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Searching for humane alternatives to the ‘whole society’ approach to security

In the first of a series of blog posts reflecting on our Alternative Security Review, Joanna Frew highlights some of the common themes in the first three of Rethinking Security’s roundtable discussions with civil society on human security issues.

Earlier this year we began the research and evidence-building phase of the Alternative Security Review (ASR). Whilst the research team at Coventry University’s Centre for Trust Peace and Social Relations (CTPSR) are preparing research activities for public consultation, the Rethinking Security team have been engaging different sectors of civil society in discussion on the themes of human security that they work on.

Human security is a vast field, covering food and health security, economic and environmental well-being, and political, community and personal equality and inclusion in society. There are hundreds of active and committed groups working on these issues in the UK and it has been a privilege to spend time learning from those with knowledge and expertise in areas that have, until now, been beyond the scope of Rethinking Security’s work.

Our first three discussions focused on what could collectively be described as the impacts of ‘hard security’ approaches within the UK. Specifically, the presence of militarism in UK society; the impacts of domestic security and surveillance policies on communities that are the objects of these policies; and the human security issues faced by migrants.

These topics and the participants helped us to understand more about the way in which UK ‘national security’ and defence policy impacts people in the UK, who are often conceived of and presented as a threat. Although distinct issues, there were some common threads that ran throughout the discussions.

The ‘whole society’ approach to security

From the discussions, it was clear that the UK government’s pursuit of a ‘whole society’ approach to ‘security’ brings with it some serious problems for individual and community security. Rather than confining the armed forces to traditional external security roles, or even to implementing counter terrorism and border  policing roles within the UK, for example, many public services that should have little to do with state security or militarism are caught up in enforcing hard security policies.

Participants shared examples of what this means in their field. In schools, early references to the military allow it to be normalised through a trusted civilian institution. Moreover, resources are sponsored by arms companies and the military, helping to recruit future engineers for the arms industry. Public Health England has been renamed the UK Health Security Agency and NHS staff have a legal duty to check the immigration status of patients and to report any signs of radicalisation under the Prevent strategy.

The Prevent duty and immigration checks are effective across other public bodies – such as police, local councils and schools – and private citizens and groups like landlords, employers and banks are expected to carry out immigration controls as well. Our contributors have carried out research that details ways in which this whole society approach to national security often denies people the care or rights that they are entitled to. This could be anything from young Asian men, in particular, not seeking help for health issues, to people with ‘foreign sounding names’ not being able to rent in the private sector. This can only be described as systemic racism.

One conclusion from this was that domestic security, when policy is developed, justified and normalised from hard or militarised principles, in fact denies protections and rights to many inside the state and makes it more difficult to communicate what human security is and could look like in the UK.

New legislation

There was deep concern among participants that new legislation such as the Police, Crime, Courts and Sentencing Act and the Nationality and Borders Act are further denying certain marginalised communities the ability to live securely. For example, we were joined by Lynne Tami of Aye Right, a representative of the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller Community, who explained the far-reaching impacts of the Policing Act on that community. Police now have the power to immediately confiscate vehicles and incarcerate adults. Because this community travels in family groups, this would leave children potentially without care and increase the possibility that they are handed over to social services.

Equally, right now, we are witnessing the UK’s abandonment of its international human rights duty to offer asylum to those who present themselves for protection. Instead the Home Office wants to create bespoke resettlement schemes where it chooses who is deserving of protection. With the current prioritisation of Ukrainians over other asylum seekers, this again looks a lot like systemically racist policy.

“It’s all about the money”

Another common thread was a criticism of where state resources are channelled and who benefits. Rather than fund community groups to support human security and inclusion, money to stop radicalisation is funnelled into Prevent. Rather than communicate what the real burdens on the NHS are, migrants are scapegoated and charged for life-saving care. Rather than properly fund emergency services or responses to climate-related crises, the army is brought in to carry out civilian work. This support for hard security or military responses was characterised as a failure of socio-economic policies elsewhere, which, where they exist, have suffered years of cuts and under-funding while the defence budget has surged.

To support immigration controls, huge contracts are handed out for border security, asylum support, detention and deportation. In the military, funding is funnelled in to research and development for new weapons and surveillance tools. What underpins this was described as a ‘technocratic capitalism’, with a logic of its own and a resulting trajectory to more hard security, supported by government and military narratives on security.

Challenging narratives

In all three discussions, the consensus of people working in particular fields was that to enhance human security and safety is not simply a case of making a few policy changes but necessitates challenging old and creating new narratives first. For example, in the first discussion on militarism in the UK, there was a consensus that a positive view of the military is deeply embedded in British society and that this partly allows for, yet is also a consequence of, the power of the military-industrial complex. This makes it hard to challenge militarised foreign and security policy since support for the military is seen almost universally as a vote-winner by MPs. Behind the scenes, the revolving door between arms companies and politicians reinforces support for hard security solutions and funding for new technologies to provide the solutions that are sought. Communicating effective counter-narratives and a vision of a different kind of security is essential to change this.

Yet, it is not only militaristic jingoism that needs to be countered. In the second roundtable we explored how, as a result of the whole society approach to domestic security, the concept of security and the word itself are loaded with meaning that for minoritised communities often means the opposite – the enforcement of the majority’s (sense of) security at the expense of their rights and dignity. Ours is not a healthy and safe society for all.

In the second and third roundtables, it was the Home Office that was the agency in question – the enforcer of domestic security. Another mutually-reinforcing narrative is that by putting immigration policy in a law and order framework, migrants are conceived of as potential criminals. Likewise, by using the Prevent approach as the national counter radicalisation strategy, dealing with the alienation that some people feel and act on, becomes a policing matter rather than an issue that is seen in its social and political context and dealt with at root cause. Moreover, strengthening police powers and border control powers whilst funds dry up in community settings makes policing the only available option for dealing with what are human and social issues. Again, this does not move us towards human security.

Each sector faces new and ongoing struggles and by drawing together common threads in current government approaches to domestic security as well as the changes civil society groups are seeking, we hope the ASR will amplify and support the work already being done through a framework of human security. The need for a rethink is urgent.


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: Sgt Ross Tilly RAF, Crown Copyright, via Fickr. A soldier from 2 PARA and Metropolitan Police Firearms Officers on guard outside the Palace of Westminster in London as part of Op Temperer, 2014.

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