Old wine in new bottles? How innovative is the National Security Council?

Dr Joe Devanny, Research Associate at the Institute for Government and the Policy Institute at King’s

Billed as a break with the recent past of opaque, ‘sofa’ government, the National Security Council (NSC) was one of the coalition government’s first creations in May 2010. Its regular meetings, chaired by the prime minister, have brought together senior ministers and top officials to discuss the full spectrum of national security issues, ranging from foreign and defence policy to intelligence and civil contingencies. Several officials with direct experience of the NSC process have praised it for improving the clarity and accessibility of the decision making process.

But just how new is the NSC? That’s a question we try to answer in our new report, The National Security Council: national security at the centre of government. If our perspective extends only to the dawn of New Labour in 1997, then the NSC does indeed look different in its composition, the frequency of its meetings and in sustained prime ministerial commitment to coordinating national security through this formal, central committee process. But if we adopt a longer view, we see many connections between the NSC and its predecessors.

Like its predecessors, the NSC is a cabinet committee, albeit with a different name. Its longest-running predecessor was the Overseas and Defence Cabinet Committee, though many prime ministers have resorted to actual, or de facto, war cabinets to handle military crises or wars.

It is difficult to believe today, but prior to the First World War the Cabinet lacked a secretariat to support its meetings, write and disseminate minutes throughout government. Ministers could leave Cabinet meetings with little idea of what, if anything, had been decided.

National security was the first area in which the need for secretariat support was recognised. The Committee of Imperial Defence (CID) was created in 1902 and augmented with a permanent secretariat in 1904 to coordinate national security more systematically. It was chaired by the prime minister and brought together ministers and senior serving military officers.
During Lloyd George’s premiership, the CID secretariat not only provided the support for his War Cabinet but also formed the model for the Cabinet Secretariat, the precursor to today’s Cabinet Office.

The CID secretary, Maurice Hankey, was the first (and is still the longest serving) Cabinet Secretary. Hankey was a kind of proto-National Security Adviser and Cabinet Secretary combined, a combination which bequeathed significant national security responsibilities to his successors as Cabinet Secretary. Indeed, successive Cabinet Secretaries have been important advisers to the prime minister on security issues, especially during the Cold War era on nuclear and intelligence issues.

Indeed, for many prime ministers, their choice of advisers was more important than the committee structure. Much depends on whether prime ministers feel content with the service they receive from departments: if they find support lacking, or they don’t trust departments or ministers, they can enhance central capacity.
Following the Falklands War, Margaret Thatcher boosted the foreign policy capacity inside Downing St – which had consisted of one foreign affairs private secretary – by employing a senior Foreign Policy Adviser.

The longest serving occupant of this role was Sir Percy Cradock, who combined it with the Chairmanship of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC). Foreshadowing the Butler Inquiry’s criticisms of the relationship between policy and intelligence in the early 2000s, Cradock was aware that his dual policy and intelligence roles existed in a certain tension, but he felt nonetheless that the Assessment Staff was an enabler, without which he would have been much less effective and useful to the prime minister.

Though she increased central capacity, Thatcher took decisions with ever smaller circles of advisers. John Major reversed both trends, reverting to a leaner Downing St and more discursive Cabinet meetings. In 1997, Tony Blair quickly expanded the size and scope of Downing St operations, including in foreign affairs, but Cabinet and Cabinet committees began again to play a smaller role in decision making.

In June 2001 Blair placed Cabinet Office secretariats behind his Europe and Foreign Affairs Advisers. After the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, Blair also upgraded the long-standing Intelligence Coordinator post to incorporate security within its portfolio.

These changes meant a significant increase in capacity at the centre. Blair’s first Europe Adviser, Sir Stephen Wall, felt that this actually made No.10 too powerful in foreign policy, upsetting the delicate balance between the centre and the Foreign Office. Questions of central co-ordination and the overlap between intelligence and policy were central to the Iraq War criticisms.
As prime minister, Gordon Brown continued Blair’s practice of employing three senior officials as advisers on Europe, Foreign Policy and Security, but David Cameron’s NSC reforms combined these advisory functions in one new post, the National Security Adviser, supported by a well-resourced national security secretariat.

The NSC therefore bears strong resemblance to previous iterations of national security co-ordination at the centre of government. It continues a post-9/11 trend under Blair and Brown that focused on ‘security’ as a more salient co-ordinating factor than other aspects of defence and foreign policy. Yet it still deserves to be regarded as new in marking a significant further step in both streamlining and upgrading central support for the prime minister. The NSC has also met more frequently and benefited from more sustained prime ministerial attention than its recent predecessors.

It would be wrong to imagine that there is one, timeless and perfect way of co-ordinating national security from the centre. Like any other area, national security co-ordination depends greatly on a prime minister’s personal style and approach. As we consider the future of the national security machinery we should examine how well it is currently operating. But it is also worthwhile to ponder how it has been shaped by – and whether it can learn from – its own history.

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