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

Appendix 2—Letter to the Prime Minister

14 December 2010

I understand that the Government's response to PASC's inquiry is in the advanced stages of preparation and that it is not positive. It was also clear from our exchanges in the Liaison Committee on 18th November, and from the Foreign Secretary's letter to me of 14th November (copy enclosed), that the burden of our recommendations has encountered resistance in Whitehall and from the FCO. I would urge the Government to delay issuing a response until there has been further consideration of the issues raised in our Report.

The central finding of our Report (unanimously agreed) is that you have inherited a system that has lost capacity to think strategically. This reflects what the recently retired CDS told us. This was confirmed by virtually all our witnesses. Their concerns were not confined to the previous administration, as the Foreign Secretary's letter erroneously suggests. We also concluded that this is a concern for the whole of government.

To improve the quality of strategic thinking, it is necessary to understand that "strategy" is not the same as "a plan". Strategy is about dealing with uncertainty, complexity and the dynamic. Strategy is not policy but the means of making policy effective. Grand Strategy (or National Strategy) is about ensuring that the whole of government identifies and acts effectively upon the national interest. It needs to be articulated constantly and updated regularly.

We welcome the Foreign Secretary's drive to create more coherence (National Strategy) across government, but neither he, nor the FCO, nor the NSC as presently supported can achieve this. The national interest is expressed in terms so broad ("security, freedom and prosperity") that they lack meaningful application. We conclude that, as things stand, there is little concrete idea of what the UK's national interest is, and therefore what our national strategic purpose should be. There is a disconnect between the language rejecting "strategic shrinkage" and cuts in defence capability and diplomatic capacity. The NSC can do little more than attempt to broker competing agendas and interests from across Whitehall, rather than setting down coherent National Strategy which leads departmental thinking.

This was evident in the closing stages of SDSR. Each of the armed services also sought to promote their own version of National Strategy, inevitably reflecting their own perspective and interests. In the absence of a coherent National Strategy laid down by the NSC, what else could they do? NSC is incapable of generating coherent National Strategy, because it lacks access to the necessary capacity for analysis and assessment. It cannot therefore ask the right questions or make fully informed judgements. It is entirely right that the final decisions on such matters as the SDSR are for the Prime Minister and senior ministers, but you must have been concerned that the process left you with so many irreconcilable dilemmas.

Its security remit is also too restrictive. If the NSC is confined to the security issues, who creates the remaining aspects of National (Grand) Strategy and ensures NSS is integrated with the whole? The Cabinet has no body or structure to support it in this role. This is why we recommend that the NSC take on the wider role for National Strategy (or "grand strategy"). This is not so that it should usurp the Cabinet's role or to become a rival power centre, but to strengthen the quality of Cabinet decision making by ensuring that there is proper examination and challenge of all the options put before it. The Cabinet is fundamentally a decision-making body, not a deliberative one.

Evidence to us also suggested that cross-departmental collaboration on strategic thinking is variable and often conflicting. Analytical resources are underutilised, and different departments understand and discuss strategy in different and incompatible ways. (Many seem to think that their departmental business plan is "strategy". The MoD has 14 roles within the department with "strategy" or "strategic" in the job title).

We did not recommend "a new bureaucracy" for strategic thinking as the Foreign Secretary's letter suggests. We do say it is essential to recruit, train and promote "a community of strategists" from across Whitehall with different experiences and expertise, who can work collectively, sharing the same language and idiom of thinking. There is absolutely no reason why this cannot be achieved from within existing resources.

When there is a new and completely unexpected strategic shock, creating a new crisis, to whom does the Cabinet (and indeed, to whom do permanent secretaries) turn? The lessons of recent experience suggest that advice from those who have done speculative analysis and assessment is at a premium at such moments. The NSC represents potentially good architecture, but it cannot operate effectively without comprehensive research and assessment capacity in support.

Put in these terms, I would be surprised if either the Cabinet Secretary or the National Security Adviser would disagree with this. I would also expect the Foreign Secretary to support a structure which would give him more leverage at the centre of government to create cross-departmental coherence around foreign policy, rather than relying on his single department to have the necessary influence.

I trust that the Government's considered response to PASC's report will not simply seek to justify the status quo. It should reflect a fuller appreciation of what the word "strategy" means, what National Strategy should be, and how it should be more effectively supported. If the Government's response is essentially a rejection of our findings, PASC is not minded to let matters rest.

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