Who does UK National Strategy - Public Administration Committee Contents

Written evidence submitted by Professor G Prins


  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.


  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 ..."[11]

  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.[12]

  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 Palmerstonian—independently 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 it.

  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 is "tame".

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.[13] 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).[14] That is not the case elsewhere. Australia and Sweden are both actively grappling with this challenge.[15]

  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 unconditional terrorism).[16] 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 techné—masterful "know how" knowledge which changes things; and there is epistemé—reproducible, 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.[17] But the third knowledge is essential for human affairs (says Aristotle), as well as for all "wicked" problems. This is phronesis—practical wisdom which must guide when we face the unknown.

  12.  To phronesis we should add metis—conjectural 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."[18]

  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) responsive—to report on the correctness of "fit" of any departmental strategic analysis to its subject; and

    (b) pro-active—to 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 work—especially for controversial work—from 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 Act—meaning 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 here recommended.

  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?

September 2010



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 Security Review?

  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 Office

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 with it?

  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 DFID.

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

12   August/September 2010, Vol 155 (4) pp 14-22. Back

13   H W J Rittel & M M Webber, "Dilemmas in the general theory of planning," Policy Sciences, 4(2), June 1973, pp 155-69. Back

14   This is detailed in fn 4 p 22 of Blackham & Prins, "Why things Don't Happen..." Back

15   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

16   G Prins & R Salisbury, "Risk, threat and security: the case of the United Kingdom," RUSI Journal, 153 (1) Feb 2008, pp 22-27. Back

17   This is, of course, the spring-board insight for F Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty, Routledge, 1960. Back

18   G L S Shackle, Decision, Order & Time in Human Affairs, Cambridge University Press, 1969. Back

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