Reports that the Tories are thinking about appointing a Minister for Afghanistan raise the broader question of how they should structure their national security team. Though the Tories bang on about their idea of setting up a National Security Council, there has been precious little detail given of how it would work, how it would be different than the Foreign and Defence Policy Secretariat in the Cabinet Office and who would staff it.
The National Security Council should be led by a minister, sitting in either the Commons or the Lords, who would also act as the National Security Adviser to the Prime Minister, supported by a National Security Director, from the ranks of the Civil Service. Unlike the Cabinet Office today, which has comparably few senior officials, a National Security Council staff ought to be staffed by senior civil servants with specific responsibilities—eg Afghanistan, non-proliferation.
Outside government, but reporting to the Prime Minister through the National Security Adviser, ought to be a Comprehensive Security Board. This would be an independent board staffed by experts—including retired generals, diplomats and politicians—designed to give an outside assessment on government policy. Modeled on the Defense Policy Review Board in the States, its role would be to ensure that the Prime Minister was aware of the full set of policy options available to him, and not just those ones that appeal to the civil service.
In Parliament, a National Security Select Committee of both Houses ought to be set-up. This should be properly staffed and able to scrutinize and hold the government to account for its national security policy as a whole. There also should be debates specifically on cross-departmental issues (such as TKTK), and the development of a comprehensive National Security Budget with the Permanent Secretaries of FCO, MOD and DFID as joint Accounting Officers.
The way British missions are run, especially in the field, also needs to be changed. One idea that is worth looking at is the revival of the Resident Minister, these were deployed to good effect in World War Two. These individuals would have the clout to manage all departmental interests, and have a direct link to Parliament.
One of the biggest problems over the last few years has been making department work together. The way to maintain departmental expertise and encourage cross-departmental collaboration could be through a new National Security “Fast Stream” of officials who would specialise in cross-departmental work.
Finally, David Cameron will need to think hard about who he wants in the big jobs. I am in favour of looking outside government, say, to fill the Chief of Defence Staff post with someone like General Sir Rupert Smith.
The next election will not be fought on security policy and none have been won on the strength of bureaucratic reforms. But the Tories will inherit a global strategic situation that is as bad, if not worse, than the economic situation. If the Tories want to address this properly, they will have to reform a bureaucracy that has demonstrated it is not up to the task of dealing with the post 9/11 world.