With the next Strategic Defence and Security Review imminent, Major General Jonathan Shaw’s talk, ‘The executive deficit at the heart of Whitehall: the systemic failings of UK government’, to IR Soc and the Oxford Martin School on Tuesday 12th May held special pertinence as stories about the new Conservative government’s ideas about risks home and abroad filled the news. Major General Shaw has had over 30 years of experience in the British Army, culminating in his directorship of the cyber security programme at Whitehall. His talk offered an insider’s view of how our government policy-making works or, more often than not, doesn’t work.
Major General Shaw talked of the issues of cohesion within government, claiming that there was no ‘unifying language’ between the plethora of experts and departments within the building. He also criticised the involvement of ministers who put gesture and personality over good government, and advised the removal of politics from key challenges that face the country, namely the impending energy crisis, to ensure a rational response.
Shaw stated that Whitehall’s departmental model is incapable of dealing with contemporary hybrid threats, such as Russian expansionism in Eastern Europe or ISIS’ recruitment of British nationals; the UK’s foreign policy is lacking leadership and is ‘deductive rather than inductive’.
Questioned on the renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent, the Major General described the programme as ‘the icing on the cake, but without the cake’, suggesting that the twenty billion pound replacement project is an act of macho posturing on the part of Prime Minister David Cameron.
Major General Shaw stayed behind at the end of his talk to sign copies of his book, "Britain in a Perilous World: The Strategic Defence and Security Review We Need", and to talk to IR Soc members.