We are not “reeling” (as the New York Times put it) but the terrorist attacks in Manchester and London necessarily call for a serious response. Yet the initial statement from Prime Minister May raises questions that should have been avoided.
Some commentators focussed on the angst at its party political content. I thought it simply didn’t add up.
She said on Sunday that extremist Islamic terrorism “…will only be defeated when we turn people’s minds away from this violence – and make them understand that our values – pluralistic, British values – are superior to anything offered by the preachers and supporters of hate.”
Two points here, both uncomfortable. First, this approach is based on rationality, whereas in reality none exists. People who are so wholly committed to their views that they murder their way to martyrdom are not, I suspect, up for “understanding” anything else. So where is the mechanism to turn aspiration into reality?
And second, we have to recognise that extolling the superiority of “British” values puts us on a collision course with anyone who has rubbed up against those “values” during our chequered imperial past. Don’t misunderstand me: I love my country and we have countless things to be proud of. But we also carry the shame of, for instance, the Mau Mau uprising, the siege of Amritsar and the partition of India.
I think, I hope Theresa May was emphasising the pluralism that Britain is based upon. But sadly, that is not what she said.
“We need to live our lives not in a series of separated, segregated communities but as one truly United Kingdom,” said the PM in calling for a collective response to squeeze out extremism.
She is of course right – isolated, insulated communities are highly likely to have a distorted world view. But there are many reasons for such ghetto-isation and high on list is the inhibition of social mobility as a result of policies of governments of which she has been a prominent member. The link between poverty and extremism continues to be debated (but by no means, of course, do all those in poverty become terrorists). And nothing but nothing can justify the murderous violence of those who killed and maimed in London, Manchester and elsewhere.
I can only hope Theresa May understands what she can and must do to create a truly united United Kingdom.
“We need to review Britain’s counter-terrorism strategy to make sure the police and security services have all the powers they need, “said the PM. And again she is right. But others, such as one of the brightest brains in our media, Stig Abell, ask “How much liberty….are we collectively willing to sacrifice …for more security?”
The security/liberty trade-off is often presented as unavoidable, but I disagree. Listen to this 2015 podcast in which Bella Sankey, then policy director of Liberty, sets out how these two concepts can be balanced. Increasing powers of surveillance and bulk data retention – now legally established in the UK Investigatory Powers Act 2016 (aka The Snooper’s Charter) – are not effective in increasing security, but do have a significant impact on our freedoms.
The PM concluded her statement with the much-reported clarion call: “Enough is enough”. On terrorism, enough has been enough for a very long time. So no surprise that many are wondering about cuts in police resource, and asking what was she doing in all those years as Home Secretary?
This is not a time for political point-scoring. But we need a strategy that is going to work. I’m sorry to say that the PM’s statement simply did not put a tick in that box at a time it was most needed.