Once prime ministers are elected they quickly find that international affairs take up much more of their time than they might have expected. A would-be prime minister’s plans for how to configure or reform the national security capacity is therefore hugely important. In this article, Joe Devanny and Josh Harris explore how the coalition government executed its plans to create a UK National Security Council.
Most modern prime ministers enter office with little experience of global affairs or security issues. Of the five prime ministers since 1979, only John Major had been Foreign Secretary (for three months); Gordon Brown had a decade’s experience of economic diplomacy as Chancellor, but neither he nor any other prime minister had broader foreign policy or national security credentials.
In many ways, this is as it should be. Few elections are won or lost because of a would-be prime minister’s hypothetical views on foreign affairs. Voters are more concerned about issues closer to home – or a concrete track record. But as the Institute for Government found in its Centre Forward report, once prime ministers are elected they quickly find that international affairs take up much more of their time than they might have expected: telephone calls to other heads of government, preparations for the treadmill of EU and other summit meetings, and the frequent need to craft a media and policy response to events and crises as they unfold across the globe. And that is to say nothing of the need to respond to security threats, domestic terrorism or attacks against British citizens abroad.
No head of government needs to be a foreign policy or defence expert, any more than they need to be Nobel Laureate economists – except of course in The West Wing as imagined by Aaron Sorkin. Indeed, no amount of prior experience guarantees success in office – just think of the 1956 Suez Crisis, a blunder committed by a prime minister with much greater experience of foreign affairs than any of his successors.
Political parties prepare for government during opposition and bring special advisers into government when they are elected. But the largest national security capacity at a prime minister’s disposal is that provided by the civil service, military and security services. A would-be prime minister’s plans for how to configure or reform this standing capacity are therefore hugely important.
In our recent Institute for Government and King’s College London report, The National Security Council: national security at the centre of government, we explore how the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government executed its plans, developed by the Conservatives in opposition, to create a UK National Security Council (NSC). We also explore subsequent developments since 2010 and the NSC’s future prospects. The NSC coordinates policy decisions across the full spectrum of national security concerns – foreign policy, defence, and civil contingencies. In the wake of criticisms of mid-2000s ‘sofa’ government, the new NSC aimed to make national security decision making more transparent and collegiate. Important features include:
- weekly meetings when Parliament is in session (and more frequently in crises)
- meetings are chaired by the Prime Minister himself
- meetings are attended by both senior ministers and senior diplomatic, security and intelligence officials and the Chief of the Defence Staff.
In addition to creating the NSC, the coalition government implemented a series of related reforms:
- The appointment of a permanent secretary level National Security Adviser (NSA), coordinating the cross-Whitehall preparations for NSC meetings and subsequent delivery of NSC decisions
- A large National Security Secretariat to support the NSA, incorporating officials seconded from several departments and agencies
- Weekly supporting meetings of permanent secretaries of member departments, chaired by the NSA
- A network of subcommittees and flanking officials’ committees to prepare the NSC agenda and coordinate delivery
- An agenda-setting process coordinated by the NSA but ultimately decided by the prime minister, with two topics usually chosen for each NSC meeting.
The networks of subcommittees and officials’ committees are coordinating and ‘flanking’ mechanisms to keep everyone on board, and the close involvement of the prime minister in shaping the agenda and chairing the meetings serves as a ‘forcing’ mechanism to bind departments into full cooperation with the process.
The NSC is not entirely ‘new’. Placed in historical context, the NSC bears more than a passing resemblance to the Committee of Imperial Defence (CID), established in 1902 but enhanced in 1904 with stronger secretariat support. The CID brought together ministers, senior officials and military officers. In following this practice, the NSC recreates in peacetime a practice commonly used in the past by prime ministers in wartime committees. What most separates the NSC from its more recent predecessors, though, is the sustained prime ministerial interest in driving national security policy through a structured committee process and over a sustained period of time.
Officials with experience of NSC meetings have liked the new arrangements because they provide direct access to ministers; a clear forum for national security decision-making, and a process that benefited from sustained prime ministerial commitment and participation. As the former head of GCHQ, Sir Iain Lobban, claimed recently, the NSC was “one of the best things this government has done…[it] takes the sentiment in the room and translates it into tasking for each organisation.”
The important aspect here is not that the committee was brought into existence, but that it was taken seriously by the key players and speaks with authority and clarity. Central coordinating committees benefit from a kind of ‘halo’ effect from active prime ministerial engagement. If a prime minister’s attention or attendance wanes, this is bad news for the committee and its wider processes.
As long as the prime minister is engaged, however, departments know that they need to take the committee process seriously. The NSC has an exceptionally broad remit, encompassing issues as diverse as diplomacy, counter-terrorism and civil contingencies. With a normal schedule of one meeting per week when the prime minister is in London, usually taking two issues at each meeting, there is obviously a limit to the number of issues it can discuss.
Second, some critics feel that the NSC hasn’t struck the right balance, preoccupying itself with a plethora of tactical decisions – managing the Libya intervention, for example – but neglecting broader and deeper strategic issues. The former Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), Lord Richards, recently lamented the lack of grand strategy at the NSC:
“there’s a big difference between talking about strategic issues and being strategic. I think some people round that table [at the National Security Council] thought – because we were talking about Russia, or Libya, or the Middle East – that we were being strategic, but we weren’t. We didn’t. We were talking about policy goals!”
One of the consequences of failing to consider broader and deeper aspects of grand strategy, according to Lord Richards, is that:
“people don’t come to terms with a reduced Britain. The Armed Forces are a lot smaller than even ten years ago…Money is obviously an issue for the country. And we need to debate again whether we have suffered some strategic shrinkage. A man that I’ve got a lot of time for, William Hague, claimed we haven’t. My feeling is that’s probably not the case.”
Whether or not you sympathise with Richards’ remarks, it’s important to recognise that the NSC agenda is decided by the prime minister: there is no reason why the NSC, or any other Cabinet committee, cannot be used to conduct more strategic discussions. It is simply that the Cameron government created the NSC to be used as a more operational, decision-making and delivery-focused body. If a future prime minister so wished, the NSC (or the Joint Intelligence Committee) could be tweaked to facilitate more strategic deliberation.
Finally, the creation of the NSA and NSS at the centre of government is a further step in the direction of more effective and coherent coordination of national security policy. Prior to the May 2010 general election there was broad agreement across the political spectrum that greater coherence was needed in national security coordination. It is an open question whether the current Secretariat yet has the capacity to hold its own – with the MoD on the next Strategic Defence and Security Review, or with the intelligence and security agencies – but it is harder to argue against the need for an effective coordinator at the centre. As Gordon Brown’s National Economic Council demonstrated during the global financial crisis, there is much to be gained from effective central coordination supported by a well-resourced secretariat.
David Cameron appointed very experienced diplomats as his first two NSAs. In coordinating cross-Whitehall efforts, the National Security Adviser needs diplomatic skills, but the credibility of the role as an honest broker between competing departmental interests requires some future NSAs to be appointed from outside the Foreign Office. It would not be healthy for it to be seen as a post permanently captured by King Charles St. Moreover, with the continued parallel existence of the prime minister’s foreign affairs private secretaries and his senior adviser on European and Global Issues (head of the Cabinet Office’s European and Global Issues Secretariat (EGIS)), it is arguably more important for the NSA to bring complementary experience in security issues.
The continued existence of EGIS and the JIC demonstrates that the NSC reforms have not fully integrated every foreign policy or intelligence function within the remit of the NSA. There are plausible reasons for this, not least that the NSA’s workload is already considerable, and that the complexity and singular importance of European negotiations arguably place them in a different category to other issues. Moreover, the post-Iraq War sensitivities concerning intelligence assessment and its relationship to policy probably explain the decision not to incorporate the Joint Intelligence Organisation within the Secretariat.
But future prime ministers may choose to configure these roles differently and to continue the march towards a more consolidated centre. The worst mistake would be to presume that there is one, timeless and perfect way of configuring capacity in Downing St and the Cabinet Office. Like any other policy issue, national security coordination will depend greatly on the personal style and wishes of the prime minister. Some prime ministers will prefer further centralisation under a small number of senior advisers and standing committees, whilst others may decide that more fluid arrangements (like Brown’s National Economic Council) better suit their needs.
Since 2010, the NSC reforms have shown how Whitehall can adapt and thereby benefit from clearer, more accessible decision-making. But it also highlights how contingent such arrangements are, on the persistent interest and engagement of the prime minister and the good faith cooperation of departments if central coordination is to succeed.
Seeming intelligence failures, from the Arab Spring to the rise of Islamic State, by way of the Ukraine crisis, highlight the need for improved intelligence prioritisation and collection, analysis and assessment. It is not (or not just) a question of funding, but of recruitment paradigms, career pathways and optimal configuration of resources. One response might be to significantly increase the capacity for analysis and assessment at the centre. But the NSC reforms have demonstrated already, in the policy sphere, that significant benefits can be achieved with a lighter touch, by making central coordination more effective. This model could be applied to the analysis and assessment aspects of national security work.
As the preeminent coordinating body in the national security sphere, already integral to the setting of intelligence priorities, the NSC is well-placed to drive forward the next reform agenda, whatever path is ultimately chosen. National security reform plans are unlikely to form a central plank of any political party’s general election manifesto next May, but history shows that prime ministers are well-advised to consider carefully the people, structures, processes and information flows that will enable them to make the best possible decisions. In this respect, national security is no different from any other area of policy. And given its salience once a prime minister is in office, it is all the more important to make national security part of planning for effective government.
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. Featured image credit: Garry Knight CC BY-SA 2.0
Joe Devanny is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Institute for Government and the Policy Institute at King’s College London. He works on the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)-funded Contemporary History of Whitehall project. From 2007 until 2013, he worked for the UK government.
Josh Harris is a Researcher at the Institute for Government and a Junior Associate Fellow of the Centre for Science and Policy at the University of Cambridge. Josh previously worked as Parliamentary Researcher for a government minister.