As the UK prepares to rewrite its national security strategy, Diana Francis argues that the people must have their say on their own security and who pays the price for UK ‘security’ policy abroad.

The new UK Government announced in its first week that it would carry out an Integrated Security, Defence and Foreign Policy Review in 2020. Following on from the post-Brexit cabinet reshuffle, this security review is expected to be a priority for the government over the spring and summer. But what does security mean for most of us and how can it best be created in increasingly insecure times?

State ‘security’

The last such review took place in 2015 and was published under the wordy title National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review: A Secure and Prosperous United Kingdom. Its tone is positive and determined, its statements sweeping, but the scope of its attention is narrow, in line with its implicit understanding of security. That word is not defined but is clearly regarded as something requiring ‘robust’ responses, a great deal of military hardware, ‘power projection’ and alliances based on self-interest rather than ethics. It also apparently requires furthering British prosperity, not least through the export of military know-how and weapons.  

Rethinking Security’s excellent study Contrasting Narratives: A Comparative Study of European and North American National Security Strategies compares 20 different National Security Strategies from ‘Western’ countries. It reveals that, even within NATO (an essentially military alliance), some countries take a broader view of security than does the UK:

‘There is also a strong emphasis in some strategies on the importance of enabling domestic socio-economic development, including poverty eradication and the provision of a “social security” system.’  

Is there a chance that, in this latest UK policy review, state ‘security’ will be understood in terms of meeting human needs, at home and beyond, and mitigating the major threats to those, globally and nationally?

Threats to human security

Globally speaking, existential threats arise from the heating of the atmosphere and oceans and rapid extinction of species, along with the all too real possibility of geopolitical conflict that leads to nuclear war. Addressing these would entail a huge move away from current policies. Yet there is no hint of any radical policy shift.

As regards climate crisis and despite the Government’s commitment to make the UK carbon neutral by 2050 (which in any case is too late), the Queen’s Speech announced that the Government aimed to cover 80% of the UK’s trade with free trade agreements within three years. The first deals would be negotiated with the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. The environmental cost of trading with such far-distant countries, rather than our European neighbours, will be immense.

As for the existential threat of nuclear calamity, it receives no mention, yet the ending of the Cold War has not removed it. Indeed, the Cold War has been revived and nuclear weapons have proliferated. The UN’s global ban on all nuclear weapons – their manufacture, possession and deployment – is ignored. It seems it is all too easy to forget the daily risk of their use, whether by accident or intent.

If, as we should and must, we care about the security of fellow human beings wherever they live not least those in poorer countries that reap the whirlwind of pollution by the rich, while new demands are placed on them to green their own economies and infrastructure – we will understand that our own interests are both morally and practically bound up with the needs of others. And if we look at what our ‘defence’ policy does, we will see that it has routinely included threatening entire populations, killing civilians, destroying homes, crops and animals, polluting the atmosphere and driving people to embark on perilous journeys to escape the hell they live in.

Meanwhile, in our rich country, security is denied on a daily basis to countless thousands of UK citizens who no longer know where their next meal is coming from, where they can sleep, when they will be able to get urgently needed hospital treatment, or who will take care of them when they can no longer look after themselves. It is denied to those in danger of being knifed on their way home from school, or who cannot find reliable or timely support to cope with mental health problems. It is denied to migrants escaping from the most desperate circumstances – many of them victims of the conflicts in which the UK is embroiled.  

Making people and planet the priority

Such human insecurity is intolerable and a security review must be a time for serious rethinking about how the UK meets its own people’s needs, as well as contributing to the shared security of people everywhere and urgently addressing the damage we are doing to our planet. How can that message be conveyed to our government?

The comparative study referred to above reveals that the governments of some countries make serious efforts to consult with their populations, to discover and be informed by their citizens’ security priorities. Here in the UK, such reviews come and go well beneath the radar of most people. Even when they are spotted by the aware few, the window of opportunity for input is brief, and even ‘expert’ contributions have little chance of a hearing, let alone any likelihood of influencing an already written strategy.

That is a disregard of our right to democratic participation and we must say so, formulating our own contributions and making other voices heard. The outcome of the exercise that is soon to begin here in the UK is of vital interest to the entire nation and this should be an opportunity for public discussion on the nature of security and policies that purport to strengthen it. 

For the future, we need a campaign for the whole process to be conducted under public scrutiny, with multiple opportunities for consultation at every level. Right now, we can make the review known and help to gather and amplify the views of those who are suffering the worst insecurity so that they can be highlighted. We can make all our voices heard in whatever ways are available to us: via social media, in the press, local and national, and via the different organisations to which we belong.

Our parliament does have the right to contribute the views of its members and to debate and ultimately accept or reject the proposed package that emerges from the review. We can therefore call on our MPs to represent us. To those who say, there are no votes in defence and security policy, we should make it known that we care very much about the consequences of UK policy on the wellbeing of people at home and abroad.

Wherever we live, let’s start planning now.

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