Richard Reeve reflects on a workshop that broadened the Rethinking Security network by bringing academic specialists together with policy and practice experts from civil society to formulate a radical rethinking of UK foreign and security policy.

In December 2019 academics from the Universities of York and Sussex convened a workshop in York under the title Radically Rethinking Security. Rethinking Security was delighted to have been involved in the planning for that workshop and to have participated in it alongside representatives from some of our member organisations and many others from academia and civil society committed to challenging the orthodoxies of UK security culture and policy.

As with the Rethinking Security network, the workshop sought to widen the conversations being had on niche, often quite technical or specialist, areas of security policy into a more cohesive dialogue on the bigger picture of the UK’s approach to global security. We believed that connecting up the evidence base and empirical critique of the academic sector with the policy focus and practical experience of the NGO sector could strengthen our challenge to established practice and help us in advocating for progressive change. Together we aimed to analyse current approaches to security, to develop an alternative framework to direct future policy, and to foster a broader community of scholars and practitioners committed to radically rethinking UK foreign and security policy.

Since we met on the eve of a momentous general election, the UK and global political contexts have been radically altered by the Covid-19 pandemic. Never again should we see health security as distinct from national security, or what threatens the wellbeing of people in other continents as irrelevant to our own security. The killing of George Floyd has also rocked the complacency of many millions in believing that the security and privilege enjoyed by the white world are the same as those experienced by people of colour. Yet the interests of the powerful – whether states, corporations or individuals – carry a powerful inertia and we know that they will not yield to radical change easily.

In the UK the government has started, paused and restarted what it is calling the most radical review of security policy in a generation in the midst of the greatest peacetime security challenge the country has faced in a century. As with previous reviews, there is scepticism that the government is willing to consider anything more radical than harnessing international development spending to the ‘national interests’ of UK security and prosperity. Despite rhetorical commitments, there is little sign that it is willing to open the Integrated Review process to external challenge, neither from UK civil society nor from people abroad who experience the other, often very sharp, end of UK foreign and security policy.

So working together to understand the impact of current UK policies and to formulate an intellectually and practically rigorous alternative framework for UK engagement with the world has never been more important. This is the conversation that Rethinking Security, its members and allies seek to stimulate and that will continue between academics, NGOs, activists and wider society committed to the same end of a more just, peaceful and sustainable future for all humanity.

I am delighted to publish the report of the workshop compiled by Dr Eli Schweiger and Dr Nick Ritchie of the University of York and Dr Tom Martin of the University of Sussex. I look forward to working with them and many others to take the conversation forward.