Who does UK National Strategy? Further Report - Public Administration Committee Contents

Who does UK National Strategy? Further Report

1. We reported to the House on "Who does UK National Strategy?" in our First Report of Session 2010-11, published on 18 October 2010 as HC 435.

2. The Foreign Secretary wrote to the Committee on 14 November 2010 about the Report. It was evident from the terms of that letter that our proposals were not finding favour in Whitehall. The letter is published as Appendix 1.

3. We were concerned that the Government's response would seek primarily to justify the status quo. We therefore agreed that the Chair should write to the Prime Minister encouraging him to pause and reflect on the implications of our findings and the importance of our recommendations, before finalising the response. This letter is published as Appendix 2.

4. The Government response was received on 21 December 2010 and is published at Appendix 3. We are disappointed that, despite our urging to the contrary, the response has failed to engage more fully with our findings or to address adequately our proposals for improvement.

5. The central contention of our Report is that Government has lost the capacity to think strategically. The burden of expert evidence we received was that short termism and reaction to events predominate in recent Whitehall practice. The ability to articulate our enduring interests, values and identity has atrophied. Strategy is too often thought of as a plan for action or a document rather than a process which needs to be articulated constantly and updated regularly. We argued that the Government needs to reclaim the art of creating "national strategy" which should encompass all areas of Government activity and not focus just on national security. Our Report advocated an overarching and ongoing strategy-making process.

6. The Government's response suggests that there are fundamental confusions about terms, no agreed definitions and hence at present none of the prerequisites for constructive engagement with the analysis in our Report. It is entirely prescriptive. In its response, the Government asserts that its overall strategy is set out primarily in the document "The Coalition: our programme for government".[1] Allied economic, defence and national security strategies are contained in the Budget, the Spending Review, the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) and in the National Security Strategy (NSS) (which is also more 'review' or 'plan' than 'strategy'). Departmental business plans, in turn, determine priorities for the whole of Government. However, important as the terms of the Coalition Agreement and the other statements of policy may be, they are by no means a statement of Britain's enduring national strategic interests: nor could be expected to be such. The Government's response confuses interests with tactics. It is an illustration of why so many of our witnesses came to the conclusions they did.

7. The Government insists that it is right to confine strategy to the narrow context of national security, and there to frame it in terms of the NSS. In our view the response fails to acknowledge the significant and serious concerns expressed to us by the former Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS), retired senior military officers and other observers, that the UK has "lost the institutional capacity for, and culture of, strategic thought".[2] What is also missing is recognition that strategic aims cannot be set or adjudicated without an articulated account of who 'we' are and what we believe, both about ourselves and the world. Many of our witnesses were concerned that there were hidden assumptions underpinning present policies. These need to be exposed so that they may be tested and, if necessary, altered.

8. Our main recommendation is to create a "community of strategists" from across Whitehall - and beyond - to provide the necessary capacity for analysis and assessment to support a National Security Council (NSC) with a widened remit encompassing National (or 'Grand') Strategy. Such assessment would include a standing requirement to judge how well the various methods of analysis and different issues from across Whitehall are brought together. We remain concerned that without this capacity the NSC can only broker compromises between departmental views based on incompatible principles, and that the failure to establish a common language and idiom of thinking about strategy is bound to leave different parts of Whitehall at cross purposes, as is widely believed to be evident in the outcome of the SDSR.

9. The Government says it shares our views on the importance of strategic analysis to underpin policy making, but the response rejects a systematic approach in favour of the current system of cabinet committees. However, they are primarily decision-making bodies and lack the supporting capacity for assessment and analysis. The NSC is not "a powerful centre of strategic assessment" as the response claims because it lacks virtually any staff to undertake such work.

10. The response does accept our argument for stronger collaborative working in Whitehall and agrees to review ways of ensuring better linkage, clearer commissioning and stronger impact of the various existing strategy making networks with the aim of fostering the culture of strategic thinking across government which we believe to be necessary.

11. We welcome this and the Government's intention to report to the Committee on the outcome of this review in six months time. However, the review will focus only on national security and not national strategy. We are encouraged by the fact that the new CDS will maintain his predecessor's initiatives on strategy capability and that the Defence Reform Review is considering how to develop these further. However, the response is largely silent on our central recommendation about the need to recruit, train and promote strategic thinkers and to renovate the methodologies currently used.

12. Getting National Strategy wrong has real and sometimes dire consequences. At the time of the Helmand incursion in 2006 only two British soldiers had been killed in battle in Afghanistan. The total is now 349 - almost all as a consequence of the Helmand decision. Yet the Government has failed to respond to evidence given to us that that decision was taken in the absence of a coherent strategy at the politico-military level and without any grand strategic sense of our national interest. The Government has yet to produce evidence of the extent to which the doubling of aid to fragile and conflict states will reduce threats to the UK.

13. An inability to think effectively about wider National Strategy in government presents a continuing risk to the UK's future prosperity and safety. Getting it right matters. The failure to anticipate the risk of the banking collapse and take remedial action, for example, has affected the lives of every citizen.

14. As we witness the public and professional discussion of our Report now continuing, we believe that it has provoked a debate about strategy and National Strategy which the Government will have to address. We are in no doubt that a continuation of this debate is in the national interest and can only be of benefit. We therefore intend to pursue opportunities to do so.

15. In particular, the Committee will launch a second inquiry on the question of National Strategy when the Government has reported to us on the outcome of its review in six months' time. We intend that inquiry should focus on how effectively the Government has assessed the UK's national interests; and how decisions to protect and promote them have been reached.

1   Cabinet Office, The Coalition: our programme for government, May 2010  Back

2   Annual Chief of the Defence Staff Lecture, 3 December 2009 Back

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