The Institute for Government describes the National Security Advisor (NSA) as the “central coordinator and advisor to the Prime Minister and cabinet on security, intelligence, defence and some foreign policy matters”. They are crucial in creating a coherent approach to national security policy and the government's response to major crises both at home and abroad through their oversight of the National Security Council and their leading of the National Security Secretariat. All four previous NSAs have been civil service appointments, however, Boris Johnson has made the first political appointment to the role in the form of David Frost, a move which threatens the impartiality and scrutiny previously given by the role.
The “stepping down” of Mark Sedwill and the introduction of Frost reflects a clear trend in Boris Johnson’s government. The Prime Minister aims to surround himself with people who he can trust, mainly staunch Brexiteers who are ideologically compatible. Whilst this can strengthen his hand, it risks the neutrality of key government roles. The NSA is the principal advisor to the Prime Minister, and in times of crisis may have to tell the government something they do not want to hear. This is jeopardised by a political appointee as they may choose to put policy before security, a concern raised by Lord O’Donnell because they are not able to speak “truth to power” when the country is potentially at its most vulnerable.
Making Frost a Peer in the House of Lords means his position is even more risky; he could potentially turn into a minister for intelligence and security as well as an advisor. Frost will become a political tool of the Prime Minister, at great expense of expertise in security which could be disastrous for the country. Sedwill had a significant experience as the UK’s Ambassador to Afghanistan (2009-2010), the NATO Senior Civilian Representative in Afghanistan (2010) and Permanent Secretary at the Home Office (2013 to 2017), making him more than qualified for the role. Whilst Education Secretary Gavin Williamson suggests Frost has a record of “impeccable public service”, this is no match for the expertise needed for this role.
Former Prime Minister Theresa May openly criticised the appointment of Frost, claiming he has “no proven expertise in national security”. This reflects a distinct shift in the role of a policy advisor because this suggests they no longer need to be policy experts. As Lord O’Donnell said on Radio 4’s Today Programme, it isn’t “consistent with Michael Gove’s desire for deep subject knowledge”. Surely the failures of the government during the coronavirus pandemic have highlighted that the experts need to be at the helm during times of crisis and struggle. Johnson may believe Frost is an “experienced diplomat, policy thinker and proven negotiator”, but this means nothing when the UK is facing major issues affecting the security of the nation and the individuals within it.
In not having a traditional “securocrat” who is not captured by “the machine” of bureaucracy, arguably assumptions of those within the intelligence community, including those who lead the major agencies (MI5, MI6 and GCHQ), can be challenged on a greater scale. This thought is highlighted by the scars of the Iraq war; some suggest officials were too close and focused on security and there was insufficient challenge to policy by outsiders. However, this fundamentally puts our national security at risk. Security covers more topics than the traditional issues of terrorism, nuclear defence, and arms; critical studies incorporate issues of migration, the climate, health and gender. A “securocrat” will know to recognise these issues and consider them when making informed policy decisions, a political appointee will not as they do not have the knowledge or the expertise.
Ultimately, the appointment of Frost to the role of NSA shows consistency with Conservative Party policy as the economy is being given priority over all other issues. A man whose expertise lies in trade and finance is now in charge of the safety of the nation where surely no expense should be spared or compromises made, unlike in the EU trade talks where this is a more common occurrence. Whilst this is a ludicrous thought to many, it is a financially savvy decision for Johnson considering the government laid out its intention to conduct a security review in 2020 in the December 2019 Queen’s Speech.
The coffers of the Department of Defence are going to be under intense scrutiny in the near future with cuts being foreshadowed. What may be a beneficial move for the treasury and the economy will be a disaster for the defence community and those who ensure we can go about our ordinary lives on a daily basis.
Image: Andrew Parsons / No10 Downing Street