James de Waal
Senior Fellow, International Security
The UK prime minister appears to have scored a political win with the latest defence review, but the way it came together speaks to larger problems with British policy-making on security.
The largest section of the HMS Prince of Wales aircraft carrier is floated on the river Clyde in Glasgow. Photo by Getty Images.The largest section of the HMS Prince of Wales aircraft carrier is floated on the river Clyde in Glasgow. Photo by Getty Images.

Like all government policy processes, the UK’s latest Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) has both a practical and a political purpose.

Its practical purpose is to provide Britain with the tools necessary to deal with domestic and international threats to its security, and the security of its citizens. In this it largely succeeds. It provides a plausible blueprint for a response to both state and non-state threats, based on the integrated domestic and foreign efforts of the defence, intelligence, law enforcement, diplomatic and development agencies, and with the stimulus of a hefty injection of funding.

Its political purpose is to strengthen the domestic position of the government. In this the review has been a triumph. With the Labour opposition in disarray, the principal political target was the right wing of the Conservative Party, particularly its members of parliament. Many of these combine strong support for defence – and thus dismay over the cuts made during the last review in 2010 – with intense hostility to the European Union and suspicion over the government’s plans for wider public service reform. In the wrong mood they could make life very difficult for the prime minister in coming months, as he seeks to make much more politically important and controversial changes in these areas. The ebulliently enthusiastic response to the review in the House of Commons on 23 November shows instead that he now has them on side. 

Costs of politics

This focus on the politics of security has brought both practical benefits and practical costs. Among the benefits is an international perception that ’Britain is back’ – once more actively and assertively engaged in international affairs after a period of withdrawal following the 2010 SDSR.

This perception is not necessarily based on fact: just as the cuts made in 2010 were neither as damaging nor unreasonable as were suggested at the time, so the increase in UK security capabilities in 2015 may not be as dramatic as they may at first appear. But nevertheless such perceptions have a concrete effect, increasing Britain’s influence with its allies and possibly deterring its potential enemies. 

But this boost to Britain’s reputation comes at a cost. The need to present the review as a good story, and to neutralize potential sources of criticism means that decisions may be taken on the basis of their political and presentational impact, rather than because they make security sense. This can distort the policy process in a number of ways.

First, there is a concern that many of the decisions in this SDSR were taken for their reputational impact rather than because they were right from the security point of view. In particular, some seemed designed to combat particular criticisms of the 2010 review. Some of these decisions were comparatively cheap, such as the effort to incorporate in the review a ‘foreign policy baseline’ – an analysis-based view of the world – and also to consult widely outside government. Others were very expensive, notably the commitments to field both planned aircraft carriers along with decently-sized air groups and to purchase new maritime patrol aircraft.

Although many of these decisions may have made security sense, it seems from insider accounts that practical arguments had comparatively little impact on senior policy-makers. They may have been more interested in avoiding a repeat of the reputational damage the government had suffered in 2010 when the scrapping of the Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft had been seen by many in parliament and the media as emblematic of a wider British retreat from the world. The decision in 2015 to replace Nimrod was reportedly taken very late in the process, and followed media complaints that the hunt for a Russian submarine off the coast of Scotland was being undertaken by Canadian and French aircraft rather than British.

Second, many of the decisions in the review appear to be not so much based on objective analysis but rather the success or failure of lobbying efforts by various national security interest groups. A clear example of this is the success of the police lobby in safeguarding its funding against expected cuts, drawing on the shock of the Paris terror attacks in a last-minute public appeal to the home secretary. Less controversial was the effort by the army to brand part of its planned restructuring of two ‘strike’ brigades in a way which made them an eye-catching and apparently novel package, and so attractive to a government focused on presentation. In contrast, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office seems neither to have aggressively lobbied nor managed to brand its work in a new and appealing manner, and so was lucky to escape further cuts.

In the short term such lobbying may not have worked to the disadvantage of the government, which has achieved the political impact it wanted. But in proving receptive to lobbying, and in focusing on presentation, it may be storing up problems for itself in the future. It has shown the various interest groups in national security that they are more likely to get want they want by lobbying than by relying on the formal internal policy processes. This may make the 2020 SDSR a much more bloody and controversial business.

Ultimately, the political character of the review has distorted the national security effort, creating an imbalance between elements which need to be in harmony. It has put the emphasis on equipment rather than personnel, funding purchases in part through reductions in pay and manning. It has focused on inputs − of money, equipment or numbers of units – rather than outputs in terms of measurable improvements in security. It has concentrated on means rather than ends, by funding the military and intelligence capabilities but neglecting the diplomats and civil servants who consider how and why these capabilities should be used. New ships, planes or brigades look impressive and familiar, but do not in themselves say much about a country’s approach to security, nor its likely success in keeping its citizens and territory safe.

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