‘Appointing nodding loyalists points to the creeping politicisation of national security. The aim, insiders fear, is to prevent genuine, independent scrutiny of the government’s most sensitive activities and policies’
Since 2007, 11 parliamentary and other reports have looked at issues of leadership, strategic thinking and decision-making in British government. In different ways, all keep highlighting the same problem: a chronic lack of political interest in developing strategic coherence. Some reports complain that the National Security Council (NSC), created in 2010, is too “tactical” and reactive, and often driven by personal political agendas. Other lacunae are also dangerously evident in the security and intelligence world. The government is failing to develop properly a new generation of future intelligence and security leaders, while fears are growing of creeping politicisation and expediency. Combined, these risk undermining the expertise, independence and institutional memory of this vital part of government.
This century is putting extraordinary demands on organisations and decision-makers, especially in national security. In a worrying coincidence, the heads of the Security Service (MI5), the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and the National Cyber Security Centre (part of GCHQ) will all step down within a five-month period starting in April. The intelligence community sensibly avoids too much top-level change at once, to preserve institutional memory and operational effectiveness. So the succession planning underway is an ideal time to consider what Parliament has long said effective national security leadership should look like, especially at the political level. Security demands ability, not servility.
For this reason, reports that Downing Street wants Chris Grayling, Theresa Villiers and Sir John Hayes as members of Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), with Grayling as its chairman, have caused great dismay. The three have little national security experience among them and are not political “high-flyers”. Indeed, all recently lost their jobs in ministerial reshuffles. Grayling left government last summer with one of the worst records in memory. As Home Secretary, responsible for MI5, we have Priti Patel, who had had to resign from cabinet in 2017 for unauthorised meetings with a foreign government, then reportedly violated the ministerial code again in 2019 by taking on paid advisory work without permission from the government’s anti-corruption committee.
Appointing such nodding loyalists points to the creeping politicisation of national security. The aim, insiders fear, is to prevent genuine, independent scrutiny of the government’s most sensitive activities and policies. An early indicator will be if the new ISC publishes the report on Russian interference in British politics in the form agreed by the last committee and the intelligence community.
Worse, could political expediency now be spreading to Whitehall? Sir Alex Younger, widely praised for restoring morale and a culture of “family” in MI6, retires late this summer as Chief. Downing Street is said to rate highly a leading contender for the post, who went to school and university with the prime minister, Boris Johnson, and is a friend of his. The defence secretary, Ben Wallace, recently received orders from Downing Street to fire a young and promising special adviser. Her error? She had dared to criticise Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s chief adviser. Cummings is also keeping a close eye on the security, defence and foreign policy review overseen by the respected deputy national security adviser, Sir Alex Ellis.
The review should consider a key contributing factor to government’s dwindling strategic capability: the controversial closure in 2012 of the National School of Government (NSG), part of Cabinet Office, for over £100 million in savings. In a robust 2018 report, the Public Administration Committee again panned government for the “void” the closure left in civil service learning and development. The NSG would be a much-needed arena for developing 21st-century leadership. Cross-party calls continue for its re-establishment.
Our national security leaders, from the prime minister and the NSC down, must be able to understand the world around them and not just from their own perspectives but from others’ too. This is the strategic thinking that ensures they take their organisations (and the nation) in the right direction, able to cope with the world today—and the world to come. And it also allows them to build trust, to motivate and to inspire others to follow them. The crisis we currently face has demonstrated how critical all this is.
The creeping politicisation of national security—with three key posts to fill soon—plus the gap in Britain’s strategic thinking capability will prove a lethal combination if they are not soon reversed. Threats such as the coronavirus will test this nation to breaking point and push others beyond theirs. Surmounting these difficulties would be challenge enough. But while we flail, our adversaries are not sleeping. They are studying our responses and resilience, drawing lessons and looking for vulnerabilities to exploit in coming months and years. The two Western countries most criticised for their response to the pandemic happen to be the nuclear backbone of Nato—America and Britain. Voters will remember those politicians who, at a time of great national need, still put ambition before the greater good.