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Determining the wider dimensions of the UK’s national security

Margaret Gilmore
Commentary, 9 March 2009
UK, Domestic Security, Intelligence, National Security, Terrorism, Europe
The Director of RUSI Professor Michael Clarke has been appointed to the new National Security Forum, alongside a distinguished independent panel of world experts in security. This group is tasked to study specific security questions posed by Government. The committee held its first meeting on 9 March at 10 Downing Street.

The line up of its members is formidable – its remit unique in Government. The National Security Forum could be dismissed by cynics as another initiative for politicians who want to be seen to be doing something – if it were not for the calibre of those on this new committee. A group which includes a Nobel prize-winner, a leading captain of industry, a retired Intelligence chief, and a former Ambassador to Washington will surely not allow itself to be used as a political pawn in the run-up to a general election. It is a forum that will insist on being heard. Its Chairman, Lord West, says the Forum's advice will 'go beyond the traditional boundaries of intelligence and defence. Modern day national security issues such as counter-terrorism, organised crime and civil emergencies require independent thinkers who can bring a new perspective to national security policy.'

He is adamant it will not be simply a talking shop. But how influential or effective can it be without any executive powers? The job of this committee is to study specific security questions posed by Government. Its members will formulate advice on these for the Cabinet Committee on National Security, International Relations and Development (NSID) and in particular, for the Prime Minister. He and his colleagues are looking for fresh ideas and an independent, alternative perspective on security from outside Government to complement internal work. The Forum will be expected to alert ministers to security concerns but it will not officially be self-tasking or charged with horizon scanning, though given the range of expertise and of members well known for their strong views it is highly likely they will in fact stray into these areas.

Exploring global dimensions to security

The Government’s National Security Strategy heralded a shift in policy towards a broader view of security encompassing global themes, instead of the narrower concept limiting security to policing and defence, counter-terrorism and fighting crime. Those behind the Forum hope that shift will herald a shift in language too. Just as the CONTEST strategy, with its four strands of Prevent, Pursue, Protect and Prepare has become common language in security circles, they hope the Forum will encourage the broader global definition of security to become common language too. They are keen for people to understand that that security now goes far wider, and is dependent on and driven by global factors such as economics, poverty, climate change and state-led threats.

The topics that came up at the first meeting of the new committee show the breadth of issues they are likely to discuss. The Forum has been set two tasks. The first – to study the national security implications of the global economic and financial crisis (the membership has expertise in economics, not just in the UK but also internationally).

The second – to look at the national security implications of conflicts around energy sources – an area some ministers are concerned has not yet been adequately addressed in Government. The emphasis is less on security of supply, more on the effects of other factors on energy – shortages or economic downturns in countries which supply oil for example – and how that could affect the UK.

Given its broad remit it is not difficult to work out what other issues are likely to be discussed in future. Ministers want to fill gaps and weaknesses. Cyber security could find its way onto the Forum’s agenda, as a cross cutting issue which could affect a range of Government departments. There is still a lot to be done in analysing the scale of the threat and how to deal with it – hugely important in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics. The Games are an obvious target for terrorists and criminals and any cyber attack could be devastating.

Composition and remit

The Forum has been set up to provide strategic, long-term thinking. The idea is it should pinpoint areas which need development and then keep up pressure on ministers and civil servants to ensure good strategies become policy. It will not be expected to come up with quick fix solutions to breaking events – that remains the job of current heads of department in police, intelligence and government. Those heads will continue to feed their own strategic ideas into policy-making and these in turn will be fed into the new Forum so it can take into account views within as well as outside Government. The Forum should compliment busy sections of the Home and Cabinet Offices and police and intelligence agencies and provide the extra lateral thinking on security that many in Government do not have time to consider, but believe is needed.

It has been set up to dovetail with existing policy-making security structures. It will be presented with short papers outlining the questions it is expected to address by the National Security Secretariat, which is responsible for ensuring implementation of much of the National Security Strategy. Both the NSS and the new National Security Forum feed into the top level cabinet committee, the NSID. But the NSF advice will also be transmitted to other Government departments such as the Office for Counter-Terrorism and Security in the Home Office, if it is relevant. The Forum will meet about five times a year, usually without publishing its agenda or discussions.

Its aims are worthy but it has a defined life initially of no more than two years. That is because it is not yet formally a Non-Departmental Public Body, whose Members have been appointed directly by the Prime Minister, albeit after consultation – it is for the moment an interim committee. The plan eventually is to establish it as an NDPB – if the next Government chooses to. There are whispers of support in the Conservative party should they take power – but also a suggestion they could decide the Forum must have a stronger remit – with the ability to raise budgets from Government departments to enforce strategies they believe should be followed through.

The Government has been criticised at times for being distant from private industry and unaware of all the private sector can offer. The Forum, could bridge that gap. Two thirds of the newly appointed members have previous experience in Government, but the others come from industry and the academic world. Each Member brings specialist expertise as well as being a broader strategist.

Lord West, will chair the Committee, not in his narrower role as Home Office Minister for Counter-Terrorism but because of his wider security background as a former head of Defence Intelligence. The other members are Sir David Manning, former Ambassador to NATO and to Washington, Sir David Pepper, former Director of GCHQ, the former head of the police Counter-Terrorism Command Peter Clarke, Sir Michael Rake who is Chairman of the BT Group, the physicist Professor Julia King, now Vice Chancellor of Aston University who used to work for the Ministry of Defence, General Sir Rupert Smith who was Commander of UN forces in Bosnia, Sir Ronnie Flanagan, formerly Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary, Professor Armartya Sen, the Nobel prize-winning economist now based at Harvard, Professor Michael Clarke, Director of RUSI, the leading commentator Professor Ziauddin Sardar, and Dame Juliet Wheldon former Treasury Solicitor and advisor to the Bank of England.

Commenting on the NSF’s composition, RUSI Director Professor Michael Clarke observed that ‘The Forum is one way for the Government to draw on the range of intellectual expertise it knows it now requires, but also to engage a wider non-governmental community in debates over the UK’s security strategy’, adding:

‘In a globalised world, national security is a multi-dimensional concept, far wider than mere defence or policing. It embraces the need to keep society functioning in the face of many potential disruptions; to energy supply, economic well-being, and social dislocation for example. A strategic approach to national security is as much about procedures to become resilient as it is about what sort of internal and external defences to provide’.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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