers have been special advisers whose focus on political issues and media coverage has made them vulnerable to being blown off course by a “blizzard of media stories”, leading to “knee-jerk reactions to events”. This new job, he believes, “is more about ensuring that decisions are well-informed and that action is taken”.

Even Bob Ainsworth is supportive of the new team’s establishment. “We were in the process of strengthening the Cabinet Office, and I wouldn’t say that further strengthening is a bad thing; I’d say it was a positive thing,” he comments. And Andy Hull, the IPPR senior research fellow who oversaw the development of Shared Responsibilities, argues that the secretariat is crucial to making NSC decisions stick. “The NSC is going to have to offer strategic steer, but it’ll need people beneath it to action that,” he says. “Until the creation of this role, there was a danger that there weren’t sufficient senior hands on deck to drive decisions into implementation.”

An adviser with clout

The choice of an experienced Whitehall insider for the job, Hull adds, is a good move. “They may have to knock some heads together in Whitehall, so it’s important to have someone who’s taken seriously there,” he comments. The RUSI source, though, suggests that Ricketts’ approach will be a subtle one. “He’s not somebody who shouts and throws things and bullies people,” he says. “It’s a more personable approach than that of some who’ve played similar roles, but you don’t get to be a permanent secretary without a degree of steel within you. His role is not to be a separate source of authority, but to identify the issues that need to be discussed, to support the ministers and to ensure that their collective views are implemented.”

One of Ricketts’ early tasks will be to integrate and align the NSC with the existing intelligence and security apparatus; the role of the Home Office’s Office of Security and Counter-Terrorism, for example, is likely to change. Following that, he’ll be able to give NSC members a clear picture of how resources for security work are handled and distributed across government. Both the Tories’ green paper and the IPPR’s report suggested the introduction of more pooled budgets – but according to Omand and Hull, the real issue here is one of transparency. “What matters is that the NSC have full visibility of all the security spend across the departments, so that spending can be aligned to their priorities,” says Hull.

Given that transparency, the NSC will be able to consider whether the various levers at its disposal are being given the right weighting: in the past, governments have tended to rely too heavily on the levers which are easiest to pull. “Under the present arrangements, there have been big problems in the allocation of resources for specific contingencies – it’s often been easier to deploy military force than other forms of support,” comments Mottram, while Omand notes that “it’s sometimes easier to instruct the MoD to prepare plans than to try to organise negotiations or get police and judicial assistance to the area concerned”. Mobilising UK police for international deployment, adds the RUSI commentator, is particularly tricky; the SDSR, he suggests, “might result in us recognising that in the past we’ve been over-ambitious” in pledging police support, given the existing system for organising and funding deployments.

Managing the review

One crucial change introduced with the NSC lies in the management of the defence review; traditionally the MoD’s job, oversight of the SDSR will now lie with the Cabinet Office team. Ricketts’ staff, comments Omand, will need “to balance the MoD’s work with work being done in other departments, to make sure that they haven’t got over-investment in some areas and that the review is working on strategic assumptions”.

Given the SDSR’s management from the centre of government, any MoD bids for major spending on military hardware are likely to come under a bright spotlight – and Andy Hull of the IPPR warns against pre-empting the findings of the national security strategy. “I’m concerned by comments by the previous government, which made commitments on Trident and suggested that decisions had been made about aircraft carriers in advance of the review,” he says. “There should be no holds barred in the review.”

At Bradford University, Professor Rogers agrees. “They should start with, if not a clean slate, an open slate,” he says. “One of the problems with the defence posture now is that it means putting so much into Trident, aircraft and aircraft carriers that we’d have a more capable expeditionary force than we’ve had for 40 years and a nuclear deterrent, but we’d be able to do little else.” However, he adds that “a broad centre-right government can more easily make changes on defence than a centre-left government. John Major made a series of pretty deep cuts in defence and got away with it; the Labour lot are always fearful of being called unpatriotic.” Given the financial position – and the protection of DfID’s budget – the FCO and MoD budgets are certainly bound to come under severe pressure.

A broad approach

The coalition’s new approach to security represents a careful and deliberate attempt to broaden the debate, bringing in all the relevant departments and important voices to ensure that the eventual strategy – and the capabilities that will be shaped by it – considers all the potential threats and the appropriate responses. In this spirit, Bob Ainsworth urges the coalition to bring in external voices as well as internal ones: “If defence is to work properly, it has got to have broad political support,” he says. “When I produced the defence green paper, I tried to capture cross-party support; I also reached out to academia, to the various think-tanks and bodies in the defence world, to capture their thinking. And the SDSR will be carried out against a difficult financial background, so you’re not going to be able to stop finance and resources from talking in all this – but you don’t want it to be the only voice at the table.”

At the IPPR, Andy Hull already has concerns over the NSC’s breadth. The justice secretary should have a seat, he says: “There are rule of law, human rights and justice issues that are relevant to national security these days,” he comments, arguing that the UK will only win hearts and minds if it’s seen to act according to its democratic principles. “Legitimacy in our security policy is a strategic necessity, not a liberal nicety,” he adds.

So the review should consider the views of all those involved in UK security; and it should also, argues Professor Rogers, broaden the government’s view on security issues beyond the UK’s armed enemies – both overseas insurgents, and internal terrorists – to consider the big social and environmental forces that create conflicts in the first place. “The big issues over the next 30 years are the widening global socio-economic divide; the impact of climate change; the growth in irregular warfare capabilities,” he says. “If you’re going to address those, you need the Treasury and the Department of Energy and Climate Change on board.”

Over at RUSI, our well-informed source agrees. “The risk is: to what extent does having an NSC that looks at security issues give less weight to longer-term security-related issues, such as climate change? The secretariat will have to be alive to the longer-term issues that could have an impact on our security,” he says. Once you start broadening the viewfinder on security, it seems, you need a seriously wide-angle lens. But there’s a big potential reward for getting that bigger picture in focus: a reduction in the causes of conflict. “It’s no use just saying: ‘This is the fragile world we’re moving into’,” concludes Rogers. “We need to address the underlying reasons why we’re moving into a more insecure world.”

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