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Accounting for probabilities in conflict

May 2022: In his latest blog, Phil Trendall says that we must stop hiding behind calculations of likelihood when it comes to emergency planning and that the UK needs to think about what civil protection looks like in the context of a war that could escalate

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The UK’s House of Lords Select Committee’s Report, Preparing for Extreme Risks: Building a Resilient Society, was much taken with the Swedish booklet, If Crisis or War Should Come (Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency 2018). As an example in communicating a difficult subject to the general public it is an exemplar. I re-read it this weekend and one paragraph really struck me:

“For many years, the preparations made in Sweden for the threat of war and war have been very limited. Instead, public authorities and municipalities have focused on building up the level of preparedness for peacetime emergencies such as flooding and IT attacks. However, as the world around us has changed, the Government has decided to strengthen Sweden's total defence. That is why planning for Sweden's civil defence has been resumed. It will take time to develop all parts of it again. At the same time, the level of preparedness for peacetime emergencies is an important basis of our resilience in the event of war” (p9)

It was written four years ago, but in the context of contemporary events it seems even more relevant now. In Sweden, the phrase ‘total defence’ is used to describe a mixture of military and civil defence, including the contribution of citizens.

The UK Government has done little to communicate risks to the population. It is half a century since leaflets used the word ‘war’ at all. The idea of an attack on the UK has been far from the thoughts of the emergency planning community for a generation. Now it is the newly visible elephant in the civil protection chat room.

When I first became interested in civil protection, the Cold War was always in mind. The Civil Defence Regulations 1949 had been replaced by the 1983 Regulations which, in turn, became the 1993 Regulations. All talk of ‘civil defence’ disappeared with the Civil Contingencies Act 2004. I joined the Institute of Civil Defence in 1986, it then became the Institute of Civil Defence and Disaster Studies and is now the Institute of Civil Protection and Emergency Management. The move to an ‘all hazards’ approach helped to conceal a decline in central government funding, which was part of the peace dividend that came with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The big debate in civil defence in the 1980s was ‘is it worth it?’ or ‘what’s the point?’ Several local authorities refused to take part in planning and exercising, despite the legal requirement. The Greater London Council (GLC) commissioned its own research on what the capital would look like after an attack (GLC, 1986) and they concluded that money could be better spent elsewhere. The Protect and Survive information leaflets and films – now available on YouTube – together with the effective campaigns of organisations such as CND created a population that was highly sceptical about the motives of government and about utility of war planning for the civil population.  Technical developments soon overtook the arrangements in place. The bunkers and the secure communications systems quickly became irrelevant.

Looking back on the courses that ran at Easingwold (now the Emergency Planning College) they seem to have a quaintness that reflects a bygone age. Lessons about flying columns, fallout and farmers and regional seats of government were probably out of date even when they were being delivered.

But, before we rush to mock the past, we should consider the social changes that have taken place in Western Europe over the last half century. Civil defence, although it was largely a volunteer-focused activity, was something that was ‘done’ to the population. It was about survival through compliance, and in a society that was more obviously stratified than we are now used to we should not be surprised that there was a whiff of heavy paternalism about the whole business.

In 2001/2 I had the chance to speak to a group of civil servants who had been involved in planning for the civil population during the Cold War. One of them told me that nobody thought all the measures would work, but that they had to confront the prospect of war and no amount of hand wringing was a substitute for at least attempting to achieve some sort of preparedness. Saving lives, preserving a free society and protecting our country were, in his opinion, the sorts of things that required planning.

That conversation took place in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in the USA when we in the UK were being forced to think about attacks that could cause thousands of casualties. Perhaps now it is time to have similar conversations and to start thinking about things that are horrific, unquantifiable and, mercifully, unlikely.

As the Swedes point out, the basis for planning for the wartime welfare of the civilian population is the arrangements we have in place for ‘normal’ disasters. The demands of scale and context are what need to be added. One of the great weaknesses of Cold War planning was that it was focused almost entirely on dealing with the aftermath of full-scale nuclear war. In that scenario, it is not surprising that many people dismissed civil defence as little more than a confidence trick.

Community and National Risk Registers, indeed the whole mechanism of civil protection risk assessment, are calculated to do only what is necessary to deal with what is most likely. Even this fell short when the inevitable pandemic swept the nation.

The sight of a bloody conflict in Europe makes this the time to reimagine the risk to the population of the UK using war as a scenario. I do not advocate vast spending, or the recruiting of ARP wardens and the stockpiling of blackout material. What I do suggest is that we stop hiding beyond calculations of likelihood. There needs to be some planning for the prospect of a war that directly touches the civil population in the UK.

At the very least, we need to start talking about it.

Image: Commons/123rf


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