Leading article: Generals still fighting the battles of the past

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The Independent Online

To call it a strategy, said Nicholas Soames, the arch-conservative MP, would be to overegg the pudding. And while there is probably not a lot that The Independent and Mr Soames would agree on in the normal run of things, we find it hard to better his description. The Prime Minister's National Security Strategy, unveiled in the House of Commons yesterday, was an old-fashioned mishmash of an agenda, thrown down in a rather take-it or leave-it fashion, in the apparent hope that MPs would appreciate its nutritional value.

Some individual ingredients may prove enriching. If Britain is to be serious about helping other people tackle their emergencies, then we need to be equipped to do this properly. To have a 1,000-strong civilian task force on standby, made up of emergency services, judges and others, is no bad thing. But we also have to ask what sort of crisis it is likely to be where police and judges – rather than troops and rescue workers – are needed at a moment's notice. Is a whole national security strategy required before the Government compiles a national register of people qualified and willing to become engaged?

We would also ask how much of this National Security Strategy has been designed to repair damage we ourselves have inflicted. At least some elements seem to presuppose a desperate post-conflict situation, such as Iraq. There is no doubt that, given the opportunity again, the British – like the Americans – would do a great deal very differently. Indeed, they might decide against mounting a military intervention at all. There is a whiff here of generals fighting the last war.

We are concerned, too, that other elements of the strategy represent a return to our old enemy, the "war on terror", by another name. The British public has been admirably responsible and slow to panic about the dangers presented by terrorism – domestic or international. This has remained true, even after the bombings and attempted bombings of 2005 in London, and the thwarted attacks in London and Glasgow last summer.

And in their early pronouncements, Mr Brown and the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, adopted a tone that, for the most part, was more measured than that of their predecessors, and so more suited to the national sangfroid. Regrettably, this linguistic restraint has not been matched by a similar legislative restraint. The Government is still intent on increasing the time a suspected terrorist may be held without trial, except that now it is part of a "strategy".

The scare tactics continue, too – so many thousand individuals being watched, so many dozen plots detected, so many mortal dangers out there. From today, though, the remedies are all part of this National Security Strategy. They include four new regional counter-terrorism units and four new regional intelligence units to help the police.

There is a good argument for a modern government to have something like the US National Security Council – a body that co-ordinates advisers and ministers. But there is greater space, and a clearer obvious purpose, for such a body in a presidential system than in our system of Parliament and Cabinet government.

This does not mean that Mr Brown's plan for a committee of expert outsiders will not add something to policy-making – though, as we learnt with Tony Blair, appointing advisers and heeding them are different things. Nor does it mean that a government should not consider periodically the diverse threats the country faces and review its priorities. But real life has a habit of overtaking the best laid plans – even plans with fancy names like the National Security Strategy. The whole construct is then revealed for what it is: nothing more than a political game.

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