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The UK needs a national strategy for the next generations to guide future foreign policy

Article by Cat Tully and Sophie Middlemiss

December 3, 2020

The UK needs a national strategy for the next generations to guide future foreign policy

The NSxNG approach to making future UK foreign policy and wider national strategy

In the context of Brexit and COVID-19, there is a growing sense that we need to collectively build ‘a new normal’ with a more uniting national narrative, and to ‘relaunch’ a refreshed Britain not just domestically but on the world stage. But to do that, we will need more than a new strategy document developed in the traditional way (closed-door, top-down) and closely held at the heart of Government.


The national strategy we need will shape and define our country’s role in the world after a crossroads moment in our national story. The country – all generations, all ages – will have jointly experienced a period of uncertainty unprecedented in recent decades. As a result, many people are more willing to move beyond short-term self-interest and divisive narratives to focus on a better shared future.


The time is thus ripe for a new approach to designing a long-term, outward-facing national strategy for the UK. Two of the most critical tools of future foreign-policy making will be structured long-term thinking (strategic foresight) and public participation (giving citizens a voice). In policymaking, these two are most effectively used in conjunction – as participatory foresight. Such approaches are – as yet – poorly utilised in national strategy development in the UK Government. While other areas of policymaking in the UK are opening up to public voice and participation, national strategy has remained an elite, government-led, behind-closed-doors endeavour.


We at the School of International Futures (SOIF) and our partners in the National Strategy for the UK’s Next Generations (NSxNG) programme – who include the Democratic Society, the APPG for Future Generations, Today for Tomorrow, the University of Cambridge Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, Agora think-tank, Restless Development, Shout Out UK, RUSI and the Kings College London’s Grand Strategy Centre – are working to bring a diverse public voice, and in particular the voices of future generations, into the process of shaping our country’s future place in the world.


Following the completion of a pilot phase focused on engaging public thinking about the UK’s future global role, we are launching a full programme in 2021. Our pilot phase activities engaged over 500 young people across the UK and included a ‘tester’ Citizens’ Assembly session, a series of structured futures workshops, historians’ seminar series, and an online survey.


The NSxNG coalition unite around the belief that a resilient, long-term future national strategy (which would maximise the UK’s future position in the world across all the tools at our disposal) should:

  1. First, represent the interests of future as well as current generations of UK citizens
  2. Second, be participative, supporting all citizens to have a voice in national futures
  3. Build a more meaningful, united and plausible national narrative
  4. Draw on past, present and future insights about the UK’s role in the world – using the tools of applied history, public participation and strategic foresight.


There is now strong interest both inside and outside the UK Government in: a) thinking from first principles about Britain’s role in the world, and b) designing a new long-term national vision and positioning that puts at its heart the needs, wellbeing and interests of future generations.


Why focus on the long-term and the UK’s next generations?

Being on the front foot in planning for the long-term can be hard, when confronted by major strategic shocks such as COVID-19 that dominate the short-term horizon and will have long-term implications. However, all-consuming current crises, however volatile and uncertain the present, the UK cannot afford strategic paralysis and a reactive posture. Strategic confidence and a proactive global posture for the UK require an open, structured approach to understanding the long-term global environment, the threats and opportunities it presents, and the UK’s possible role in it. Looking ahead only five to ten years – tempting in turbulent times – makes it harder for policymakers to think genuinely differently. We need to look out at least 25 years (a generation).


SOIF’s work in long-term futures thinking with a range of international governments and organisations (from the UN to the OECD, Malaysia to Germany, Oman to Chile) demonstrates that a shorter time horizon also encourages linear thinking (people are typically tempted to forecast continuation, or worsening, of the current situation). Considering our future on a longer time horizon and exploring alternative scenarios opens up more optimistic dynamics and opportunities.


Meanwhile, there is a growing recognition (both in the UK and internationally) of the need to build intergenerational fairness into policymaking, expanding our moral responsibility ‘forward’ to the future generations who will inherit the long-term consequences of our actions. Focusing on the next generations allows us to think through the human implications of decisions made today. It makes long-term consequences (often unintended) immediate and tangible. It makes a compelling moral case for long-termism.


The global environment to 2045: why national strategy must be long-term

Any scan of the horizon-scanning literature suggests that the next 25 years will bring changes in our external environment that will impact the UK significantly: from environmental and ecosystemic impacts, to emerging technology, shifting demography and value shifts that will have impact nationally as well as globally.[1] At the same time, when we step back and survey the long-term trajectory of the UK’s global role – as the participants in our NSxNG programme have been invited to do – the stark but unavoidable conclusion is that the UK’s global influence is declining relative to others’, and our ability to shape the external environment in which we operate diminishing.


The UK’s political leaders – of any stripe – will be under increasing pressure to demonstrate impact and influence in addressing ongoing global challenges: poverty, development, peacekeeping, hybrid conflict, social justice, biodiversity, human rights, and governing emerging technologies such as AI. Government cannot navigate these emerging pressures and uncertain expectations in isolation, or by focusing on the short term. Only by taking a long-term strategic horizon and incorporating citizen engagement can Government develop a resilient national strategy that will equip the country to navigate this complex and ever more challenging environment.


The role for public participation as a tool of foreign policy

The British people are a key part of our national resilience. If our national security paradigm is – as many in the field tell us – expanding to be more centred on human security; if our national resilience and security depends ever more on the people (whether in terms of public health, innovation, cyber threats, disinformation, or polarised discourse), then the people need to be co-creators of policy.


Harnessing the creative input and energy of citizens is not a nice-to-have but a must-have in uncertain times. We must build beyond one-off ‘set-piece’ national conversations or events to thicken the ‘connective tissue’ between Government and the public on national strategy issues (see Recommendations below). Participative conversations about the future require insights about the past. As forecaster Paul Saffo puts it: “To look ahead, one must first look back twice as far”.[2]


Meanwhile, the development of future National Security Strategy should be expanded to be treated as the development of Whole-of-Nation Strategy, moving beyond the artificial division of foreign and domestic policy issues and apparatus. Technology, health, migration, data, reputation connect what happens at home to abroad, and are critically important for our posture and position overseas. Effectively linking the domestic and international requires both a whole-of-government approach (across Whitehall departments) and local engagement (in communities).


Messages for the UK Government from the ‘next generations’

Five key messages emerged from our recently concluded pilot into a ‘Next Generations’ approach to making national strategy. They demonstrate the ambition, but also the realism, with which young people look at the UK’s future role.


  1. It is time for an honest reassessment – perhaps a ‘managed, relative decline’. This emphasis on tackling head-on the issue of relative decline underlines the urgent need to work on a new national narrative that can inspire pride and hope in the UK’s future global role. That narrative work must emerge from a more participative approach to the development of national strategy.
  2. The UK must make the hard choices – and reorient fast to survive. Our work with young people to date in this programme has revealed an appetite for honest language and clear choice-making. Whatever choice is made about the UK’s future role, our respondents underlined that the world is changing fast and the UK cannot afford decades agonising over its own role.
  3. Keep putting values at the centre – acting as a force for good and steward for a rules-based system. We heard a strong sense that values and multilateral engagement must remain at the core of what the UK contributes – but that we must also address the domestic issues that undermine our moral authority. Participants emphasised that the UK has a global role to play, convening others — or leading — on climate change, social justice, welfare, challenging aggression, responsible innovation, mediating conflict, and disrupting the spread of corruption and misinformation.
  4. Build the assets to support UK influencing, especially on innovation. The UK has significant soft power levers, including through our networks, ideas, innovation and influence. A stronger role in ‘innovation diplomacy’ and building effective governance regimes should be supported by investing more in UK research, science and tech and building a strong base in innovation exports; improved social security; a ‘green transition’; and doubling down on education.
  5. Recognise we must put our own house in order domestically. Participants stressed that our future global role would hinge on ‘domestic’ issues such as devolution, State of the Union, health, the economy, social security, social mobility, affordable housing.


Recommendations: making national strategy in a new way

First and foremost, we recommend that the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy marks not the end-point of the national strategy development process for the years ahead, but the beginning of a five-year National Strategy journey to build a new national narrative and the supporting apparatus of government – such that the UK is better equipped to deliver integrated, future-facing and agile national strategy and policymaking.


Progress in three key areas is necessary to sustain this journey. The UK needs:


1. Political consensus around the need for public dialogue on the UK’s future role in the world – with our political leaders committed to the outputs of such a dialogue. Including:

  • Bringing political leaders, including next generation leaders, together to listen to public narratives that are optimistic but realistic;
  • Building a broad-based bipartisan understanding of the challenges and opportunities of the UK’s 2045 operating environment (trends, drivers, uncertainties, shocks); and
  • Develop cross-party approaches and mechanisms for responding to citizens’ proposals.


2. To conduct an independent public dialogue on National Strategy that is well-designed and conducted. Including:

  • Use public participation to set high-level parameters, principles and direction.
  • Move beyond polling to listen to and understand public perspectives, drawing on expert input and data alongside modes of participative engagement (such as Citizens’ Assemblies; injecting discussions of the UK’s place/role in the world into existing local and community forums).
  • Look specifically at how different generations and communities see the UK’s past, present and future role in the world and how to give younger Britons a greater sense of national pride and role in our future national story.


3. To build a national security apparatus that is orientated to support whole-of-government, agile and future-facing national strategy, and that encourages stewardship of future generations’ wellbeing. This cuts across many areas, but should include:

  • Building in the obligation to consider future generations’ wellbeing (setting new obligations on Ministers to act for the long-term, designating Select Committees and other oversight bodies – such as an ombudsman or Future Generations Commissioner).
  • Widening out to a concept of National Strategy that cuts across the whole of government and beyond. Taking previous approaches to integration across Government departments (such as Fusion and One HMG) much further into a truly cross-Whitehall strategic endeavour. Align domestic ministries (DfE, BEIS, HO, MOJ) and local authorities behind the UK’s National Strategy.
  • Introducing incentives into the civil service that drive behaviour and culture change towards more citizen engagement on national strategy/security and foreign policy issues (incorporate notions of ‘stewardship’ and ‘wellbeing of future generations’ into purpose and mission of civil service; develop a participatory long-term policy making guide for the Civil Service.
  • Review existing institutions, structures and processes to ensure they are long-term future-oriented. Reorient the Treasury and machinery of government (including NAO, Select Committees) around a long-term, systems approach, and a new National Strategy Council that replaces the NSC. Strengthen the work of existing institutions and teams with long-term perspectives, like MOD’s DCDC, BEIS GO-Science and the Government Foresight network.
  • Capability and skills development within the national strategy community and civil service. Broaden policymakers’ use of Horizon Scanning and Foresight. Radically improve the teaching of strategic thinking skills to civil servants, Ministers and MPs. Empower young people through an improved civic education offer, including on thinking about the long-term future.


If we make these changes, we can equip the UK not only to make national strategy better in the future, but to make more impact on the world stage in a generation’s time.


Cat Tully is the founder of SOIF, the School of International Futures. Cat has extensive experience as a practitioner, helping governments, civil society and businesses to be more strategic, more effective, and better prepared for the future. Prior to setting up SOIF, Cat was Strategy Project Director at the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and Senior Policy Adviser in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Before working in government, she worked in strategy and international relations across the not-for-profit and business sectors, including Christian Aid, Technoserve, and Procter and Gamble. Cat has also worked for the UN, the EU Commission and the World Bank. She is a trustee of the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development, a global board member of Academics Stand Against Poverty, a member of United Nations Learning Advisory Council for the 2030 Agenda, and a member of the Advisory Group of the British Foreign Policy Group.

Sophie Middlemiss (SOIF). Sophie leads on SOIF’s NSxNG Programme and its wider policy work. She joined SOIF from a decade in the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office, where she worked in the Strategy Unit, as a Ministerial speechwriter, and on UK policy towards Russia, Georgia, Ukraine and India.  As a strat comms consultant, she has written for global figures including Bill Gates, Kofi Annan and Mo Ibrahim and been published in TIME, Newsweek and The Observer. She has also worked for the OSCE in Kosovo, joined election observation missions in Macedonia and Ukraine, and written for Rough Guides / Berlitz on travel in Russia, Hungary and (in a forthcoming book) Serbia. 


[1] Global Trends. Paradox of Progress, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, United States,; Guidance: Global Strategic Trends, The sixth edition of Global Strategic Trends, Ministry of Defence, October 2018,; and Global Trends to 2030. Challenges and Choices for Europe, European Strategy and Policy Analysis System (ESPAS), April 2019,

[2] Paul Saffo, Six Rules for Effective Forecasting, Harvard Business Review, July 2007,

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