Commentary Magazine


The Conservative Party and British National Security

In a major speech on Friday at Chatham House, David Cameron set out how the Conservative party would approach the issue of national security should it win the forthcoming general election. His theme was the value of connection — both domestically, with an emphasis on what Britain has to gain from better joined-up government, and abroad, emphasizing Britain’s need to see conflicts as a whole, and to respond to threats before they become crises.

There’s nothing that can be said against the idea that government should be better coordinated, or more forward-looking. Of course, advancing this idea while out of power is simpler than achieving it while in power. The creation of a National Security Council is not likely to persuade the Foreign Office, the Treasury, the Ministry of Defense, and all the other players in Whitehall to abandon their institutional interests, just as the American NSC has palpably failed to achieve this in Washington.

Aaron Friedberg’s short, superb study of the collapse of strategic planning in the U.S. is very relevant here. It argues that the task of the NSC is to be “an aid to the collective thinking of the highest echelons of the government … [not] a mechanism for the production of operational plans.” It may be that Cameron’s vision of the role of his NSC leans a little more toward the vision of NSC as planner in chief than Friedberg would wish.

On the other hand, Cameron is clearly right to argue that the existing system in Britain treats national security as, at best, a second-order concern; that it has allowed development aid and post-conflict planning to become disconnected from the national interest or to go AWOL entirely; and that, in an age of Islamist terror, security must begin at home. If a British NSC can assist Prime Minister Cameron and his cabinet in implementing policies based on these preferences — and especially on the last one — it will be a good deal more than a step in the right direction.

For my money, the most interesting parts of Cameron’s speech – and the accompanying Green Paper that the speech launched — were those that dealt not with machinery but with attitudes. It’s always easy for politicians — especially newly elected ones — to blame the system: President Obama has done a good deal of this, especially recently. But this is not helpful: systems are always less than optimal, and, especially in a war with a determined and intelligent enemy, they are always going to fail.

Systems, in the end, matter less than leadership that acknowledges when it’s in a war and demands that responsible people take decisions and accept responsibility for them. The problem is ultimately one of culture. That was exactly the note on which Cameron ended, and while, again, it is obviously more pleasant to call for responsibility when out of office than it is to accept responsibility once in it, Cameron’s speech was a refreshing change from Gordon Brown’s determination to evade responsibility for all the errors for which, as chancellor of the exchequer and then as prime minister, he bears a central responsibility.

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