Tuesday 19 October 2010

National Security Slipping Away

Letter from Germany

There’s a piece in the
Telegraph today, lamenting the lack of strategic thinking in the UK (in the context of the Severn Barrage non-decision). In my main sphere of interest – the politics of energy – I can only really point to a handful of good, truly strategic UK actions taken by The Authorities:

- the meticulous and very extensive preparations made by the Thatcher regime, in opposition and then in government, for the Miners’ Strike 1984-5

- the building of the UK Interconnector (the gas pipeline to Belgium), a story I have recounted here before

- plus some rather arcane regulatory interventions to improve the workings of the gas and electricity markets that I won’t bore you with just now

Which leads me to the new National Security Strategy. Armchair strategists everywhere will have a field day with this earnest but ultimately unsatisfactory effort. I’d just make one immediate point. The threat to the UK of ‘Conventional War’ has been downgraded to a third-tier affair - which seems more-or-less correct just now - so we can be sure that (as soon as the ill-conceived Afghan adventure is concluded) there will be a lot less squaddies, sailors and airmen on the pay-roll.

That may be OK vis-à-vis a reduced threat of Conventional War: but just look how many of the identified higher-tier threats will end up with us wanting to call upon disciplined bodies of men in large numbers: an upsurge in terrorism, including N.Ireland; big natural disasters; foreign civil wars spilling over into the UK; WMD attacks on UK soil; and that’s before we get to the third-tier threats.

Sitting here in Germany, with Angela Merkel inveighing against the failure to assimilate large immigrant populations, and glancing across to the flames in France, it isn’t difficult to see a plethora of medium- to severe threats of all sorts.

When we’ve had a large-ish standing army, albeit founded mainly on the evaporating Russian threat, we’ve automatically had access to tens of thousands of men in disciplined formations, be they to rebuild flood-damaged bridges in Cumbria, man emergency fire-engines during strikes, put a 'ring of steel' around Heathrow – or mount an unexpected assault on the Argentinians halfway around the globe.

Downgrade the threat of Conventional War, for whatever sound analytic reasons, and you probably end up losing your ability to respond to others of the varied contingencies of life. Events, dear boy, events. They’re always with us.



Thud said...

You never get the war you want as enemies tend not to be very obliging, we need better thinking on this beyond cost.

roym said...

"we’ve automatically had access to tens of thousands of men"

doesn't the big society cater for a dads army of sorts?

Andrew B said...

I am sure that if some large private sector organisation came up and offered a severn barrage in return for a similar deal to that which is being offered the nuclear industry and by the way the opportunity to build a few thousand homes on greenbelt near the m5, the government would gum their arm off.

The moral here being that we should not look to govt to provide solutions anymore - only the regulatory framework.

hatfield girl said...

The Territorial Army would seem to fit the bill for what you see as current threats, particularly if they were organised into free-standing units not adjuncts to regular army units.

Indeed, do we need a standing army?

They are far preferable, too, to paramilitary forces like the Carabinieri for acting in civil disturbance. Switzerland seems to have an efficient, popular, part time defence force as well, though not on the voluntary basis the Territorials operate.

Demetrius said...

One recalls being on standby in the early 50's to go to Southampton Docks when the nations food supply was in peril from a dock strike. However a flu epidemic struck which did for the dockers and us as well. But has anyone thought about this kind of thing?

Steven_L said...

Is this the 'blood on the streets' you've been predicting for the last 3 years ND?

Or just the beginning of it?

Mark Wadsworth said...

I take your point about floods, firemen's strikes etc, but what that mainly requires is men (and women) and initiative, not fancy aircraft carriers.

As Simon Jenkins said on Newsnight yesterday, the UK has never been less under the sort of threat that requires a massive military.

PS, while it was right to boot out the Argies, there's no reason that this could not have been achieved by diplomatic/economic pressure.

Nick Drew said...

roym, HG - i am a big supporter of the Territorials, if and only if correctly deployed. On the one hand, it isn't right to use them as Regulars-on-the-cheap (as often in recent conflicts)

on the other, there are dire precedents for using such forces in times of civil unrest (remember the B-Specials). Being territorial, they are often also partisan, in a way that Regulars (who are generally based away from home, and have become part of the great khaki machine) are not. This is important. NB, Irish infantry regiments, legendary for their courage, were never deployed in N.Ireland ...

Nick Drew said...

Thud - you are clearly right

Demetrius - hope so !

Steven - well, it's all playing out much slower than I anticipated, but ... watch and shoot, watch and shoot

MW - big topics. I'd say small carriers are eminently sensible - the big'uns are part of Brown's scorched-earth policy

Argies out of Falklands on diplomacy alone ? not sure (although we may be, in a few years !)

AndrewB - an interesting point. being a bit busy of late I haven't worked through the welter of energy / nuke docs released yesterday: but it does seem to me that Huhne is rowing back on the 'no subsidy' promise for nukes