Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Wanted: a real security strategy

The government’s cack-handed approach to national security strategy will not serve us well post-Brexit, writes Toby Dickinson 

Just before Easter the government snuck out its national security capability review. And who can blame them? As an examination of ‘…how best we can apply our national security apparatus to address the increasing and diversifying threats to our country and to our way of life…’ it leaves a bit to be desired. In her foreword to the review, the prime minister wrote that ‘the framework of the 2015 national security strategy and the strategic defence and security review remains right.’ This is a pretty bold claim considering that since 2015 we have chosen to cut ties with the European Union, witnessed Russia interfere with the presidential elections of our closest allies, and seen instability and war crimes continue unchallenged in the Middle East.

The 2015 NSS was, in part, an attempt to reassure our allies and partners who had been given the impression that the coalition’s austerity fetish was leading to the United Kingdom pulling up the drawbridge. The review was broadly well received in our allies’ capitals, but it took David Cameron just seven months to return the UK to the back foot with the EU referendum result. Brexit invalidates a key pillar of (the 2015) National Security Strategy. If international relations are strengthened by, and threats underwritten by, membership of global multilateral institutions, then the UK’s choice to leave the EU undermines one of the core relationships on which our security is built: an insult to our forefathers, our children, and our allies.

On five occasions, the Review claims that as we leave the EU we will want to defend/develop/protect a capability, and/or share information with our EU partners. A review of national security capability should have more to say than this, with a particular and detailed focus on ways in which the UK hopes to share capability with the EU on, for example, the use of economic sanctions against Russia. Without the detail, it is unclear how the Review is fit for purpose for the post-Brexit world.





The NSCR was also an opportunity for some serious thinking on foreign affairs. The Commons foreign affairs committee – backed by its Labour members – released a report in March that called on the government to make ‘Global Britain’ more than just a slogan. Whether its setting an example by taking in more refugees from the war in Syria, resolving the immigration status of the Windrush generation with competence and compassion, or articulating a post-Brexit vision for UK-EU relations that goes beyond ‘deep and special’, it is evident that ministers are not thinking deeply about what they see as the UK’s role. 

From a Home Office perspective, it is clear that the government’s position on counter-terrorism is muddled.  Either ‘CONTEST [is]
a well-organised and comprehensive response to terrorism with strengths in terms of powers, resources, reach and resilience’ (page 18).  Or the government needs to ‘publish a new counter-terrorism strategy, which will include measures to improve our ability to disrupt terrorist plots in their early stages and improve frontline integration of our counter-terrorism response’ (page 3).

CONTEST is, conceptually, fit for purpose. As with any strategy, the government is right to review its efficacy and adjust it if appropriate. Liam Byrne has persuasively argued that the Cameron government’s flawed understanding (the ‘conveyor belt’ approach) of the ways in which people are radicalised led to a misapplication of the PREVENT line of CONTEST, which in turn has undermined many people’s confidence in the wider strategy

It is encouraging that the Home Office is taking steps to tackle online ISIS propaganda, which targets the vulnerable, and undermines trust in our democracy and values. It is appropriate that government engages and makes use of specialists in the private sector to deliver some of this programme. But in an environment where trust in our institutions and in the tech industry is low, Labour should insist that the government be clearer about the governance of this programme, and about who defines the boundaries.

Aside from this, the proclaimed big idea in the review is the announcement of a ‘new national security doctrine’, called the ‘Fusion Doctrine’. Readers who fear a descent into the esoteric darker recesses of strategic theory can exhale and relax. The Conservatives’ ‘Fusion Doctrine’ envisions using ‘our security, economic and influence capabilities to maximum effect to protect, promote and project our national security, economic and influence goals.’ This is, politely, anodyne. Strategy 101. The Usborne Big Book of Strategy. Using our security, economic and influence capabilities to maximum effect to promote our goals is something governments are supposed to do, and there is nothing specific to the UK national security strategy about it: any liberal Western democracy could paste this into their own policy and it would fit.

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Call it Croslandite revisionism, call it ‘Traditional Values in a Modern Setting’, what is necessary is a task all progressives will find familiar: a restatement of our values and principles, and a historically grounded application of them for the world we face today. A recognition that our values and our interests require us to deal with the often violent causes of migration, and that diplomacy, development and defence can all enable this. A recognition that our own democracy is strengthened if we act (and we should, swiftly) to prevent growing Russian interference in, to cite but one example, the politics and government of the western Balkans.

With soundbites, statistics, and NSS 2015 cut and pastes, the Review does not address its own question: ‘how best we can apply our national security apparatus to address the increasing and diversifying threats to our country and to our way of life.’ It is unclear how the UK is applying its capabilities to meet the key threats we face: the self-induced strategic threat of Brexit; the continuing contempt for democracy and international law by Russia and others; terrorism and violent extremism. Yet there is not much indication of strategic thinking in this review – nor indeed is there much indication of it in government at all.

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Toby Dickinson is an international security adviser and Progress member. He tweets @TobyDickinson

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