Whenever there’s a National civil emergency in the UK we hear of ‘COBRA’ being brought into session. COBRA sounds on the face of it to be something of a secretive all powerful wartime organisation, involving the security services, the Prime Minister etc which might meet in a bunker somewhere. COBRA has something of a reputation from the TV programme ‘Spooks’. And the mystique of COBRA is enhanced by the fact that the crises it’s often required to deal with do often involve the aftermath of terrorist incidents or civil disturbances like rioting or serious industrial disputes.. An example was the disruption of fuel supplies in the early 21st Century where COBRA was brought into operation and Tony Blair made suitably dramatic TV appearances to advise the public that effective action was in hand under his own dynamic leadership. By their very nature these incidents involve the security or military services, so things sound even more dramatic regardless of how mundane the security services’ tasks (such as helping with sandbags in a flood area) actually are. COBRA’s activities are a little more routine than they sound.
‘COBRA’ is an acronym for ‘Cabinet Office Briefing Room A’, the room where this briefing and decision making process arrangement originally held its meetings when the system was first put in place. Originally that was at 70 Whitehall but in recent years COBRA meets wherever convenient. COBRA offers the opportunity for the Prime Minister to encourage some semblance of a co-ordinated response to events and it’s where he can obtain some information to convey to the public.
COBRA came into session on occasions in January and February 2014 to co-ordinate the response to the serious flooding and the effects of storms which hit the West Country and the Thames Valley in particular. COBRA co-ordinates such responses whenever there’s a National or Regional crisis in the UK and sometimes makes some contribution whenever there are events abroad which require a co-ordinated response from the UK. COBRA is not as all powerful and dynamic as it sounds but it does benefit from usually being chaired by the Prime Minister. So COBRA should be an effective co-ordinating body, as all the Government Departments and services concerned are answerable to the Prime Minister. If any effective coordinated response is possible at all in any incident COBRA should be arrange it. Occasionally, and depending on the nature of the type of incident COBRA is trying to handle, or the availability of the Prime Minister, the main committee may sometimes be chaired by an appropriate alternative Government Minister such as the Secretary of State for Defence. The constitution of the meeting is also infinitely flexible. The Government Ministers and representatives of public services present will depend on the nature of the incident which COBRA is trying to deal with and which Government Departments are responsible for handling it. Again depending on the nature of the incident organisations like the Local Governments Association or the Association of Police Chief Officers might attend the COBRA process.
In any Gold-Solver-Bronze gradation of command structure in the UK, COBRA is sometimes known as the ‘Platinum Command’. But COBRA is not actually a committee. It’s a process, a series of committees which usually meets in one of the Cabinet Office Buildings in Whitehall in London. These Offices (secure rooms) are fitted with audio and video links which are able to display intelligence and any information relevant to the incidents under consideration. A similar arrangement to COBRA exists in the United States in the ‘White House Situation Room’. The US arrangement however is a slightly more melodramatic affair situated below ground and is permanently staffed. COBRA is less pretentious and is only staffed when it actually meets, and the rooms are offices above ground. No doubt in a more serious National Security Emergency COBRA would move to secure underground premises. COBRA has a parallel existence in the form of meetings of the civil servants in the Government Departments concerned at any given time. These civil servants meet in advance of the COBRA meetings themselves. COBRA can if it wishes exercise some very draconian powers. It can restrict the movement of people, requisition and even destroy property, invoke emergency powers and even set up special courts. Such draconian powers would however be limited to a serious state of National Emergency. Most meetings of COBRA such as the ones in 2014 confine themselves to assuring the public that a co-ordinated response to (in that instance flooding) is in hand and to ensuring that things like sandbags are available and that the electricity supply is likely to continue. The mystique of COBRA is somewhat diminished when you consider that the Scottish Government has its own equivalent SGoRR (Scottish Government Resilience Room) in Edinburgh. No disrespect to the Scottish Government but when the military and security services aspect of these response units are removed the reality of what they actually are becomes more apparent. They are just meetings. Similar arrangements can be brought into operation by the devolved administrations in Cardiff and Belfast but their arrangements are even more cumbersome than COBRA’s itself because they have to coordinate their responses with assistance from London. There’s no reason why a town council should not set up its own equivalent of COBRA. Some actually do, but don’t give them such pretentious names. To be fair to COBRA however the image which has been attributed to it arises from the acronym it coincidentally adopted when it was formed. COBRA no longer officially uses the ‘A’ because it no longer meets in Briefing Room ‘A’. The arrangement is now officially called COBR. But that does not suit the news media and does not allow for an acceptably dramatic short title.
COBRA ‘Where the Action is’ (allegedly)
The main COBRA committee is the Strategy Group which is chaired by the Prime Minister and it is this committee which makes the binding decisions. There will also be a lead Government Department. In the case (for example) of the flooding it would be DEFRA. In the case of the threatened Bird Flue Epidemic it would have been the Department of Health. COBRA is supposed to be ‘where the action is’ in the event of any emergency. But in many respects it’s not all its cracked up to be. Despite its dynamic name and high power composition COBRA is every bit as prone to ineffective time consuming torpor as any other Government Department. Given it’s diverse composition probably more so. For start COBRA is no more than a complex of rooms where people meet. They could meet equally well and co-ordinate their activities without the arrangement existing at all. The public would be justified in wondering why Government Departments need a special emergency arrangement structure to make them talk to each other and to co-ordinate simple responses. And COBRA is a ‘process’ not an actual executive body. Although it can effectively become one, when the Prime Minister is involved because under the UK Constitution the Prime Minister can take any decision. The Government is accountable to him. But why do such decisions require the COBRA process itself? One criticism of COBRA’s functioning is the fact that it takes the relevant personnel away from their own Government Departments in a crisis and so stops the individual departments making their own responses on the ground.
Is COBRA Worth Having
In his book ‘The Terrorist Hunters’ Andy Hayman found that COBRA is over political. There is a common view that the process is unnecessarily time consuming and drags people away from the work in hand. There is also a suspicion that the process is often a publicity exercise to convince to the public that something is being done. Much of the co-ordination work which COBRA brings in to being should in any event be second nature in any ‘joined up government’. As with so many of this type of government committee things can become bogged down in ineffective meetings. In a serious crisis however COBRA does present some opportunity for the Prime Minister to become involved and to demand to see some evidence as to what co-ordinated response is actually in hand. But whether that requires a formal structure such as COBRA is a moot point