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Mon 20 November 2017

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UK Strategic Defence Review – Big Brother grows Bigger

In October 2010 Government published its report ‘Securing Britain in an Age of Uncertainty’ that sets out a national security strategy. It provides the rationale for the redeployment of resources between the three armed forces and lays down the markers to guide future investment. Apparently the much-vaunted claim that ‘Britain was punching above its weight’ was at a cost never quite disclosed to tax-payers: the defence plan inherited by this Government amounted to an unfunded liability of £38 billion over the next decade! There remain several contradictions at the heart of the Review: the acceptance of nuclear weapons as the ‘ultimate national insurance policy’ for the UK, but a comfort denied to others; the decoupling of the Security agenda from domestic socio-economic development but its retention in the field of overseas aid; the increase in Big Brother while at the same time the Big Society idea seeks to limit the State.

In what is clearly an allusion to the failed military interventions Iraq and Afghanistan, the Review notes:

“…we will be more selective in our use of the Armed Forces, deploying them decisively at the right time but only where key UK national interests are at stake; where we have a clear strategic aim; where the likely political, economic and human costs are in proportion to the likely benefits; where we have a viable exit strategy; and where justifiable under international law”.

There is a commitment to a “rules-based international system” and an expectation of increased “scrutiny of our operations by a more transparent society, informed by the speed and range of modern global communications…we must win the battle for information, as well as the battle on the ground”.

However is civil society in Britain capable of holding Government to account given the very narrow base from which the leadership elites are drawn, whether it be the armed forces, civil service, the Church and politics?

The Review states that “We will retain and renew our independent nuclear deterrent – the United Kingdom’s ultimate insurance policy in this age of uncertainty”. Yet this is an insurance policy denied to others: “We cannot discount the possibility that the number of states armed with nuclear weapons might increase. We must not allow such states to threaten our national security or to deter us and the international community from taking the action required to maintain regional and global security”. It is not clear what the Defence Review means by the ‘international community’ – the Security Council with its five veto-empowered permanent members - China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, United States?

A section of the Review sets out the plans for ‘homeland security’. It rectifies the problematic involvement of the department of Communities and Local Government in surveillance and anti-terrorism work. However while domestic socio-economic development has been decoupled from the Security agenda, this is not the case for international socio-economic development. A fifth of UK’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) will be to tackle “drivers of instability” so that “spending supports both poverty reduction and UK national security”.

Some new terms are introduced – “The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) will continue to focus on counter-ideology [sic] and counter-radicalisation overseas, in regions that pose the greatest threat to the UK”. The term ‘counter-ideology’ is not clarified but presumably includes challenges to western hegemonic intentions, opposition to western value-laden concepts (e.g. a particular notion of human rights), and efforts for autonomy and independence. The web of ‘counter-ideology’ propaganda work will include the BBC World Service, the British Council, DFID projects and probably UK-based aid agencies and also locally-based front organisations.

The Review also indicates Government’s commitment to:

"introduce a programme to preserve the ability of the security, intelligence and law enforcement agencies to obtain communication data and to intercept communications within the appropriate legal framework... We will legislate to put in place the necessary regulations and safeguards to ensure that our response to this technology challenge is compatible with the Government’s approach to information storage and civil liberties."

The reference is presumably to the so-called ‘Interception Modernisation Programme’ that will have the ability to collect and store records covering e-mails, faxes, phone-calls, mobile-phone calls (including location), Internet usage (including content) plus IP based communications used by Facebook, Skype etc. At present the ability to ‘intercept’ communications as they happen in ‘real-time’ (which only GCHQ can do) is quite distinct from the existing powers under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) which only covers obtaining access to communication data. This is where all the rhetoric of cutting back ‘big government’ – the Big Society idea’ – faces a contradiction. Rather than reining in the State, the plans are of an even bigger Big Brother.

Securing Britain in an age of uncertainty - The Strategic Defence and Security Review

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