Rethinking Security hosted a series of roundtable discussions with civil society groups throughout 2022. We shared some reflections on the blog during the discussions and we are now publishing the full report. Here, Joanna Frew explains why these discussions were so vital and shares a summary of their findings.

The aim of the roundtables, which were part of the Alternative Security Review, was to understand insecurities people in the UK experience, what civil society organisations are doing to address these insecurities and what they would recommend for a Human Security Strategy for the UK.  These consultations were in some ways comparable to those that UK governments have carried out for security and other reviews. However, our aim was to invite representatives of groups that experience insecurity or that are unlikely to have access to policy-making spaces, in order to develop an understanding of the insecurities faced by people in the UK that often go unheard in elite circles.

The overwhelming conclusion was that, despite the UK’s position as the sixth richest country in the world, and its long history of parliamentary democracy and human rights, there are deep insecurities faced by numerous sections of society, which will take more than sticking plasters or funding to solve. A whole new way of conceiving of security at the national level is necessary.

Using ‘security’ positively

In fact, a number of participants felt that it was difficult to reclaim the idea of security because the UK government has brought hard or coercive security policies into its responses to climate change, to asylum policy and to policing. Moreover, through the Prevent programme, government has prioritised discriminatory ‘national security’ practices in its approach to delivering basic services such as education, health and social care. At the same time, the use of the word ‘security’ to define positive rights has been abandoned in some public bodies, for example, in the welfare system. Some participants thought that distancing from the language of security was necessary, while others thought that reclaiming it was important.

Rethinking Security believes that using the term ‘security’ to advocate for an alternative approach is crucial to achieving change in the understanding of security – what it could mean versus what it is reserved for at present. However, it is important to note that not all participants believed that aim to be possible and some had developed other phrases for defining the changes they hope to see.

However, there was little disagreement among participants about where insecurities come from and what needs to change. Here we share the three key findings of the consultations.

Key Findings

Even in a democratic society, foreign and security policy can feel like particularly closed and exclusive worlds. That same elitism also damages wider participation and inclusion in politics and decision-making.

For those working in civil society groups that advocate on foreign and security policy issues, there was agreement that it is particularly difficult to have alternative ideas heard in these branches of government. Participants described a closed, elitist culture that favours white, male, public school voices and perpetuates established approaches to foreign and security policy.

This traditional understanding of ‘security’, which often uncritically views the UK as a ‘force for good’ in the world, also privileges military responses over alternatives. Arguably, this uncritical view of the military is widely held across British society and has been nurtured by government through education and cultures of remembrance, supported by military and industrial interests.

Elitism was also regarded as a problem for wider democratic engagement by representatives of groups whose work it is to foster political participation, a key component of the UN conceptualisation of human security. Participants described early experiences of the political system, including (lack of) education on political rights and processes, as crucial in determining whether someone will feel empowered to seek help or advocate for change later in life.

Furthermore, if people don’t see themselves– their ethnicity, religion, gender, class or sexuality – represented in the political world, they are less likely to feel politics is for them. These barriers were identified as structural inequalities, but formal barriers to participation like the first past the post electoral system and recently introduced voter ID legislation were also recognised.

‘National security’ concerns have crept in to many public bodies and imposed duties on public sector workers that undermine cohesion and damage human security. At the same time, the use of the word security to define positive rights has been withdrawn.

For participants in the roundtables on domestic ‘security’ issues, immigration, and economic security, where security used to be used to refer to positive rights or components of human security, this is no longer the case. Concurrently, ‘national security’ policies have entered public bodies in ways that were considered detrimental to human security. Participants described the ‘securitisation’ of health and migration, for example, where policies that have resulted in more surveillance or tighter controls are implemented to counter perceived threats.

The clearest example of the removal of the term security to denote a positive right is from social security, where it has been replaced by benefits and universal credit. This language communicates that the economic safety net that many rely on is in fact something that puts them in debt to the state, i.e. that it is not an entitlement.

The most obvious incursion of ‘national security’ in public bodies is the Prevent duty that places a legal duty on health and education workers (and others) to report signs of radicalisation. This duty has caused much damage to relationships, such as the doctor-patient relationship, that should be based on confidentiality and care. It has been particular damaging for the Muslim community in Britain. 

Beyond Prevent, the latest policing acts criminalise some forms of protest and freedom of expression, as well as the ability of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities to practice their nomadic lifestyle. Participants also described the way bureaucratic systems are designed to create insecurity. In the roundtable on immigration, participants were unanimous that it is deliberate policy to make things difficult for people who interact with it. It is a deterrent to gaining legal status, especially for those who have extra needs or are living in poverty.

The profit motive undermines progress towards environmental security, particularly in key sectors such as food and energy.

In the three roundtable discussions that covered environmental issues (food and agriculture, energy, and global economic and environmental justice,) participants all agreed that the underlying problem that hinders progress towards environmental security (as understood as a component of human security) is the profit motive, or the way the economy is constructed. The approach of many governments has already created insecurity for millions when it comes to food and energy security, without the added problems of climate change. Global as well as UK-specific practices were covered in these roundtables.

Food was turned into a globally tradable commodity under World Trade Organisation rules that prioritised the liberalisation of food markets. This has enabled huge corporations to take control of global food systems, while hindering the ability of national governments to pursue policies that supported national strategies or were based on the principle that access to food should be a human right. Speculation also causes price fluctuations that negatively impact human security.

When it comes to decarbonisation and climate justice, it is no secret that the energy sector is driven by the profits of the world’s largest companies, whose size and influence are hampering the will and the effort of governments to commit to net zero.

Participants also highlighted a connection between global trends and the UK financial sector. The size and limited regulation of the financial sector in the UK means that UK-based companies can and do invest in environmentally compromising ventures like mining and energy production. These projects are often in low-income countries that need investment but are likely, because of their nature, to both directly damage the local natural environment and contribute to the global breakdown of the climate.

Participants also believed that, when it came to the UK, it was the profit motive, rather than Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, that caused widespread energy insecurity as people were left unable to heat their homes in the winter of 2022. This has subsequently been borne out as the big energy firms reported record profits.

Just as energy production is controlled by large multinational firms, landownership is concentrated in a few hands in the UK. This means that a small number of companies have disproportionate influence over UK food production. A transition to more diffuse landownership, which may be necessary in the future to enable food security for all, was thought by participants to be extremely difficult to enact.

As a result, in these profit-driven sectors, policies that support sustainable farming or changes towards decarbonisation to meet the challenges of climate change are lacking in their scope and speed. In the UK, the government is falling short on most, if not all, of its commitments on decarbonisation, renewable energy and projects like insulating homes. In the agricultural sector, participants said there was uncertainty about support and incentives for sustainable farming after Brexit, and little investment in long-term support for things like soil health and training new or young farmers.

Instead, in both agriculture and energy the UK government regards security in terms of balance of trade – securing imports of food and energy and supporting competitive exports. Participants also noted that there is a tendency to invest in tech ‘solutions’ to climate change that are expensive and unproven, including hydrogen and carbon capture, both of which would fit with the business models of existing fossil fuel firms. In agriculture, government has made funds available for solutions such as vertical farming, but is under-investing in the programmes noted above, such as training for new entrants and sustainability funding.

The Collective Message

The collective message from these roundtable discussions is that, across all sectors, human and environmental security is not prioritised by government. Instead, traditional ideas about ‘national security’ prevail alongside the profit motive. Economic sufficiency, health, access to food and the certainty of a flourishing environment are increasingly not a given for many more millions of people in the UK. New laws and policy on policing, ‘domestic security’ and democratic participation have curtailed community, personal and political security.

What now?

These roundtable discussions emphasised the connected nature of peace and justice. While traditional approaches to ‘national security’ such as militarism and counter terrorism are prioritised by government and absorb a large share of the budget, human and environmental security suffer within the UK and globally.

With this information and the results of surveys, focus groups and interviews carried out by the ASR’s research team at Coventry University, Rethinking Security is preparing to launch its Human Security Strategy for the UK in the New Year.

Amidst the violence and humanitarian disaster in the Middle East, ongoing war in Ukraine, Yemen and elsewhere, the space to put forward more just, peaceful and sustainable alternatives seems to shrink. However, with an evidence-based strategy that centres the concerns of ordinary people and civil society in the UK, we hope to bring a challenge to the government’s ‘national security’ priorities and its methodology for deciding them.

Use the roundtable reports to learn more about the connections between peace and justice issues, and to find out what groups are doing to work for human security across the UK.  Our Human Security Strategy will be out in the New Year with specific recommendations on doing security policy differently.

In the meantime, to be part of the discussion, you can also join our webinars, Reclaiming Security, over the next few months as we explore what it means to put human security at the centre of understanding global, community and individual security.

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: Leonie Mills-Woanya, Rethinking Security.

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