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Big brains gather to ponder future of UK security

Ashdown, Robertson, to head panel of cops, spooks, peaceniks

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A group of high-profile political, academic, and military heavyweights will come together over the next 18 months to ponder the future direction of UK security strategy.

The independent Commission on National Security in the 21st Century will be co-chaired by two well-known peers of the realm. First up is former special-forces officer, MI6 spy, liberal politico, and UN satrap of Bosnia-Herzegovina Paddy Ashdown.

Lord Ashdown's co-chairman will be George Robertson (now Lord Robertson), ex-Labour defence minister and former-secretary-general of NATO. The two men will preside over a selection of fellow lords, professors, and assorted policy wonks, including ex-US Senator and majority leader Tom Daschle. Former head of the UK armed forces (and ex-SAS man) Charles Guthrie will also be on board, as will Chris Fox, one-time chief constable of Northamptonshire.

The commission is organised by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), a noted thinktank which has advocated baccy-style climate-health warnings on airline advertising. The body has also suggested that all illegal huddled masses in the UK should be allowed to breathe free - but then made to register for ID cards. The IPPR has also taken the position that other criminals - to wit, iPod users - should be let off.

The new grouping reckon to take an integrated approach to UK security. As well as pondering on terrorist threats, WMD proliferation, energy security, public order worries, regional conflicts and so on, the security brain trust will look to root causes. Climate change, poverty, and better global cooperation are all on the agenda.

Two former special forces men, a top cop, an ex-NATO chief, more than one spook and a US Senator would seem to argue for a muscular set of recommendations emerging when the commission packs up in 2009. We might expect to see lots of expensive hardware advocated, more surveillance, more foreigners dealt with severely by the UK military and immigration authorities in future.

"It would be disastrous if the outcome of recent experience was a greater reluctance to intervene in conflict situations around the world," said Lord Ashdown.

That said, there are doves among the hawks. Mary Kaldor of the LSE and Prof Michael Clarke of King's are definitely in this camp, both being advocates of UK nuclear disarmament (though Clarke is much less obvious about this). There are other mellow peace-and-goodwill-to-all academics to counterbalance the fist-pounding cops and soldiers. And the government minister speaking at the launch last night was Hilary Benn, in charge of foreign aid, not the minister for spooks'n'cops or the defence minister (although that might be because it's easier to book the aid minister).

And there's an individuals' rights spokesman on the panel to resist the corridors-of-power mob and the academic action-through-government types. Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty, said:

"This is a golden opportunity to address serious security challenges...without sacrificing hard-won liberties."

You could be on your own in a group like that, Shami.

There's no doubt that the incoming Brown government will be watching the commission carefully and will take heed of its eventual recommendations. If, that is, such a diverse group can actually establish much common ground. There's one thing the assembled brains apparently agree on, though, which some might dispute.

"Britain has never faced so many risks," they say in their inaugural release.

Hmmm. ®

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