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Role of Security in the United Kingdom

The concept of security is not a new one; scholars have catalogued its emergence from as far back as the Neolithic Revolution where the establishment of permanent settlements naturally led to the growth of territories, city states and later nation states and Empires[1]. Borne from this civil development was the concept of security; security of territory, security of people, security of resources and goods and, furthermore, the security of values.

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However, the definition of ‘security’ remains nebulous. As Stephen Walt discusses, there are those proponents who wish to define security in relation to military might and issues of “statecraft”, and others who now include any perceived threat to a nation’s status quo as matters of security, such as climate, poverty and criminal violence.[2] Walt’s stance is that broadening the definition to such an extent will dilute its rationale and its application in problem solving, and he argues that the focus should remain on the military powers[3]. The meaning of ‘security’ is never absolute; it will morph according the political and social environment in which it is being analysed. Furthermore, the meaning of security can be scrutinized at many levels, from individuals, to particular social groupings, to states and unions and is depicted by Emma Rothschild as “extended security”.[4]

In presenting the concept of extended security, Rothschild also identified four purposes of the “principles of definitions of security”, those being: “to provide some sort of guidance to the policies made by governments”, “to guide public opinion about policy, to suggest a way of thinking about security”, “to contest existing policies” and “to influence directly the distribution of money and power”.[5] The aim of this essay is to analyse the contemporary role of security within the nation state of the United Kingdom (UK), utilising Rothschild’s principles. Key to understanding the role of security within any given state there must also be an exploration of how security is defined, therefore, the first part of this essay will address the UK’s official stance on the role of security. Incorporated into this analysis, the essay will also touch upon the relationships and memberships that the UK has with external organisations and other nation states and how these relations affect the role of security in the UK.

The concept of security has had to evolve in line with the shifting dynamics of a changing global picture. Security, in the UK, during the First World War was viewed as ‘Defence of the Realm’ following the enactment of the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA), 1914 and its subsequent revisions.[6] This Act, and thus the role of security in the UK, concentrated primarily on military might and intelligence and put into place a number of rigid, authoritarian laws which shaped the governance of the country. This included censorship of individuals and press, requisition of land and the ability to court martial members of the public, as if active members of the Armed Forces, if they contravened the regulations set forth; the result of which could be the death penalty.[7] This reactive policy making demonstrated a disregard for traditional British values, such as the Rule of Law; the DORA did not allow for trial by jury for prosecution made under its legislation, nor the ability to appeal. The global picture of this time was shaping the fundamental governance of the country.[8]

The contemporary role of security, much like it was in 1914, remains reactionary to world politics and “must reflect the context in which it is developed, the particular strengths and skills that we can bring to bear (our areas of comparative advantage); be clear, but also flexible, to take account of uncertainty and change”.[9] The 2010 publication of the National Security Strategy (NSS), was, according to then Prime Minister Cameron, the first time such a strategy – which addressed the relationship between security and state – had been delivered.[10] The primacy of security was made clear in the opening sentence of the NSS, asserting that “the first duty of the Government remains: the security of our country”.[11]

The flexible definition of security strategy, initiated in 2010, was further expanded in 2015, when Cameron stated that in order “[t]o meet these priorities we will continue to harness all the tools of national power available to us, coordinated through the National Security Council, to deliver a full-spectrum approach’”, with the goal of “a secure and prosperous United Kingdom, with global reach and influence”.[12] This ‘global reach’ intrinsically ties the notions of national and international security together; a paradigm shift from the more inward-looking vision of the early 20th century. As Dame Pauline Neville-Jones stated at the Conservative party Conference in 2007, “When damage to a pipeline in Russia can put up the price of heating in Redditch; when cartoons in Denmark can set off riots in Pakistan; when opium from Helmand can end up on the streets of Huddersfield it’s crazy to put foreign and domestic security policy in separate boxes”.[13] Her argument supports the need for continued “global reach” if the UK is to ensure security, for the individual citizens, regarding such foreign influences. This provides an indication of security, or the perceived threats which form the basis of security strategy, steering political rhetoric.

Security does not only influence the political speeches and language it has a more profound role, in the shape of Rothschild’s first principle regarding the definition of security, whereby it offers governments “some sort of guidance to their policies”[14], which can be evidenced in the UK Government’s approach. As discussed above, there is no fixed definition of security, prescribed by the UK Government, however, the UK is now utilising its NSS to shape the Strategic Defence and Security Reviews, which will shape the allocation of resources from a military standpoint. Additionally the remit of the National Security Council is to “ensure that strategic all-source assessment, horizon-scanning and early warning feed directly into policy-making through biennial reviews of the National Security Risk Assessment”[15]; in keeping with Rothschild’s principle.

For the UK, the role of security and thus the policy and governance that is influenced by this, must also reflect the role that the UK wishes to garner or maintain in the global theatre. The UK has projected a much larger foothold in the global sphere than its size (area) might indicate; a “global reach disproportionate to our size”,[16] in no small part due to its approach to defence and security, and has membership to some of the largest and most influential bodies globally. The UK holds a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, acting as Deputy Supreme Allied Commander (DSACEUR) to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), is a member of both the G20 and G8, and will, remain a member of the European Union until Brexit negotiations are completed.

Key to the development of UK policies are these foreign relations and organisational memberships. The 2010 NSS stated that the UK could develop its interests by committing to ‘collective security via a rules based international system’ and with ‘key alliances, notably with the United States of America’.[17] The ‘special relationship’ that the UK has shared with the United States has, according to Tim Street, seen London take on “the role of loyal lieutenant to Washington”,[18] which has in turn meant that the UK’s military forces “must be qualitatively and quantitatively superior to those of other European countries”.[19] This tacit agreement has thus contributed to the development of defence policies and spending to ensure that the UK maintains a highly capable force.

These policies, derived from threat analysis and are designed to provide a level of security to UK nationals. A 2018 Whitehall Report,[20] focused on the disparity between the public perception of security and threats and that of ‘elites’,[21] drawn from the security services. The report demonstrated that while some concepts of risk to security were shared, such as the likelihood of cyber-attack, the public was more worried about the threat posed by “issues that are considered less critical for security elites (including international terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism, and large numbers of economic migrants and refugees coming to the UK)” which the report believes is “something to be expected as they touch on economic and social issues that are closer to the public’s immediate interests”.[22] This misalignment of perception indicates that while the UK Government is now approaching security policy with a more robust and considered attitude, publishing strategies and undertaking reviews, this information may not be disseminated in the same way to the public and thus there is little awareness of the government’s security strategy. This is corroborated by research conducted by Daniel Stevens and Nick Vaughan-Williams, which “suggests that, despite government initiatives including a “Big Society” approach to the involvement of citizens in national security architectures, the British public are generally not aware of policy in this area (with only 11% of those surveyed aware of the UK NSS)”.[23] This would imply that the current defined role of security cannot be utilised to its fullest extent to “guide public opinion about policy”,[24] as Rothschild’s principles proposed.

It is argued that the role of the media controls the flow of information to the general public, with many ‘decision makers of all political perspectives’ arguing that ‘the mass media often fail to deliver the messages policy makers think they should convey, and second, that the media shape public opinion about foreign policy’.[25] Therefore, it could be argued that the perception of security or threats to security, as perceived by the general public, are defined by the producers of media, who will assess a story’s newsworthiness prior to printing and are only releasing select information to the buying public. The effective press censorship, based on potential to sell, does not allow for the voting public to act as a checks and balance to the government policies and, it could be argued, have little influence over challenging policies.

Rothschild’s third principle of definition of security was “to contest existing policies”[26]; which can be looked at as a challenge to the status quo, regarding security. The instigation of the National Security Council and subsequent release of the NSS, whilst not contesting established policies, indicated a shift in the way in which the role of security had been viewed. The political picture had for a long time focussed on Cold War era strategies, and while the collective security approach remains, there has been a need to redefine security away from the primarily nuclear deterrence focus. The creation of the NSS, which identified a broader approach to security, broke away from this and took account of the dynamism of security threats and attacks that the UK now face e.g. cyber-attacks, environmental security issues.

There is clear evidence of the UK Government utilising its own flexible definition of national and international security, as it affects the nation, “to influence directly the distribution of money and power”.[27] The Executive Summary of the Summer Budget of 2015 stated that “[t]his is a Budget that puts security first. It ensures economic security for working people by putting the public finances in order and setting out a bold plan for a more productive, balanced economy. It supports national security by investment in defence”.[28] The Strategic Defence and Security Review, borne of the NSS, indicates how strategy will be implemented from a military perspective, detailing what resources are required in order to “tackle current and future threats”.[29] Furthermore, the UK committed to meet increased defence spending in accordance with the target set by NATO in 2006; an investment of 2% of GDP, which equates, for the UK, to approximately £45 billion (2015-16)[30]; providing clear evidence of security defining public spending.

Fiscally, there may be upheaval to come. The implications to the role of security, and its associated frameworks and costs, within the UK and the wider political landscape following Brexit are yet to be made clear, with negotiations still ongoing. According to a recent report undertaken by RAND Europe, advocates of both the ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ factions have claimed that the UK, following its exit from the EU, will be comparatively as secure and it is now though, these hypotheses have “been made with little in the way of factual substantiation”.[31] There are many more unknowns; the future vision regarding US foreign policy and relations of the recently elected US President, will also have huge ramifications on the role of security within the UK, both in relation to Brexit and to the historic ‘special relationship’ enjoyed between the US and UK.

Additionally, these complexities coupled with a perceived resurgence of the Russians must also be taken into account; a sentiment advised by General Nicholas Carter who referred to Russia as ‘the most complex and capable security challenge we have faced since the Cold War’[32]. The assertiveness of the Russian threat in the last few years, expounded by their recent power plays in Europe, alleged poisoning incident within the UK and the subsequent expulsion of Russian and UK diplomats, from their host countries, may also give cause for consideration to the shape and role of security, not only within the UK but on a more global scale. Will this see a return to the Cold War era of security thinking or alter the way in which the UK is defines security?

Understanding the how security is defined in the modern era and further how its role is understood by individual nation states remains a challenging concept and one that will continue in the future. With every change to the status quo of perceived political stability and balance of powers, follows a change to the understanding or definition of security. Consequently, in addressing its role in any nation state, there must be self-imposed delineations of what security is – prior to analysing its position, influence or impact on society.

As has been discussed, the UK has broadened its own, flexible, definition of security to include both national and international security. This all-encompassing definition has allowed for greater opportunity for security to assume the majority of the roles as defined by Rothschild’s” proposed definitions of the principles of security” relating to guiding the governmental policies and the allocation of resources. The emergence of a more robust security approach, through the establishment the National Security Council and the drive to create a strategy addressing security itself, has arguably shaped the policies which follows, particularly those relating to defence. However, there is still dubiety over the extent to which the definition of principles of security as they relate ‘to guide public opinion about policy, to suggest a way of thinking about security’, are evidenced in the UK. For the public to be guided, they must first be informed and this flow of relevant information appears to be lacking, based upon the surveys conducted.

The mass media continue to focus on the newsworthy reports such as Brexit and the ongoing Russian relations, following the recent poisoning in England. With a tumultuous period ahead and Brexit negotiations taking place, there will, no doubt, be further considerations for the UK to make regarding all areas of security. With doubt already in place regarding the commitment and involvement in further EU forces, and debate rising around the UK’s own role as DSACEUR within NATO there are many areas which may considerably alter the role of security as it is currently portrayed.

With so many unknowns on the horizon, arguably the current flexible approach to defining its role will continue. This method will allow to UK to continually make assessment of its security threats and provisions, ensure that policy is designed with the relevant global picture in mind, and allocate the appropriate resources as required.


  • Baum, Matthew A., and Philip B.K. Potter. ‘The Relationships Between Mass Media, Public Opinion, and Foreign Policy: Toward a Theoretical Synthesis’. Annual Review of Political Science 11, no. 1 (2008): 39–65. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.polisci.11.060406.214132.
  • Black, James, Alex Hall, Kate Cox, Marta Kepe, and Erik Silfversten. ‘Defence and Security after Brexit: Understanding the Possible Implications of the UK’s Decision to Leave the EU — Overview Report’, 2017. https://doi.org/10.7249/RR1786.1.
  • Collins, Pamela A., Truett A. Ricks, and Clifford W. Van Meter. Principles of Security and Crime Prevention. Elsevier Science, 2000. https://books.google.co.nz/books?id=HCfY5HIyl2oC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false.
  • Defence of the Realm Consolidation Act 1914 (1914). http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/firstworldwar/first_world_war/p_defence.htm.
  • HM Government. ‘A Strong Britain in an Age of Uncertainty : The National Security Strategy’. Vol. 16, 2010. https://doi.org/Cm 7953.
  • ———. ‘National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015: A Secure and Prosperous United Kingdom’, 2015. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/478933/52309_Cm_9161_NSS_SD_Review_web_only.pdf.
  • HM Treasury. ‘Summer Budget 2015’, 2015. www.gov.uk/government/publications.
  • Rothschild, Emma. ‘What Is Security?’ Daedalus, The Quest for World Order 124, no. 3 (1995): 53–98. https://doi.org/10.2307/20027310.
  • Stevens, Daniel, and Nick Vaughan-Williams. ‘Public Perceptions of Security: Reconsidering Sociotropic and Personal Threats Daniel Stevens’. Annual Elections, Public Opinion and Parties Meeting, 2012.
  • Street, Tim. ‘Taking Back Control ? The UK , Europe and NATO’, no. September (2016): 1–9.
  • Thompson, Catarina P. ‘Whitehall Report 2-18 Mind the Gap Comparing Foreign Policy Attitudes of Security Elites and the General Public’, 2018. https://doi.org/10.1039/C3MH00098B.
  • Walt, Stephen M. ‘The Renaissance of Security Studies’. International Studies Quarterly 35, no. 2 (1991): 211–39. http://jstor.org/stable2600471.

[1] Pamela A. Collins, Truett A. Ricks, and Clifford W. Van Meter, Principles of Security and Crime Prevention. (Elsevier Science, 2000), https://books.google.co.nz/books?id=HCfY5HIyl2oC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false.

[2] Stephen M Walt, ‘The Renaissance of Security Studies’, International Studies Quarterly 35, no. 2 (1991), 211–39, http://jstor.org/stable2600471.

[3] Walt.

[4] Emma Rothschild, ‘What Is Security?’, Daedalus, The Quest for World Order 124, no. 3 (1995), 55-56 https://doi.org/10.2307/20027310.

[5] Rothschild, 55-56.

[6] ‘Defence of the Realm Consolidation Act 1914’ (1914), http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/firstworldwar/first_world_war/p_defence.htm.

[7] Defence of the Realm Consolidation Act 1914.

[8] See also the enactment of further policies in relation to conflict: Emergency Powers (Defence) Acts of 1920 and 1939, as well as the Treachery Act, 1940.

[9] HM Government, ‘A Strong Britain in an Age of Uncertainty : The National Security Strategy’, vol. 16, 2010, https://doi.org/Cm 7953.

[10]HM Government, p3.

[11] HM Government, p.9

[12] HM Government, ‘National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015: A Secure and Prosperous United Kingdom’, 2015, https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/478933/52309_Cm_9161_NSS_SD_Review_web_only.pdf.

[13] Dame Pauline Neville-Jones “It is time for a national security policy”. Speech at the Conservative Party Conference, Blackpool, UK, Oct 2007.


[14] Rothschild, ‘What Is Security?’

[15] HM Government, ‘A Strong Britain in an Age of Uncertainty : The National Security Strategy’, 34.

[16] HM Government,21.

[17] HM Government. 10.

[18] Tim Street, ‘Taking Back Control ? The UK , Europe and NATO’, no. September (2016): 1–9.

[19] Street.

[20] Catarina P Thompson, ‘Whitehall Report 2-18 Mind the Gap Comparing Foreign Policy Attitudes of Security Elites and the General Public’, 2018, https://doi.org/10.1039/C3MH00098B.

[21] The ‘elites’ as defined in the Whitehall Report were ‘chosen based on their deeper knowledge of defence and security issues. The sample included members of the Defence Academy, as well as from RUSI and their extended network’.

[22] Thompson.

[23] Daniel Stevens and Nick Vaughan-Williams, ‘Public Perceptions of Security: Reconsidering Sociotropic and Personal Threats Daniel Stevens’, Annual Elections, Public Opinion and Parties Meeting, 2012.

[24] Rothschild, ‘What Is Security?’

[25] Matthew A. Baum and Philip B.K. Potter, ‘The Relationships Between Mass Media, Public Opinion, and Foreign Policy: Toward a Theoretical Synthesis’, Annual Review of Political Science 11, no. 1 (2008): 39–65, https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.polisci.11.060406.214132.

[26] Rothschild, ‘What Is Security?’

[27] HM Government, ‘National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015: A Secure and Prosperous United Kingdom’.

[28] HM Treasury, ‘Summer Budget 2015’, 2015, www.gov.uk/government/publications.

[29] HM Government, ‘National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015: A Secure and Prosperous United Kingdom’.

[30] HM Treasury, ‘Summer Budget 2015’.

[31] James Black et al., ‘Defence and Security after Brexit: Understanding the Possible Implications of the UK’s Decision to Leave the EU — Overview Report’, 2017, https://doi.org/10.7249/RR1786.1.

[32] Cited in Thompson, ‘Whitehall Report 2-18 Mind the Gap Comparing Foreign Policy Attitudes of Security Elites and the General Public’.


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