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The Government’s National Security Strategy has provided a useful articulation of the great diversity of threats facing the UK. Does this articulation, along with its intention to create a National Risk Register, signal the adoption of a genuinely risked-based approach to security?
19 March 2008 - Freshly released strategic documents should always be read with a degree of circumspection. Individual words allude to huge programmes of work and single sentences correspond to, potentially, millions of pounds of investment. The difference between immediate intention and long-term aspiration is often unclear and a misreading of either is easy. In this vein, for an onlooker concerned with the subject, the determination of the Government to take a ‘hard-headed’ approach to risk, as stated in the National Security Strategy, left much room for interpretation.
Reference to a number of (admittedly unreliable) online dictionaries gives two conflicting definitions of ‘hard-headed’: unreasonably rigid in the face of argument or entreaty or attack or having or indicating an awareness of things as they really are. For critics of the Government’s security policy to this point, these quite opposite meanings actually go a little way to articulating both the UK’s response to threats over the last decade and the more risk-aware response to which it is hoped the national security strategy will contribute.
‘Unreasonably rigid in the face of argument or entreaty or attack’
This, the less complimentary of the definitions, loosely reflects the Government’s preoccupation with the terrorist threat since 2001. Much to the frustration of many working to combat other threats both in and out of Government, counter-terrorism has dominated the agenda. The National Security Strategy is testament to the number and potency of the different threats to the UK that have emerged in recent years. Yet, while officials elsewhere in Whitehall profess to be more afraid of water than Al-Qa’ida, counter-terrorism has continued to subsume resources and effort disproportionate to its ranking as a middle-order threat. The protection of Critical National Infrastructure (CNI) is perhaps typical of this scenario. While sophisticated structures and policy have grown up around the protection of the UK’s CNI from terrorism, no coherent framework exists for protecting critical infrastructure against the seemingly more pressing threats of extreme weather.
However, as the advocacy and employment of a risk-based approach right across the spectrum of threats has gathered momentum, the second – more gracious – of the definitions comes to reflect the position to which the UK is apparently travelling: having or indicating an awareness of things as they really are. The National Security Strategy, with its cross-Government input, is seemingly both indicative of changing attitudes and a catalyst for them. To see the sheer range and variety of threats to the UK articulated in one place cannot help but re-focus the thinking of policy makers, and those who would influence policy, on the importance of responding proportionally and allocating resources rationally.
More concretely, through its intention to introduce a National Risk Register, the Government may be opening itself up to increased scrutiny of its threat perception, its approach to risk and its allocation of resources. While all this should be qualified by the circumspection mentioned above, the creation of an openly available register, ‘setting out our assessment of the likelihood and potential impact of a range of different risks that may directly affect the United Kingdom, and the safety and well-being of its citizens’, raises some intriguing questions and is seemingly very significant. The National Risk Register is currently classified and, while the intelligence which informs any national register will undoubtedly remain so, the opportunity to compare the risk from individual threats to the money spent protecting us from them could be an eye-opening one indeed.
The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.