In his letter of resignation to the Prime Minister, Dr John Reid wrote that after working non-stop at such a high level for so many years, he was ready for a break. But reading between the lines, far from taking a break, it looks like he is about to embark on a very big job indeed. The Home Office website goes on to quote from this letter: ‘This will, incidentally, also provide me personally with more time than is ever available while in office to discuss, listen, learn and reflect on the great issues of the next decade, especially that of Security, which even now confronts us.’
Many commentators have speculated the reasons and ramifications for the resignation – did he jump or was he pushed? What effect will such a move have on Dr Reid personal career? Does it help or hinder Gordon Brown? But few have commented on the broader implications of what he will do next. We know from his interview with Jon Sopel on the Politics Show (Sunday 06 May 2007) that he ‘will not put himself forward as a candidate for the leadership’, he will be voting for Gordon Brown, and he will not be ‘sniping’ from the back-benches. He also stated that there is an ‘eagerness’ for Labour to come together rather than ‘fracture’.
Consummate and dyed in the wool politician though he is, I am inclined to take his statements of the past couple of days at face value.
So the big question is ‘how do you solve a problem like Security?’ or more to the point how will John Reid, with a government lead by Gordon Brown, go about solving a problem like security?
He has stated that he is going to ‘discuss, listen, learn and reflect’ and there is indeed much to think about. There is no doubt that the UK is faced with serious and long term threats and hazards. These range from terrorism and crime to natural emergencies and disasters which are becoming ever more frequent. Therefore to cope with such threats the UK needs a coherent national security and resilience strategy. However, those that make decisions about how to make things secure and resilient do not operate entirely from one place. They are spread across the public and private sectors and are driven by varying agendas and have unique vulnerabilities.
Some aspects of security fall into what David Schmidtz describes as ‘collective’ or ‘public goods’. These are goods and services that all individuals want but that cannot be produced adequately in a market system. It is hard, for example, for the entire population to simultaneously and individually rationalize their voluntarily contribution to secure comprehensive national emergency services such as police, fire and ambulance. In such cases the state intervenes, individuals are taxed and they are provided by the state. But, many aspects of security and resilience, such as the provision of secure financial services and resilient communications systems operate under free market conditions.
The result is a UK security and resilience landscape that is as fragmented as the economy and the financial services. Strategy is highly devolved with those charged with the day-to-day operation of a particular asset or service. They understand the vulnerabilities best and they are also charged with devising their own individual security and resilience strategy. Yet to achieve coherent national security each strategy element needs to be compatible, both horizontally and vertically, with other security and resilience elements.
John Reid understands this well. He knows that a coherent strategy requires information that to flow freely. Getting data to flow freely across bureaucratic silos that characteristise modern government is not an easy task. Information will also need to flow between the public and private sectors and, more importantly, will require the right environment for people to collaborate and use the data.
Splitting the Home Office will reduce the chains of command and the creation of a multi-jurisdictional National Security Committee will help provide a focus to which each department can work – but it doesn’t solve many of the wider issues.
Therefore, rather than there being some deep and significant hidden story behind Reid’s decision to resign as Home Secretary, this might simply be a case of Labour collectively taking the opportunity of a new leadership to give someone of Reid’s stature and experience the opportunity and space to think strategically about the security of the nation unencumbered by departmental ties.
Dr Sandra Bell
Director of Homeland Security & Resilience Department
The views and comments offered here do not necessarily reflect those of the Royal United Services Institute