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The recently published Integrated Review (IR) sets out the government’s vision for the UK’s role in the world over the next decade.
Produced every five years, this is the closest thing the UK has to a national strategy. This year’s edition is, in many ways, a good example: balanced in tone, it puts defending the UK’s values at its heart and recognises the importance of overcoming domestic challenges to secure the UK’s position internationally.
However, it falls short of seizing the ‘once in a generation’ opportunity to overhaul the UK’s global role that Brexit and recovering from the coronavirus pandemic present. It is unusually upfront about the trade-offs the UK will have to grapple with – between short-term commercial interests and UK values, between openness and security, and between competing and cooperating with other powers – but still avoids making hard choices about what the UK can and cannot do, trying instead to be all things to all people.
This is unsurprising. Navigating these choices effectively requires dialogue and exchange – and here again the IR falls short. While government officials and ministers are showing increasing willingness to do things differently, the IR is still – for the most part – developed by elites, behind closed doors. For the UK to chart a clear course in a turbulent world that takes into account the hopes and fears of its citizens, its history and the legacies it plans to leave for future generations, it needs a new, more participatory approach to developing national strategy.
A National Strategy for the Next Generations (NSxNG)
Last year, the School of International Futures joined with a coalition of partners to show the government what this could look like. The National Strategy for the Next Generations (NSxNG) pilot brought together over 100 civil society organisations and engaged 500 young people in workshops, surveys and an online citizens’ assembly. We worked with senior officials in government to begin incorporating this diversity of voices into national strategy discussions. Rather than looking at the immediate future, the NSxNG exercise imagined what it would be like to be a citizen in 2045.
A number of the key messages that young people communicated to us are echoed in the IR. It emphasises the importance of the Union (‘our greatest source of strength’) and of ‘tackling the priority issues ... health, security, economic wellbeing and the environment’ at home in order to secure the UK’s reputation internationally: both sentiments that young people agree with. Its focus on driving further innovation in science and technology also chimes with some of the positive visions that young people devised for the future during the NSxNG pilot.
However, there are lessons that the government still needs to learn. First: to effectively reshape the UK’s future role in the world, national strategy needs to look further ahead, at least to the next generation. Focusing too much on the near future results in a reactive response to threats that are already apparent or developing. Stephanie Draper, Chief Executive of Bond, observed to us that while the IR ‘acknowledges many of the challenges of our time ... it fails to deliver a really integrated, systemic approach where the UK is working to address the root causes of problems and focuses on prevention rather than cure’. This requires a longer time horizon, taking into account the fact that investments the UK makes now – in developing countries or emerging technology, for instance – will take more than a decade to bear fruit.
Looking out beyond 10 years also opens up more optimistic dynamics and opportunities, as participants in our workshop found when developing visions for the UK in 2045. Working to a 2030 timeline encourages a linear approach that simply follows the likely course of existing trends, viewing the future as something to anticipate and respond to, rather than something that can be shaped. With a longer time horizon, we found citizens are able to imagine more diverse and positive futures, which in some cases might differ quite starkly from the present.
Second, government needs to recognise the benefits of having an open public conversation about the future. Our pilot brought together organisations and individuals from across the political spectrum, with a range of different backgrounds and perspectives. Yet, through structured deliberation and dialogue, we were able to resolve many of the tensions between them. Despite concerns about an impending ‘culture war’, the pilot demonstrated that there is still an opportunity to have a respectful, productive national conversation that unites rather than divides. Moreover, it is only through having this conversation that the government will be able to navigate some of the hard decisions – such as between prioritising trade and values, openness and security – that the IR skates over.
We want to go further still. Our plans for the coming year include facilitating a ‘Manifesto for the Next Generations’, co-authored by the youth wings of parties from across the political spectrum. We are also planning intergenerational panels, citizens’ assemblies and democracy packs for schools and community groups, bringing people together to talk through some of the biggest and most controversial questions facing the UK. As Lord Ricketts put it:
‘This long-awaited Integrated Review is not an end but a beginning. The words on the page of this government document are only the starting point for a much wider national debate about what role we want Britain to play in the world in the decades ahead. And the most crucial voices in that debate are the young people whose lives will be most affected by it: so let’s pay close attention now to what they have to say!’
Cat Tully is the founder of the School of International Futures (SOIF). She served as Strategy Project Director at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and as Senior Policy Adviser in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
Lewis Lloyd is a School of International Futures Researcher on the NSxNG programme.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
BANNER IMAGE: Courtesy of Fly_and_Dive/Adobe Stock.