The struggle for survival

Whitehall needs a new Securities Department that will deal
with the growing threats beyond terrori

Immediately after its sweeping election victory in 1997, Labour began its first major review of public expenditure. Today, two memories still stand out from its deliberations. Tony Blair had made me a member of the committee, and early on I questioned the distribution of the defence budget. I had no idea then that terrorism would entirely change the political agenda. But I reflected on the fact that travellers on the Japanese Underground had already been attacked by lunatics using sarin.

We were discussing the structure of the naval budget and the needs of the air force and army, but from my perspective it all seemed backward-looking. How well prepared were we for a series of similar terrorist attacks? The discussion stopped. The subject of the review had been decided by the cabinet and that kind of question was out of order.

The second recollection is of how little the new secretaries of state had thought about how their departments needed to evolve over a ten-year period, if this was to become a great reforming administration to match Attlee's or the Liberal government of 1906. Only Clare Short spontaneously came out with a coherent two-minute peroration on how her overseas aid department would need to change to help achieve the objectives she set out.

I write this column after witnessing in Birkenhead the funeral procession of Trooper Phillip Lawrence, killed recently in Afghanistan while bravely defending his country against terrorism. If Phillip's life, and the lives lost by many others of our troops, are to be honoured, politicians need to think in very different terms about what are now the main threats to our country. The reform of government structure will need to be far more thorough than anything I envisaged when I asked each secretary of state what he or she thought was needed back in 1997.

The threat now is not just one of terrorism. Since Labour came to power, the world's population has grown by 930 million. By mid-century it could rise still further, from more than six billion to nine billion. The UN estimates that already 15.2 per cent of the world's population goes hungry every day. In future, world security will face growing threats from disputes over control of and access to water and food supplies, and over the raw materials that China is so energetically engaged in cornering.

That is why Hilary Benn's latest initiative is doubly important. Defra's Food Matters, published on 10 August, does an excellent job of hiding the big issues. There are endless pages on food threats, but on further investigation, the reader finds that the department is actually referring to food poisoning, eating out and the dangers of being overweight. There are only the briefest passages on where the hell we are going to get our food from in a world of expanding population and diminishing water supplies.

Anyone hearing Hilary Benn on the Today programme, however, would never have guessed what the report was really about. For he did confront head-on the fundamental question of how we are going to feed ourselves in the coming decades. This one interview showed that not all the cabinet ministers are yet brain-dead. But to answer Benn's questions opens up a revolution on a number of fronts.

Over 30 years ago, William Waldegrave wrote The Binding of Leviathan, the only case for the EU that made sense. The world would increasingly find it difficult to feed its population; the then EEC, with its high dependence on agriculture, could set itself the objective of becoming one of the great global food baskets. Unfortunately, since then, the EU has adopted the idiotic policy of paying farmers not to produce and to set aside their land instead. Enabling Britain to maximise its food output would turn European food policy upside-down. But pushing this policy to its rightful conclusion will do more to change Europe than any demands that could ever be made about staying in or out of the EU.

In 2005, the Times carried a hair-raising report on where the continent gained its energy. Most lines led to the KGB. The article was not rude enough to mention the agency by name, but no one could doubt that the Russian secret service had western Europe by the throat and could at any time turn off the oxygen supply to European industry.

On 5 August, No 10 released a report on energy security by Malcolm Wicks, the Prime Minister's special representative on international energy issues. It received disappointingly little coverage, but it contributes to the new politics of survival. It showed Britain is becoming ever more dependent on others. If the next radical government is going to guarantee our food, energy and raw material supplies, it will need, among other things, a Whitehall equipped to meet this challenge.

A meaningful mega-department will have to replace our First Secretary of State's rambling empire. In this brave new world, a much-reformed defence department would cover energy, food and raw materials. This new Securities Department is where political power will lie over the coming decades. If we are to make sure that Phillip Lawrence's life is valued properly, it will be by pursuing the new politics of security in all its forms, with a vision and seriousness so far unimaginable.

Frank Field is MP for Birkenhead (Labour)
James Macintyre is away

Frank Field has been Labour MP for Birkenhead since 1979. From 1997 to 1998 he was Minister for Welfare Reform

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan: The Lost War