The time is ripe for a new approach to national strategy that thinks long-term and puts the participation and wellbeing of the public at its heart, says Sophie Middlemiss, as she shares the initial findings of the National Strategy for the Next Generations project.
Building a new normal – and a new narrative
Amid the unfolding crises of Brexit and COVID-19, there is a growing sense that we need to collectively build ‘a new normal’ for the UK. We need to ‘relaunch’ a refreshed Britain not just domestically but on the world stage, equipped with a more unifying national narrative. However all-consuming current crises may be, the UK cannot afford strategic paralysis and a reactive posture in a fast-changing world in the decades ahead.
But to get on the front foot, we need more than a new strategy document developed in the traditional (closed-door, top-down) way and closely held at the heart of Government. The national strategy we need will shape and define our country’s role in the world after a crossroads moment in our national story.
The country – all generations, all ages – will have jointly experienced a period of uncertainty unprecedented in recent decades. A period that has left many people more willing to move beyond short-term self-interest and divisive narratives – more ready to focus on a better shared future.
Yet while other areas of policymaking in the UK are opening up to public voice and participation, it has not yet been adopted in any serious way by the national strategy community in the UK Government. The development of national strategy has remained an elite, government-led endeavour.
That can no longer continue. When we step back and survey the long-term trajectory of the UK’s global role – as the participants in our National Strategy for the Next Generations (NSxNG) programme have been invited to do – the stark but unavoidable conclusion is that the UK’s global influence is declining relative to others’, and our ability to shape the external environment in which we operate diminishing. We need a fresh approach.
Time for a new approach
The time is ripe, then, to make (long-term, outward-facing) national strategy differently. That is the case we make in our recent report on our pilot phase of the NSxNG programme. This new approach must include two key ingredients:
- structured long-term thinking (strategic foresight) and
- public participation (giving citizens a voice).
Or, taken in combination, what we call participatory foresight. Strategic confidence and a proactive global posture for the UK require an open, structured approach to understanding the long-term global environment, the threats and opportunities it presents, and the UK’s possible role in it. We need to look out at least 25 years (a generation).
That is the basis on which we at the School of International Futures (SOIF) and our partners in the NSxNG programme – who include the Democratic Society, the APPG for Future Generations, Today for Tomorrow, the University of Cambridge Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, Agora think-tank, Restless Development, Shout Out UK, RUSI and the Kings College London’s Grand Strategy Centre – are working to bring a diverse public voice, and in particular the voices of future generations, into the process of shaping our country’s future place in the world.
National resilience – a whole-of-nation approach
There is now strong interest both inside and outside the UK Government in: a) thinking from first principles about Britain’s role in the world, and b) designing a new long-term national vision and positioning that puts at its heart the needs, wellbeing and interests of future generations.
But to what extent that interest will be reflected in the forthcoming Integrated Review remains to be seen.
We believe the British people are a key part of our national resilience.If our national security paradigm is – as many in the field tell us – expanding to be more centred on human security; if our national resilience and security depends ever more on the people (whether in terms of public health, innovation, cyber threats, disinformation, or polarised discourse), then the people need to be co-creators of policy. We must build beyond one-off ‘set-piece’ national conversations or events to thicken the ‘connective tissue’ between Government and the public on national strategy issues.
Pilot phase findings – and what’s next
In a pilot phase run over summer-autumn 2020, the NSxNG coalition engaged over 500 young people across the UK and included a ‘tester’ Citizens’ Assembly session, a series of structured futures workshops, historians’ seminar series, and an online survey. In the pilot, we heard 4 contrasting Visions for the UK’s place in the world in 2045 (read them in full in our report):
- The UK as a middle-ranking convening power
- The UK as a motor of global innovation
- The UK as a specialist state
- The UK in denial – an unmanaged decline
We also heard that young people wanted to give the UK Government five clear messages about the future of the UK in the world. These were:
- It’s time for an honest reassessment – perhaps a ‘managed, relative decline’. This emphasis on tackling head-on the issue of relative decline underlines the urgent need to work on a new national narrative that can inspire pride and hope in our future role.
- Make the hard choices – and reorient fast to survive. Our work revealed an appetite for honest language and clear choice-making. Whatever choice is made about the UK’s future role, our respondents underlined that the world is changing fast and the UK cannot afford decades agonising over its own role.
- Keep putting values at the centre – acting as a force for good and steward for a rules-based system. Whether that’s on climate change, social justice, welfare, challenging aggression, responsible innovation, mediating conflict, disrupting the spread of corruption or misinformation.
- Build the assets to support UK influencing, especially on innovation. The UK has significant soft power levers, including through our networks, ideas, innovation and influence.
- Recognise we must put our own house in order domestically. Participants stressed that our future global role would hinge on ‘domestic’ issues such as devolution, State of the Union, health, the economy, social security, social mobility, and affordable housing.
As these five messages show, many young people are still ambitious and optimistic about the UK’s future role – but also determinedly realistic.
Finally, we heard hopes, fears and other emotions coming strongly through in people’s responses. From the hopes (“that being British is going to be a good thing for my future”) to the fears (“we’re already past managed decline”) to anger, embarrassment (“about the UK’s place in the world – increasingly over the last 4 years”) and anxiety (“I’m worried! We are losing credibility”). What underlay all these emotional responses was the sense that young people want to feel hope and pride in the UK’s future role.
So we ask ourselves: how can we use constructive, inclusive conversations across all communities and generations to build a new national narrative – one that unites around pride and hope in a fresh, future role for our country? One that looks forward instead of back?
We look forward to continuing the work in our full programme over 2021 – and to sharing our findings with you.
End-note: To learn more about the NSxNG programme, or join the network, contact firstname.lastname@example.org
The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.
Image Credit: School of International Futures.