Written evidence submitted by Major General J D Shaw CB CBE


1. I left the army in 2012 after 32 years, spanning operations in the Falklands to Iraq and Afghanistan, and staff appointments in Whitehall as Director Special Forces, first head of MOD Cyber Security and 2* lead on International Security Policy at the time of the 2010 SDSR. From 2000 until my departure, I worked in or for Whitehall and became sufficiently disillusioned by its executive competence that I wrote a book in 2014, ‘Britain in a Perilous World;  the Strategic Defence and Security Review We Need’[1], that outlined the strengths and weaknesses of Whitehall, explored the causes of both and suggested improvements to national resilience. 


2. I have been asked to contribute to this enquiry, on the basis that my observations might still be of some relevance. I propose therefore to outline my main points from the book, highlight the changes that I recommended and question (in bold) whether these have been made.  It will be for the Enquiry to judge how valid my critique remains and what needs still to be done. 


3. ‘Britain in a Perilous World’ was prompted by the forthcoming 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review and expressed concerns about the ability of Whitehall to create such a cross government review (this being the first Review to combine both Security and Defence considerations in the same review).  My concerns arose from having sat in the Cabinet Office Briefing Room through much of 2000-1 as the lead MoD representative for Military Assistance to Civil Authorities (fuels protest, Foot and Mouth Disease, Fireman’s strikes, 9/11) and again Director Special Forces many times through 2003-5 (a variety of terrorist incidents, including 7/7); having tried to execute government policy deployed on operations, particularly counter narcotics in Afghanistan and the extraction of British forces from Basra as GOC MND(SE) Iraq in 2007. My observation was that Whitehall was set up to deliver departmental responses to departmental problems.  Yet the National Security Strategy 2008 had identified that modern crises were rarely treatable by only one department, and that a cross government response was required.  This became known as the Comprehensive Approach in Iraq and Afghanistan.  In my experience on operations, this failed.  I was not surprised, given what I had witnessed in COBR. 


4. In March 2018, the government’s National Security Capability Review made diseases one of the UK’s six principal challenges likely to drive national security priorities over the coming decade.  The C19 crisis has proved this judgement right.  Having observed the inadequacies of the government response to cross departmental challenges, particularly FMD in 2001, I might be able to shed light on weaknesses in the Government’s response to C19 in 2020.


5. My evidence for what follows also comes from observing and participating in the Public Administration Select Committee enquiry into Grand Strategy in 2010[2].  This latter reported that no one did UK Grand Strategy and then, in a follow up report[3], stated bluntly that the government had rejected the findings and preserved the status quo.  It should be obvious from the context which of my evidence comes from which source.  But the evidence from each corroborates the other’s.  I recommend my book and the PASC reports to the current Enquiry; both are short.


6.  In February 2000, the hijack crisis of the Ariana Afghan Airlines 727 at Stanstead gave the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, his first taste of how effective the COBR mechanism was at responding to a terrorist crisis.  In September 2000, faced with the Fuel Protest, he convened COBR - and was surprised how poorly it coped with a multi-departmental ‘civilian’ crisis.  In 2001, COBR was again used as the forum to run the FMD crisis, exposing inadequacies in delivery that had to be filled by an Army brigade HQ being inserted into MAFF.  COBR again was the forum for national response to the 9/11 attacks, and worked well.  The conclusion is clear: COBR worked well for terrorism or security crises; it worked less well for wider cross government challenges.  The question is, why?


7.  COBR worked best for counter terrorism and security matters because the departments were represented by both practitioners and policy from the relevant departments. Soldiers, spies, police as well as policy civil servants advised minsters, who were therefore advised by people who knew what they are talking about and were familiar with the problems. 


8.  The culture was a government-based focus on the problem, with departments bending to the government requirement. There was a unifying executive methodology, an understanding of how to tackle these kind of challenges, an operational mindset that was used to operating in conditions of uncertainty.  This mindset existed across the participants regardless of department; the people had generally worked and trained together over the years before they met in COBR.  This generated processes which were predictable yet adaptable to the particular crisis, and which had been well practiced and through which ministers could be guided.  And a clear lead department was established (Home Office for domestic, FCO for overseas) which created a structure and a discipline which all understood and adhered to.


9.  First in the Fuel protest, then in FMD, COBR operated less well. In short, it was populated by people who had never been there before, who had a policy not practitioner background, who had at best departmental training and loyalties, lacked any methodology or lexicon common across government, and took a long time to come to terms with the processes and requirements of coherent team work. These points bear expansion.


10.  Structurally, Whitehall was a polo mint - there was a hole where the centre should be. When you looked for Government, all you saw was departments.  An accumulation of departments does not make a government, it makes a competition of departments each with its own agenda and power plays and ambitions as each competes for resource with other departments.  Is this still valid?


11. The residual weakness of the centre, notwithstanding the NSA, is shown by the word beloved in Whitehall, ‘coordination’.  ‘Coordination’ is different from ‘directing’.  To illustrate the point simplistically, government planning could be characterised as follows: the PM declares a policy objective; ministers declare departmental actions in pursuit of this objective; government media PR proudly announces these measures; government attention moves on.  No mechanism existed for owning the totality of government action to see if this activity actually addressed the challenge posed. Coordination at best deconflicts activity; what it does not do is direct departments to fill gaps in the plan or adjust it over time as events dictate.  This was the weakness of the government Comprehensive Approach in both Iraq and Afghanistan, made worse by DfID’s deliberate disassociation of its activity from that of the UK government.  Merging the DfID and FCO must, for this reason, be good for the coherence of HMG execution.  National resilience needs direction more than coordination.


12.  Whitehall had no unifying executive methodology; it even lacked an agreed language, with ‘strategy’ being only the most egregiously abused and misused word.  In his evidence before the PASC in 2010, William Hague elided strategy and policy aspiration as if they were the same thing.  Nowhere did he address the coherence that is at the heart of a strategy, which has the challenge of cohering policy aspirations, external realities and the resources required to close the gap.  He never explained how UK was to avoid ‘global shrinkage’ while cutting the resources available to MoD and FCO. Strategy is dynamic because those three factors - policy, resource and reality - are constantly at risk of changing.  So a dynamic executive is required to deliver government strategy.  Yet COBR only sits for crises.  Has Whitehall got a unifying executive methodology? Is it time for COBR to be in permanent session as a UK operations room?


13.  While the Home Office was familiar with being lead department, Ministry for Agriculture Fisheries and Food (MAFF) were faced with a crisis for which nothing had prepared them.  As a MAFF minister said one day in COBR, “You are looking to me for leadership.  But I’m completely untrained for this role.” To what extent are politicians still untrained for their leadership role? Furthermore, the 2008 National Security Strategy identified that no one department could handle the foreseeable crises.  Has the appropriate training been put in place to ensure all government departments are competent at cross government working? There was once a civil service training college that provided centralised training across government departments.  I recommended to the PASC in verbal evidence which they accepted that this school should be re-opened.  Are civil servants trained in executive skills, either centrally or in their departments?  The answer would seem to be ‘No’.  Yet without this, how can we expect to have a suitably capable national C2 system? Michael Gove was surely right in his recent Ditchley lecture to propose “re-establishing a properly-resourced campus for training those in government”. I am dismayed this has been dropped. The government cannot expect to achieve national resilience without some expenditure. Not training government personnel in national resilience is irresponsible and a false economy.  It is also hypocritical. Why is government not insisting on the same level of competence amongst its own people (civil servants and politicians and SPADs) as it is of the population at large?


14.  One reason may be that centralised training runs against the departmental culture of Whitehall.  The then NSA Sir Peter Ricketts responded to the PASC recommendation that there be central direction of departmental efforts by saying that it was enshrined in our constitution that ministers be responsible for accounting for their departments’ expenditure to parliament. This departmental focus ran directly counter to the requirement of national resilience for cross government coherence. 


15.  One of the consequences of a policy rather than operational mindset in Whitehall is that contingency planning gets a low priority.  Sir Oliver Letwin once told me that there was no point doing long term strategy because it never panned out the way you expected.  This echoed William Hague’s comment as Foreign Secretary, that foreign policy was playing the cards as they fall.  In 2008, the MoD axed its Directorate of Strategic Plans, for two reasons.  First, it was seen as wasting a lot of effort on things that never happened.   Second, there was nowhere in central Whitehall for it to plug into so its work had no authority. All of which is to ignore Eisenhower’s dictum, that plans are worthless, planning is everything. Sadly this chimes with the political reality that credit is gained for overcoming a crisis everyone can see; no credit is gained for avoiding a problem that the public hasn’t seen.


16.  My observation was that Whitehall had an in-tray mentality, whereby it dealt with problems that were already in their in-tray as opposed to stopping them getting there in the first place. They struggled to cope with time as a dynamic. I wonder to what extent this is a product of the deductive mindset that predominates in Whitehall, a trend accentuated by data driven decision making.  Data is by definition about the past; its use in predicting the future is undermined in moments of criss when the future looks different to the past.  Catastrophe curves make a mockery of deductive reasoning; inductive reasoning is required.  Yet the government has a hugely expensive asset already trained in inductive reasoning and how to operate in conditions of uncertainty - the Armed Forces.  To use military jargon, the civil service are optimised for a deliberate attack (where you know where the enemy is); the Armed Forces prepare for an advance to contact (where you don’t).  In 2001, the government called on 101 Logistic Brigade to move into MAFF to coordinate the cross government execution of COBR decisions.  Has sufficient use been made of the Armed Forces in the government’s response to C19?  The FT has reported that over £100m has been spent on consultants to assist with c19; could not the Services have provided much of this expertise? Does the Government fully realise the planning and delivery expertise of the Armed Forces?


17.  My final observation is that COBR has all the potential to be a world leading national resilience organisation.  I recall being asked to brief the White House on COBR as they have no equivalent; their C2 for each crisis is sui generic. I have covered above how Whitehall in general, and COBR in particular, could be made consistently effective regardless of challenge by taking certain measures to create the operational mindset and expertise shown in counter-terrorism and security matters.  I also believe that COBR should be in permanent session, not just for crises.  This would achieve two things.  First it would generate the central hub required for directing actions across government, not just coordinating them.  And over time the culture would permeate across all departments and my objective of a unifying executive methodology would be absorbed across Whitehall.  I saw the first green shoots of this emerge as the FMD crisis continued over months (but afterwards the status quo ante re-asserted itself).  Second, it would meet the current need.  For as I outline in my submission to the IR enquiry[4], Russia and China are engaged in hybrid conflict already.  What we still naively term as ‘threats’ are in fact daily realities.  We are behind the curve and permanently in reactive mode; this is not a winning posture. Having COBR in permanent session would allow us to engage in this conflict appropriately - and win.




My written evidence has argued the case for a stronger centre in government to cohere and direct departmental actions, thus enhancing national resilience.  In ‘Britain in a Perilous World’[5], I made the following observation:


              “To drive this greater government coherence and competence (and culture change), there needs to be a stronger central body with increased capacity (manpower to create government plans) and authority (to impose this across government and direct departments) including the authority to re-direct funding.  The aim is to turn the Comprehensive Approach into a Comprehensive Plan.  On current models, this would be an enhanced Cabinet office but before....this role was, i understand, carried out by the Central Department, ie the Treasury.  Either way, Treasury rigidity over spending rules and levels will need to be more fluid if they are match the flexibility requirements of managing a strategy over time, cohering policy, resource and reality.”


This raises two questions. 


-     Is the Enquiry happy that the Centre (the NSA?) has the horsepower and authority to prepare, resource and direct government plans? Or is it still only capable of gathering and coordinating departmental proposals?

-     Does the flexibility exist to tie resources to policy so that as policy shifts, so resource can be shifted appropriately? I witnessed how this inflexibility hindered the counter narcotics campaign in Afghanistan in 2004-5.


As resources tighten and resources get increasingly slaved to directed activity, the risk is that intelligence agencies only report on what they are tasked to report on and are debarred/not resourced to report on the unexpected. For this to work depends on the heroic assumption that the tasker knows the questions that need answering.  The danger is that the unknown unknowns catch us unawares and the Agencies are not resourced or authorised to report early indicators of intelligence not on the master question list.  Is the Enquiry happy that our Intelligence Agencies have the freedom to report on the unexpected or are they slaved to the directed Requests for Information dictated by the centre?


7 September 2020


[1] Britain in a Perilous World; the Strategic Defence and Security Review We Need, Jonathan Shaw, Haus Curiosities, 2014.

[2] Who Does UK Grand Strategy?, Public Administration Select Committee Enquiry, HC 435 report published 12 Oct 2010.

[3] Who Does UK Grand Strategy? Follow Up report, PASC Enquiry, HC 713 report published 28 January 2011.

[4] Major General J D Shaw CB CBE submission to the IR Enquiry, dated 5 Sep 2020.

[5] ’Britain in a Perilous World; the Strategic Defence and Security Review We Need’, Jonathan Shaw, Haus Curiosities, 2014.