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The National Security Council: the first ten years

By Adam Helliker

It is a meaningful, albeit trite aphorism used by many a politician through the ages: that keeping the country safe and secure is the first priority of any government. But it was only ten years ago that a Prime Minister took the significant step of establishing a powerful body which took complete responsibility of coordinating the responses to any dangers that British citizens might face.


In 2010 David Cameron presided over the first meeting of the National Security Council, appointing the highly-regarded  Sir Peter Ricketts, then Permanent Undersecretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as his National Security Adviser, a new role based in the Cabinet Office.

The first item on the NSA’s agenda that afternoon in May was - no surprise - to review the terrorist threat to the British mainland, followed by a discussion about the stability, or rather lack of it, in Afghanistan and Pakistan.


The list of those sitting alongside Cameron at that first gathering may now make it seem an overtly political animus - at the table were the Chancellor, the Foreign Secretary, the Home Secretary and the International Development Secretary - but in his introductory speech the PM made it clear that at its weekly meetings the Council would be able to summon virtually anyone who would be able to contribute to its paramount purpose of defending the country.


That would, of course, include representatives of the Armed Forces and the heads of the main intelligence agencies, MI5, MI6, GCHQ and DI, who could securely share the latest reports with ministers, all of whom would have signed the Official Secrets Act. Not that even that level of security could prevent alleged loose talk - in April 2019, an inquiry was ordered into the leaking to the Daily Telegraph of a decision by the NSC to allow the Chinese giant Huawei to bid for 'non-core' elements of the construction of the prospective 5G mobile communications network. Several cabinet ministers denied they were involved in the leak.


Cameron’s doggedness in establishing the NSC was a laudable reflection of that relative rarity - an example of a politician determined to put into action a policy that he had championed in opposition. Few PMs take office with much experience of national security issues (although the present incumbent of No. 10 had a brief spell as Foreign Secretary) and security coordination is rarely a key theme in general election campaigns.


At the time the creation of the NSC was supported by the Labour Party, with the Shadow Defence Secretary, Vernon Coaker, stating: “we support its foundation…,and it is vital that we see the NSC deliver the long-term strategic direction for which it is established.”


As ever, and particularly at a time when the Government was still largely committed to enforcing austerity, the cost of Cameron’s vow to put national security at the apex of his new administration’s agenda was a concern, particularly for the Chancellor, George Osborne, even though he shared the PM’s hawkish views on finding new ways of protecting the population from harm. (It was Osborne who, six years later, was responsible for finding the £1.9billion needed to launch another of the Government’s commitments to its citizens’ safety, the National Cyber Security Centre).


But right from that first meeting of the NSC, it was clear to those involved that Cameron had shown vision in his insistence that there were alternative ways to interpret what he acknowledged was one of his most important duties - establishing a national security strategy that would ensure three core principles: the protection of people; protection of our global influence, and the promotion of our prosperity. (Former National Security Adviser Sir Kim Darroch singled out Cameron’s personal stake in the NSC process as one of the leading factors in ensuring its success. He said:  “I doubt that previous prime ministers have spent anything like the amount of time this one spends on foreign policy and preparing for our meetings.”


Not that previous administrations hadn’t tried: successive premiers had attempted to reorganise the various cogs in the machinery of central government, each searching for the right constellation of resources and personnel available to meet the threats facing the UK. When it was initially raised by Cameron and a group of his policy advisers (Including Baroness Pauline Neville-Jones, a former head of the Joint Intelligence Committee, who produced paper on the subject in for the Conservatives  in 2006) the idea of a central body to coordinate all the power a PM can summon to protect national security was met with some cynicism in certain quarters. One official commented that the idea of “instant cross-Whitehall coordination in a crisis was a dream, and would remain one.”


Yet now, a decade later, and with Cameron’s tenure of No.10 a fading memory, the NSC is viewed as the perfect case study of how, within an enviably short time from concept to establishment, prime ministers can effectively coordinate a key area of policy from the centre. In short, the NSC -  and its supporting National Security Secretariat (NSSec) has been judged one of the success stories in how a Government can adapt to meet its responsibilities in a constantly evolving climate.


Indeed Cameron has referred to the NSC as “one of my more successful babies.” And one former senior intelligence official has described the creation of the NSC as “like the lights coming on;  because it was very difficult under the previous arrangements to necessarily detect what decisions, if any decisions, were being taken on a number of issues and the thinking that led to those decisions was even more opaque.”


The Civil Service has also embraced the NSC as a success story, with one recent report finding that “In terms of regularity of process, frequency of high-level ministerial and official attendance at meetings, and focused secretariat support, it has brought greater clarity to a broad range of national security policy issues.” The report concluded, in glowing terms: “The NSC demonstrates the potential benefits of a ‘strong grip’ at the centre and the ‘halo effect’ of consistent prime ministerial investment of time and effort in committee work." 


It is widely acknowledged that the NSC’s success has been due, in no small part, to the quality of its National Security Advisers, beginning with Sir Peter (now Lord) Ricketts and continuing with Sir Kym Darroch, and the present NSA, Sir Mark Sedwell, who is also Cabinet Secretary.


Before Cameron’s bold initiative, his predecessors had grappled with similar problems of security coordination for over a century.  Several had experimented with different combinations of senior official appointments to deal with the responsibilities of national security (which, broadly, encompass defence, intelligence, foreign affairs, internal security and civil contingencies).


Long-serving prime ministers like Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair had begun to favour less formal, smaller circles of national security advice and decision making. For each premier, the Civil Service had to be ready to recalibrate arrangements to provide the necessary support, and to stand its ground in arguing that each step away from formal committee processes could jeopardise clarity and transparency within government.


Today’s Council, aided by its well-resourced secretariat, is a world away from  how national security was handled in the early 20th century, when it was merely an item that would be raised at Cabinet meetings. In its early days such gatherings functioned without minutes and meetings could be long, rambling affairs; ministers departed with little idea of what had been decided. Their private secretaries would have to write to each other trying to clarify the details. For example, an appeal to one of Gladstone’s secretaries stated that ‘there must have been some decision...My Chief has told me to ask you what the devil was decided, for he be damned if he knows. Will you ask Mr. G. in more conventional and less pungent terms?’


The first PM to suggest that the areas of areas of foreign and defence policy should be treated separately from domestic matters at Cabinet was Arthur Balfour who formed the Committee of Imperial Defence - the precursor to the NSC. Tweaked by subsequent PMs, notably Asquith and Lloyd George, the CID continued to develop until the outbreak of war in 1939, eventually becoming known as just the Defence Committee. As with the NSC today, other ministers attended these  meetings at the prime minister’s behest, as appropriate to the subjects under discussion.


Incidentally, in terms which may still resonate today, the CID’s first head, Sir George Clarke, recognised the challenges to any prime ministerial adviser facing competing departmental centres of power and influence, lamenting that he had to operate by ‘the gentle pulling of strings’ rather than ‘being able to speak with power’, given his status as a “mere’ civil servant.


A significant change was made in 1968, with the creation of the post of a Coordinator to bring a senior security official into the Cabinet Office to assist the Cabinet Secretary with his intelligence-related responsibilities, including reviewing the agencies’ performance and scrutinising their annual bids for budget allocations. Another tweak came after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, when Sir David Omand was appointed to a new role as Security and Intelligence Coordinator to oversee both the intelligence agencies and the Civil Contingencies Secretariat. 

But until the formation of the NCS in 2010, the responsibility for national security continued to be spread among several cabinet committees, with specific responsibilities to deal with the changing concept of security, whether it might be coordinating anti-terrorism efforts or dealing with the threat of a nuclear threat (a salient concern during the Cold War). At some times intelligence and policy became too close. The 1983 Falklands Islands Inquiry and the 2004 Review of Intelligence on Weapons of Mass Destruction stressed the need to uphold the independence and objectivity of intelligence assessment.

Today, the responsibilities of the NCS remain the same, in enabling a government to coordinate the information gathered by Intelligence agencies to secure the country against serious organised crime, terrorists and hostile foreign intelligence agencies.

The council continues to meet weekly (often on the day of Cabinet meetings to maximise attendance) when Parliament is in session. At the meetings the usual procedure is for papers to be taken on two subjects, with a short presentation followed by discussion for roughly 30 minutes per issue. Ministers who are not standing members of NSC are invited to attend as necessary to discuss issues affecting their departments.

As to it main purpose, the Council  adheres to a code in the form of the National Security Strategy, which states that there are four main security challenges for the UK for the coming decade:

  • The increasing threat posed by terrorism, extremism and instability

  • The resurgence of state-based threats; and intensifying wider state competition

  • The impact of technology, especially cyber threats; and wider technological developments

  • The erosion of the rules-based international order, making it harder to build consensus and tackle global threats

The strategy also sets out a number of other risks They are: civil emergencies; major natural disasters overseas; energy security; the global economy; and climate change and resource scarcity.

Ultimately, the long-term effectiveness of the NSC may be judged by whether its creation has improved the effectiveness of national security decision making. Is the UK safer – or at least, are its leaders making better-informed and more timely decisions on security – because of the NSC’s? The collective answer judged by the enthusiasm of all those involved in its present-day operations would appear to be a very positive yes.





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