Written evidence submitted by Professor
Without doubt there is a profound structural
problem about strategic thinking in Britain today. Specifically
it is about activities that have proliferated, especially over
the last fifteen years, which are presented as strategic thinking
in government, but actually are not. As the Calling Notice to
this inquiry suggests, one dimension of the problem is certainly
about who does strategic thinking; but it is of even greater consequence
to answer the logically prior question: what strategic thinking
actually is. It is both surprising and sad that such questions
must be asked. Britain used to lead the world in such matters.
There is still no finer example of grand strategic thinking than
Castlereagh's great State Paper of 5 May 1820, which reviews the
world after the defeat of Napoleon and articulates constant geopolitical
and ethical axia of British interests. But that was long ago.
This Paper will explain that other countries, notably Australia
and Sweden, are further advanced both intellectually and procedurally
in aligning government strategic assessment to the 21st Century.
We can learn from them.
2. SHAPE AND
This paper will:
first give recent evidence of the current
"levels of analysis" problem in government strategic
assessment relating to defence and security;
then identify the three key characteristics
of Britain's contemporary strategic context that any assessment
process that is fit for purpose must be able to engage;
finally propose the methodological essentials,
and one institutional option for how this could be done; and
the Committee's Calling Notice Questions
are reproduced and answered in their own terms in the Annex.
Part One: evidence of the current problem
3. A strategic defence & security
review is under way. But recent evidence of the type of issue
beginning to surface from within it into public discussion (in
this case the idea of pooling aircraft carriers with France) suggests
that, in Vice Admiral John McAnally's words, "the overwhelming
impression is not one of the Strategic Defence & Security
Review we were promised but rather of a hasty spending review
in which the MoD is groping for the least incoherent ideas which
meet the Chancellor's demands ..."
4. The same concern about both the process
and the nature of current strategic assessment may be deduced
and illustrated from the reception to the essay that Vice Admiral
Sir Jeremy Blackham and I have published in the current issue
of the RUSI Journal, entitled, Why Things Don't Happen: Silent
Principles of National Security.
5. Following Sun Tzu's advice, we recommend
how, by paying for the right sort of defence forces to exist and
(ideally) do nothing, while constantly capable of many potently
active and undefined "somethings", we may help ensure
that bad things don't happen. We argue that unchanging geopolitical
verities of British interests should principally shape our defence
priorities, and that these are maritime. We argue that our defences
must again be Palmerstonianindependently capable in order
that we may be good allies. Accepting that proposition in turn
requires a clean break from Whitehall's widespread, reflexive
misunderstanding of globalisation, that confuses the hope for
supranational multilateralism via the EU, UN etc with the reality
of their fading powers in a darkening, less policed world. We
argue that the forgotten principles of national security are silent
non-nuclear deterrence and that their principal expression is
naval, which leads us to recommend practical ways to rescue the
RN from the brink of incoherence to which neglect has brought
6. Now we hear that many inside MoD and
Whitehall are reading this essay as "a naval case";
whereas despite my co-author's past service career, the RN is
not its principal subject at all. Our essay aims to erect grand
strategic criteria grounded in principles external to the SDSR
against which its eventual product can be scored. The "tribal"
response illustrates exactly the pervasive tendency to confuse
first order (strategic) national security ends with second order
(tactical) means. This is the "levels of analysis" category
mistake that current structures and assumptions of thinking actually
stimulate, which vitiates most government "strategy"
that I encounter, and not only in MoD. It results reliably in
unintended consequences. Eyes are closed and minds are closed.
The problems are increasingly "wicked" but the analysis
Part Two: Three key characteristics of Britain's
strategic context that must be always engaged by assessment methods
for them to be "fit for purpose"
7. Geopolitics of the British national
interest. Geopolitics is about the relative physical positions
and interactions on the globe of the major powers, their cultures
and economies; and it is like the weather. It presents in many
forms but it is still the weather. It is an inevitable but recently
forgotten foundation of grand strategic thinking that needs to
be recalled to mind. Contrary to some expectations, the internet
age has no more abolished geopolitics than the nation-state.
8. The "wickedness" of most
major looming problems. But if eternal verities take new forms,
many of our most pressing national security challenges do have
new "wicked" forms. "Wicked" problems are
open system issues, incompletely understood with no bounded data
set, no stopping rule for research, no possibility for iterative
experimentation and notorious for producing perverse, unintended
consequences when governments try to act on them.
But the challenge of "wickedness" is barely yet registering
in British officialdom and not at all in its assessment methodologies
which remain "tame" (where those conditions are met).
That is not the case elsewhere. Australia and Sweden are both
actively grappling with this challenge.
9. The relationships between risks and threats.
Combine loss or denial of national identity with unrealistically
transformative expectations of globalisation, an inability to
understand "wickedness" in strategic challenges, excessive
belief in the ability of government to achieve predictable outcomes
and the bureaucratic momentum of "tame" methods of threat
assessment. The result is an inability to see that risk environments
may strengthen in consequence, and can incubate threats (as with
But noticing these vulnerabilities is predicated upon assessing
the prior two areas mentioned.
Part Three: Methodological and constitutional
remedies for identified defects
10. Knowledge levels. A different
fundamental reason why current methods are not effective is that
they fail to distinguish four forms of knowledge and, therefore,
cannot choose which to use, when, and how they can support each
other. Furthermore this failure permits the "Science as Salvation"
fallacy to flourish. Dazzled by the world-altering powers of Enlightenment
science, it assumes problems are amenable to scientific solution.
This fallacy underpins the recent proliferation of Scientific
Advisers across departments. It also makes it appear shameful
for civil servants to admit to ignorance or to say that nothing
can be done (or should be done) by government.
11. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle
distinguishes three forms of knowledge. There is technémasterful
"know how" knowledge which changes things; and there
is episteméreproducible, theoretical knowledge
which is normative. Both these are powerful in "tame"
contexts, although the complexity of modern life decreases the
purchase of each individual's techne and episteme.
But the third knowledge is essential for human affairs (says Aristotle),
as well as for all "wicked" problems. This is phronesispractical
wisdom which must guide when we face the unknown.
12. To phronesis we should add metisconjectural
knowledge (sometimes translated as "cunning"): the learned
capacity for handling complexity that combines flair, wisdom,
forethought, subtlety of mind, deception, resourcefulness, vigilance,
and opportunism. It can provide the ability to anticipate, modify
and influence the shape of events.
13. Phronesis and metis are
the forms of knowledge which equip us to recognise the entirely
new for what it is and to make choices in the face of uncertainty.
Knowing only white swans, to recognise a black one, nonetheless.
The diagram below locates current government assessment methods
on a matrix framed by our eyes and our minds, open and closed.
What are needed, and what I with others have long been developing,
are methods which can be "routinised" and yet allow
us to cope with the unknown. We called it Staged Appreciation.
It incorporates tested procedures with developments of Professor
Shackle's "surprise index" to provide "choosables"
in a "wicked" world. Strategy becomes, in Shackle's
haunting phrase, "the imagined, deemed possible."
This diagram is taken from joint and on-going
work with several state and non-state parties by Dr Lorraine Dodd,
Professor Gwyn Prins and Professor Gillian Stamp to develop and
trial techniques for staged appreciation of strategic options
in a "wicked" world 2007. It, in turn, exploits the
results of an extensive programme of development by experimentation
to trial a Strategic Assessment Method for MoD led by Professor
Prins as Visiting Senior Fellow to DERA, 1997-2002. Elements of
SAM became operational successfully, including in classified contexts,
before losing momentum in the break-up of DERA. S Davies &
M Purvis, "SAM combined progress and validation report (U)"
DERA/CDA/HLS/990148/2.0, March 2000.
14. Assessment staff trained in Staged Appreciation
should have two standing roles. In light of their routine assessment
of the three key characteristics:
(a) responsiveto report on the
correctness of "fit" of any departmental strategic analysis
to its subject; and
(b) pro-activeto issue "open
minds/open eyes" challenges to any departments.
15. The Parliamentary Remembrancer's
Office. Such tests are a form of Assay. Since 1282, annually
the Queen's (or King's) Remembrancer has empanelled a jury of
goldsmiths for the Trial of the Pyx to test the (physical) goodness
of the currency independent of the Royal Mint. By analogy, such
tests are now required for Government Strategic Assessment. The
new function might therefore be appropriately called that of the
Parliamentary (as distinct from the Queen's) Remembrancer. How
should this Assay be conducted, where placed and how supervised?
These are not new questions.
16. Established at arm's length, there is
the risk of its work being ignored. Such was the fate of Ivan
Bloch, a founder of modern Operational Research and adviser to
the Last Tsar, who funded his own laboratories and who predicted
the nature of the Great War with terrible precision in the 1890s.
He wrote in The Future of War (1898) that "... the
nations may endeavour to prove that I am wrong, but you will see
what will happen." We did. He was not.
17. Therefore better be inside the belly
of the whale. In 1902, the Prime Minister of the day, A J Balfour,
established the Committee of Imperial Defence to combat the ad
hoc nature of defence and security decision-making. The Committee
was established at a level above that of the officials. Balfour's
words when introducing the Committee in the Commons on 5 March
1903 are apposite in this case: The CID would "... survey
as a whole the strategical needs [of the Empire], to deal with
the complicated questions which are all essential elements in
that general problem and to revise from time to time their previous
decisions, so that the Cabinet shall always be informed ..."
18. AJ's point is that political leadership
is an art, not a science. It is not necessary for Whitehall to
control everything directly for strong and effective government
to be possible. The truth of experience is in fact the reverse:
attainment of the latter state always requires oversight and usually
requires strict control of the executive and its agents; and there
are proven ways in which technical expertise can be brought to
bear alongside democratic control. After a period of excessive
executive power and commensurate enfeeblement of Parliament, oversight
of the new assessment unit should surely be under primarily Parliamentary
rather than Executive control? The Parliamentary Remembrancer's
Office might be modelled closely upon that of the Parliamentary
Commissioner for Administration.
19. Established in 1967, the PCA is a servant
of Parliament with the privileges of an officer of the House and
appointed by the Queen under Letters Patent. The office is modelled
on that of Comptroller and Auditor General which provided precedent
for an outside authority to carry out investigations within government
departments. However, the powers of the PCA are greater: the same
as the High Court with respect to attendance, examination of witnesses
and production of documents. Wilful obstruction of the PCA or
her staff is punishable as contempt of court. Her reports on investigations
are privileged and she reports to a Select Committee. Indeed,
just as I hope may be the case for workespecially for controversial
workfrom the Parliamentary Remembrancer's Office, PCA reports
can end up in debate on the floor of the House. Both her occupational
pensions report and that on civilian internees of the Japanese
during the Second World War ("A Debt of Honour?") were
so debated, for both were Section 10(3) reports under the Parliamentary
Commissioner Actmeaning that the Government did not accept
them. There have only been four such Section 10(3) reports since
1967, two occurring since 1997. Of course the consequences of
the defiance of her findings on the prudential regulation of Equitable
Life by the previous Government (a Section 10(4) report) is instructive
also, and constitutionally encouraging for this model. The First
Report of the Select Committee on the PCA, 1990-91, observed that
the PCA had established himself as, "an invaluable aid to
the individual and a constructive critic of the executive"
and as, "part of the fabric of the United Kingdom's unwritten
constitution". So this is a good and operative example which
can offer a proven template for the new strategic assessment functions
20. Its work would therefore be more able
to command usefully the attention of the PM and Cabinet by being
under Parliamentary supervision, perhaps of a Joint Committee
of Lords and Commons, not theirs?
What do we mean by "strategy" or "grand
strategy" in relation to the foreign defence and security
functions of government in the modern world?
Answer: Grand strategy is the way in which
the elected representatives of the people, honouring and articulating
the national interests of the British people and therefore commanding
legitimate authority (which is the central art of democratic politics),
instruct the Civil Service to frame and cause to be executed policies
which protect and advance the national interest. It is the first-order
task of government. It is NOT four things: It is not a "planning"
or managerial function, which is a tactical second order consequence.
It is not a civil service function, as it has, too much, been
seen to be. It is not a science at all, either in fact or by analogy.
It is not a statement (as implied in question 8). It is a recognition
of unchanging geopolitical truths and their translation into shaping
principles and a hierarchy of priorities, which may change in
expression from time to time.
1. Who holds the UK "strategic concept"
and how is it being brought to bear on the Strategic Defence and
Answer: who owns a sunbeam? No-one and every-one:
this is not an ideological concept nor yet a management formula
but a sentiment. "Strategy" is the consequent material
expression of specific interests and actions in specific cases.
2. Do the different government departments
(eg. no 10, Cabinet Office, FCO, MoD, Treasury) understand and
support the same UK strategy?
Answer: certainly not. And what within their
institutional frames/bounds would ever encourage them or afford
anyone to do such a thing? After 13 years of the long march through
the institutions, of "TB/GB" trench warfare, politicisation
and coarsening of staff, elision of advocacy with inquiry, decapitation
of departments and of "sofa" centralisation, plus an
overinflated sense of state competence, Whitehall is unfit for
purpose. Reform cannot be undertaken from within it. Parliament
has to recover the use of its atrophied muscles to articulate
and to require this and to hold the executive to account.
3. What capacity exists for cross-departmental
strategic thinking? How should government develop and maintain
the capacity for strategic thinking?
Answer: Too much of the wrong thing. Closed
eyes and closed minds, which helps explain why neither short term
crises nor long term interests are efficiently engaged. Proliferation
of chief scientific advisers and the "science as salvation"
view underpinning this. Thus a "government office of science"
(why?) and "foresight", "horizon scanning"
"DPAs" are built on and promoting closed mind/open eyes
policies. Climate Change Policy is an excellent case in point.
4. What frameworks or institutions exist
or should be created to ensure that strategic thinking takes place
and its conclusions are available to the Prime Minister and Cabinet?
Answer: none appropriate. What is required
are the described functions of the Parliamentary Remembrancer's
5. How is UK strategy challenged and revised
in response to events, changing risk assessments and new threats?
Answer: At present, hardly at all. Risk and
threat are words that are used too loosely and interchangeably,
whereas they are fundamentally not so. Structures and procedures
favour comfort by fitting circumstances to structures of thought
and thereby not understanding what is seen: open eyes/closed minds,
especially vulnerable to ideological leads. Result: usually miss
the key things.
6. How are strategic thinking skills best
developed and sustained within the Civil Service?
Answer: By dismissing all the ramified assessment
bureaucracies of the past decade, the faux-commercial language
of targets, contracts and "deliverables" and the low-grade
staff servicing them. By employing well educated, historically
literate, reflective people with at least one foreign language
(for what this confers in cultural insight)and preferably
with philosophical and/or mathematical training.
7. Should non-government experts and others
be included in the government's strategy making process?
Answer: Of course. Parliamentary Remembrancer's
Office will be at liberty and under expectation to consult (cf
¶ 19 of submission).
8. How should the strategy be communicated
across government and departmental objectives made consistent
Answer: the framing of this question illuminates
the problem. There is no such thing as reified, bottled "strategy"this
is to repeat the mistaken assumption in the cited statement from
the Security Minister's description of the NSC. Strategy is a
culture of thinking and is present as principles for staged appreciation.
Read Castlereagh's 1820 paper to see this put into practice.
9. How can departments work more collaboratively
and coordinate strategy development more closely?
Answer: in Defence and Security, by re-establishing
a clear hierarchy of authority: from Cabinet informed by NSC and
Parliamentary Remembrancer, to FCO to MoD and both instructing
10. (a) How can reduced resources be
appropriately allocated and targeted to (b) support delivery of
the objectives identified by the strategy?
(a) By a careful sweep with Occam's Razor,
cutting down/excising executive agencies and by then animating
the functions of the Parliamentary Remembrancer's office...
(b) for strategic assessment purposes as
prescribed in the paper. "Delivery" of "objectives"
"identified" is all cast in the thinking and terminology
that is the source of the problem.
11. Do other countries do strategy better?
Answer: Yes. Australia; Sweden (among the
democracies that are culturally closest to us). No doubt the Chinese
continue to do efficient long-term assessment, or maybe Cuba;
but unlikely to be in ways that are palatable to us.
11 The Times, 1 September 2010, p 24. Back
August/September 2010, Vol 155 (4) pp 14-22. Back
H W J Rittel & M M Webber, "Dilemmas in the general
theory of planning," Policy Sciences, 4(2), June 1973, pp
This is detailed in fn 4 p 22 of Blackham & Prins, "Why
things Don't Happen..." Back
Australian Public Service Commission, Tackling Wicked Problems,
Commonwealth of Australia, 2007. Peter Shergold, former Cabinet
Secretary, was instrumental in welcoming such work. Cf P Shergold,
"Lackeys, careerists, political stooges? Personal reflections
on the current state of public service leadership," Australian
Journal of Public Administration, 63 (4), December 2004. Back
G Prins & R Salisbury, "Risk, threat and security:
the case of the United Kingdom," RUSI Journal, 153 (1) Feb
2008, pp 22-27. Back
This is, of course, the spring-board insight for F Hayek, The
Constitution of Liberty, Routledge, 1960. Back
G L S Shackle, Decision, Order & Time in Human Affairs,
Cambridge University Press, 1969. Back