Who does UK National Strategy? - Public Administration Committee Contents

4   Capacity to make strategy

32. The overwhelming view from our witnesses was that the UK is not good at making National Strategy and there is little sense of a national direction or purpose. Sir Robert Fry thought that "we have a national tradition of being good at Grand Strategy, but we have not illustrated that recently".[35]

33. We heard evidence of the UK's capacity for strategy making in the recent past. Professors Hennessy and Prins both referred to the Committee on Imperial Defence created by the Prime Minister, A J Balfour, in 1902. It was as an attempt and a precedent to create a standing capacity for strategic thinking necessary to spot potential trouble—and potential opportunities—for our diverse imperial interests.[36]

34. Professor Hennessy also referred us to more recent attempts to undertake a fundamental reappraisal of Britain's position the world: Harold MacMillan's Study on Future Policy. Commissioned in 1959, it assessed where Britain would be by 1970 on the basis of current policies. However its candid assessment led to it eventually being pulled from discussion by Cabinet.[37] Similarly the Centre for Policy Review Staff in the 1970s provided No. 10 with the capacity for a no-holds-barred appraisal of the issues facing the country at that time.

35. The ending of the Cold War and the absence of a clearly identifiable 'enemy' threatening our existence has meant there was little incentive to devise a new 'Grand Strategy'. The view after the fall of the Soviet Union was, if anything, of a 'new world order'. Sir Robert Fry believed that:

[...] you fall out of the habit of Grand Strategy, and I think that is what happened to us in the second part of the 20th century. Also larger strategies that were extra­national—so NATO, the cold war—took over and really took the place of any Grand Strategy.[38]

36. Instead we have seen a much more reactive approach to dealing with the threats and crisis which we have faced over the last decades, with no capacity to assess potential risks. The then CDS lamented that the UK did not have nearly sufficient capacity for strategy making at the moment. He did not think "we have inculcated the art of strategic thinking [...] the default mode of thinking is tactical".[39] Instead much of our effort has been, and is, directed at 'fire-fighting' and contingency planning, necessary but not sufficient.[40] Professor Paul Cornish described it in a slightly different way, "The British preference has been for incrementalism in strategy—'ad hocery' or 'muddling through'".[41]

37. There is some evidence for the existence of good practice and new approaches. For example, the Office for Security and Counter Terrorism is seeking to promote better cross-departmental approach in this area. Departments themselves, as the Departmental Capability Reviews have identified, have got better at horizon scanning and strategy making, but respond to the changing strategic context independently. Moreover many desk officers have good networks across Whitehall and work effectively with their counterparts in different departments on their day-to-day work.[42] However, Cat Tully noted that such, "practice[s are] ad-hoc across Whitehall, reinvents the wheel frequently and depends on the individuals involved".[43]

38. In his evidence to us, the Foreign Secretary asserted that strategic thinking not only had to be done at the highest circles of government but was being done by the new Government. He explained that "there is a national strategy [...] which the Prime Minister and the Cabinet discuss together and pursue together, central to which is the deficit reduction without which we will not have a credible national position in the world on very much at all".[44] Senior ministers were discussing strategic issues and some of this thinking was reflected in his July speech.

39. The new Government's aspiration to think strategically is most welcome, but we have yet to see how this marks any significant improvement in qualitative strategic thinking from its immediate predecessors. Apart from the creation of the NSC, which we go on to discuss below, we have found little evidence of sustained strategic thinking or a clear mechanism for analysis and assessment. This leads to a culture of fire-fighting rather than long-term planning.

40. This leads us to the profoundly disturbing conclusion that an understanding of National Strategy and an appreciation of why it is important has indeed largely been lost. As a consequence, strategic thinking has atrophied. We have failed to maintain the education of strategic thinkers, both in academia and in governmental institutions. The UK lacks a body of knowledge on strategy. Our processes for making strategy have become weakened and the ability of the military and the Civil Service to identify those people who are able to operate and think at the strategic level is poor.

35   Q 188 Back

36   Qq 8 - 9 and Ev 90 Back

37   Q 22  Back

38   Q 215 Back

39   Q 270 Back

40   Q 25 [Julian Lindley French and Peter Hennessy] and Ev 79 Back

41   Ev 85 Back

42   Ev 94 Back

43   Ev 94 Back

44   Q 110 Back

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Prepared 18 October 2010