Britain in a perilous world - the defence & security review we need
My review of a short book making a strong case for better thinking on defence
The singular lack of a credible defence and security strategy did not feature in the general election campaign. Neither of the two coalition partners had much to say about defence and Labour was no better. The central reason was that all parties were focused on spending cuts. In the case of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, the concern was that defence spending had to be cut to meet the coalition’s targets for the next parliament. Labour would have cut spending much less but, if much thought had been given to the subject, would not have wanted to campaign on raising defence spending when it had been telling people that spending cuts elsewhere had gone too far. Thus it was that no party could say how it would meet the Nato commitment to spend at least two per cent of GDP on defence. Despite a spending commitment in the recent Budget, the Conservative government’s commitment to that target remains precarious. More importantly, although national security threats have become more apparent over the past five years, the Conservatives show little sign of giving much thought to the next strategic and defence review later this year.
Britain was a poorer nation in the early 1980s but had spent more on defence than on health. Why was this the case? There was a clear threat from the Soviet Union and defence, while under budget pressures, was seen as a national priority. It surely makes sense to assess the threats that face the nation and then find the best ways to meet them. We have past form of cutting it fine when funding defence. In the 1930s, the Treasury almost lost us the next war as it imposed its ‘View’ on government spending much as it has done today. Such an approach leads to ‘essay crisis’ defence policies. Today, with an ‘essay crisis’ prime minister, it is hard to be optimistic.
In this monograph, Jonathan Shaw argues that Whitehall – the term he uses for the civil service under its ministers – needs to rethink how it devises strategy. Shaw served as a Major General before he retired in 2012, spending the last 12 years of his military career in Whitehall roles.
Shaw begins with language. Whitehall does not know what it means by strategy. Strategy can be seen as a level of activity, for example as part of the military division of activity into strategic, operational, and tactical. It can also be seen as describing an approach, such as a strategy to win a football game or achieve security aims. In this context it is often confused with policy. Strategy can also be seen as a process that ‘coheres ends, ways, and means, to use Clausewitz’s formulation’. This, Shaw believes, is largely absent from Whitehall. Shaw also examines the difference between defence and security, the latter being more focused on preventing latent threats becoming active.
The key challenge facing the next review will be getting Whitehall to work well cross-departmentally, Shaw argues. He believes Whitehall is very poor at doing this, with the exception being counter-terrorism which sees practitioners working effectively. He has a good point but his military person’s exasperation with politicians is evident. Shaw’s remedies include the adoption of a common executive methodology, not dissimilar it appears from that taught in the Defence Academy in Shrivenham. Everyone in Whitehall, including special advisers and elected politicians, should be trained in this methodology as a basic qualification for their jobs, otherwise ‘they are not competent to work in government.’ Shaw demonstrates incomprehension when it comes to politicians. He seems to believe that there was a golden age when members of parliament had real world experience, often in the forces (not surprising given two world wars last century) and were like his father, first elected in 1960, who said ‘In my day, you became an MP to serve your community.’ But in fact this is rather like many, if not most, MPs now.
Today, Shaw bemoans, MPs are without experience and are ambitious: ‘Previous generations of politicians had vastly greater world experience than the current crop. They had the experience (if not always the judgement) to read the game better and from it derived some knowledge of things and how to do things. Our current political class has none of these three; and our present arrangements do nothing to help…Whitehall’s political class needs some improvement.’ Yet these were the previous generations who failed to prepare adequately against Nazi Germany in the 1930s, led us into the debacle that was the Suez crisis, and failed to read signs of Argentinean aggression ahead of the Falklands war, for which we were also ill-prepared.
That said, there is a crisis of leadership on defence matters. The 2010 review was a mess, driven by spending cuts, and characterised by confusion over the future and specification of new aircraft carriers which saw a Labour decision reversed and then returned to. The lack of strategy with regard to Libya, Syria, and Islamic State, from both government and opposition, has been painfully clear. Despite some progress made on controlling procurement, our defence structure is probably overdue reform. Shaw does a great service in reminding us that a security and defence review should focus on how threats may evolve and develop in the future. We need to have armed forces that are sufficiently equipped and adaptable to respond to those threats. We need to have a credible security and defence strategy. That applies to both government and the Labour party.
This article was first published by Progress on 2 September 2015.