United Kingdom Report


Main Actors

The British WGA has evolved over time as well as in response to the ideological preferences of the government of the day and changes within the broader strategic context. The year 2010 marked a watershed year in the development of the WGA because it saw the transition from the Labour- to the Conservative-led coalition government and a more formalised approach to the management of the WGA.
Under the Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown (1997–2010), the three principal ministries were the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), the Department for International Development (DFID), and the Ministry of Defence (MOD). The focus on these three ministries was reflective of two key drivers. First, the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union had fundamentally changed the perceived threat environment. Indeed, according to the Strategic Defence Review of 1998, Britain no longer faced a state- based existential threat (Ministry of Defence 1998).
Second, there was growing global recognition that the way in which developed states engaged with less developed or under-developed states needed to change. The publication of the Brandt Report in 1981 had an impact on the way in which North-South relations would subsequently be framed. The Labour government’s establishment of DFID in 1997 was reflective of that change.
The significance of these two drivers was that although the traditional functions of diplomacy, aid and arms were at the forefront of UK engagement in the world, the balance between them had changed. Initially, there was a significant power struggle between the three ministries, both in Whitehall and overseas. As Her Majesty’s representatives overseas, ambassadors felt themselves to be primi inter pares. The Armed Forces, as represented by defence attachés, felt that they could provide the most effective access to the security services and, thus, to decision-makers in conflict and post-conflict states. The DFID, however, had the money and was able to spend it. Competing organisational cultures led to competing agendas. Formal mechanisms were thus required to harness the three ministries.
One of the ways in which the government sought to operationalise its WGA was through the establishment of a series of delivery units that were staffed by personnel seconded from the three principal ministries and the Home Office. The most significant and enduring of these has been the Stabilisation Unit (SU), which was established in 2007. Staffed by a core team of personnel drawn from across government and with the capacity to deploy experts (government civil servants and consultants), the mission of the SU is to “support the integrated co-ordination of UK government activities in fragile and conflict-affected states by being a centre of expertise on conflict, stabilisation, security and justice” (SU n.d.).
Political direction for, and coordination of, overseas engagements was provided by the Cabinet Office’s National Security Committee, chaired by the prime minister. Support was provided by the National Security Secretariat under the direction of a security and intelligence coordinator. The coordination of intelligence and security risk assessments was undertaken by the Joint Intelligence Committee. The Cabinet Office Briefing Room (COBR) was responsible for responding to emerging security situations. The Defence Council was responsible for coordinating military activity.
In 2010, then-Prime Minister David Cameron chose to overhaul this structure in response to the increasing complexities of ongoing operations in Afghanistan and the post-Iraq security environment, concerns over the lack of emphasis placed on national security by his predecessor, and what was perceived to be a diminished ability to make a coherent national security strategy. In response, Cameron created a cabinet-level National Security Council (NSC) with a supporting secretariat and a national security adviser. A formalised national security risk assessment (NSRA) process was established to support the publication of the National Security Strategy (NSS). The government also established a Joint Forces Command to further integrate operational military activity.
These structural changes necessitated a review of how parliament ensured accountability. Prior to 2010, foreign, defence intelligence and development activities had been reviewed by relevant committees within the House of Commons. Post-2010, the parliament added a select committee to monitor the NSC.
As the risk of international terrorism has increased and it has become ever more apparent that interventions abroad have direct consequences for security at home, a growing number of ministries and agencies have been incorporated into the UK’s WGA. The promulgation of the country’s Fusion Doctrine – as set out in the National Security Capability Review of 2018 (HM Government 2018) – and the explicit linkage made between economic, security and influence activities are illustrative of that wider change. All ministries now need to demonstrate how they are contributing to the attainment of the three national security objectives: protect our people, project our influence, and promote our prosperity (HM Government 2015). One should note, however, that there has been some criticism that explicit measurement of performance against national security objectives risks securitising development assistance.
Concern has also been expressed about the implications of Brexit for national security. In her speech to the Munich Security Conference in February 2018 (May 2018a), then-Prime Minister Theresa May acknowledged that European and British security would remain closely interlinked post-Brexit and that, consequently, the government would wish to “continue this co-operation” in the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) missions and operations in the future. To date, British contributions to CSDP missions have been limited in terms of the number of personnel (2.3% of member state contributions), but significant in terms of effect. Britain’s parliament has recognised that “CSDP missions and operations have made a significant contribution to UK foreign policy priorities and been an important channel of UK influence – from tackling piracy to promoting the rule of law to peacebuilding in post-conflict states” (House of Lords 2018: 3). Britain’s principal contribution to these operations has been strategic guidance during their planning and review. Concern has been expressed that a failure to address the nature of a future relationship with the EU may mean that the UK is called upon to provide assets without having a say in how they are used – a position with which none of the political parties would feel comfortable.
Back to Top