The greatest challenge facing a new government may be that Britain’s national security institutions are not fit for purpose. They were built for a different era and focused on a set of now obselete threats. Notwithstanding a few exceptions, like the Cuban Missile Crisis, the threats during the Cold War were slow-moving and predictable. Even in the immediate Cold War period, threats were nasty, but rarely novel.
Now, however, Britain faces all manner of fast-moving, asymmetric threats. Terrorists and insurgents can get inside our decision-making loop. In Helmand, the Taliban stage attacks around their media strategy, not the other way around as we do it. Countries like Russia and China can bring a range of assets to bear, many of which are not even governmental. Just think of the way in which deniable attacks were launched against Estonia’s IT infrastructure following a spat with the Moscow government.
The public and the media, meanwhile, struggle to understand that in the modern era there is a limit to safety - even though responding to the consequences of crises will have to involve ordinary people in a way not seen since the Blitz.
Five major problems hamper Britain’s response: 1) the bandwidth of decision-makers is limited while the range of threats have expanded; 2) the speed with which government operates remains the same as it was years ago; 3) a belief in the Civil Service that they, not outsiders, have all the expertise required; 4) fear of mistakes discourages delegation; and 5) the government’s limited assets, compared to those of the Russian or Chinese governments, narrows the range of response. Russia can use Gazprom and million-dollar kickbacks. China employs more than 300,000 pro-government spammers. The British government, meanwhile, has to make the most of their expenditure DAC-able, in compliance with the OECD criteria for overseas aid.
The answer to this is NOT going back to some stylised, romanticised period of government that nobody except Lords Wilson, Turnbull and Butler seem to remember. Nor will the problem be solved by handing the red ministerial boxes from Labour to the Tories. If you believe that and supported Barack Obama’s campaign, you must be wondering why the world has not turned into sweetness and light.
So what to do? Space does not permit me to add more. Instead I want to suggest the principle that ought to govern a new system: the manoeuvrist doctrine. That is, having a strong centre of government, through a National Security Committee, but allowing far greater delegation to Ministers, and having fewer government officials, more of whom should be politically-appointed and all of whom should be trained and given resources to deliver their tasks more flexibly. Work should also go into developing the government’s ability to respond more asymmetrically – on the battlefield and in competition with China and Russia. Perhaps a blue-ribbon panel can look into this?
The bottom-line: sticking with the model of security governance we have now, a structurally weak but politically-dominant centre that micromanages set of departments, does not work.