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General Election 2017: The Oxygen of Publicity – Giving Terrorists the Final Gasp in the Campaign

Michael Clarke
Commentary, 8 June 2017
UK Counter-terrorism, Tackling Extremism, UK, Securing Britain, Terrorism, Europe
The UK election campaign began with muted and vague debates over Brexit and, following terror attacks in Manchester and London, ends with furious arguments over security.

Elections tend to be good times for bad arguments and for all the sound and fury, Britain already knows what it needs to do about terrorism, but is almost completely unsighted – seeming almost indifferent – on what it needs to do about Brexit.

The main parties have tried to score points off each other on their commitment to fulfil the first basic duty of government – to keep its citizens safe.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats have sought to pin a sense of growing insecurity to terror attacks on the cuts in policing since 2010. Those cuts amounted to the withdrawal of almost 20,000 police officers, of whom some 1,000 were armed officers, alongside a cut of 26,000 support and auxillary police staff.

Surely, they have argued, this has affected the climate in which police collect vital counterterrorist intelligence within their own communities? And the charge is personal, since it was Prime Minister Theresa May, as Home Secretary, who presided over these cuts. The clip of her telling the Police Federation just two years ago that they must stop ‘crying wolf’ over cuts in personnel is being replayed several times a day.

Conservative front benchers have squirmed in interview after interview this week as they have ducked and dived to avoid admitting what is self-evident; that the Conservatives cut policing budgets. The new Met Commissioner, Cressida Dick, in her mild-mannered and restrained style delivered a hammer blow demand on Monday that policing would need ‘more resources’. No one would ever accuse the Commissioner of over-statement or scaremongering. She knew exactly what she was saying, ensuring that this will be a high priority after the election.

The Prime Minister has sought to shift the ground of the debate, arguing that it was she who added £143 million to the counterterrorism budget and had it ringfenced; it was she who helped enlarge the intelligence agencies; and it was she who had the courage to give the police a robust mandate to shoot to kill.

In response to these ‘character arguments’ Labour leaders have, in their turn, squirmed over some of their past sympathies for international terrorist groups and the spectacular records of some of them in voting against anti-terror legislation.

So much for electoral theatre. The fact is that all the components of an effective counterterror policy, consistent with British values, have been firmly in place in the UK for well over a decade. Of course, after three terror attacks in 73 days there will certainly be scope for discussion over the balance of policing powers and the marginal reallocation of existing resources. However, in truth, both the authorities, and the general public, seem to understand the essentials of the approach pretty well.

In the 20 years since jihadism first appeared as a threat to the UK, there have now been five successful attacks, in a period that has witnessed more than 100 jihadist plots directed against this country. So the existing policy, for all that it now needs to improve, can claim to be at least 95% successful.

The adjustments that may be required should not be the stuff of polarised political debate – but then election campaigns are normally more about image and character than about the policies under such furious discussion.

Meanwhile, it is an open secret that defence policy will have to be reviewed after the election, either officially or stealthily, since it is financially off track again. But this has not figured in the campaign. And it is an open secret that Brexit Britain no longer anticipates a happy relationship with Donald Trump’s America and risks diplomatic isolation if the forthcoming negotiations in Brussels become antagonistic.

It is difficult to image how hostile negotiations over Brexit could be prevented from affecting other key bilateral relationships. Not least, it is an open secret that in foreign ministries around the world, officials are shaking their heads and wondering how the sheer pugnacity of the British approach to Brexit, at least so far, will result in a happy conclusion for both the EU and the UK by 2019.

But the main protagonists in the election campaign seem frankly uninterested in these questions; to the point where Nick Clegg, on behalf of the Lib Dems, has claimed in some exasperation that Labour and Conservative leaders effectively colluded in ignoring Brexit as an election issue at all.

So we are left with a battle of leadership images, mainly formed around responses to terrorism. In this respect, at least, there may be some novelty in this election. It would normally be expected that a terrorist attack would increase support for the government – particularly a Conservative one led by an evident hawk on security matters, and opposed by a Labour leader whose record of incisive decision-making has been abysmal.

But there is no evidence that the Manchester bombing affected the narrowing gap between the parties in all the ‘polls of polls’ available over the past two weeks. May’s tough new policy proposals this week consisted of reheated ideas that had been already tried or discarded, and proposals – such as reining in the internet companies – that would depend on a big coalition of other governments to make effective.

Meanwhile, the ‘soft on terror’ legacy within the Labour leadership seems to have been regarded by the majority of the public as just that: a legacy and not necessarily any guide to what leaders would do if they presided over the UK’s mature counterterrorism policy that is already up and running hard.

Indeed, both the Manchester and London Bridge attacks explicitly targeted young people at their leisure. There is a mood of defiance that might result in a higher turnout than was anticipated among 18–24 year olds – only 43% of whom voted in 2015 compared with 78% of 65 year olds (and the youth figure drops to 37% in some elections).

If young people now feel more inclined to exercise the democratic rights that jihadis so despise, it is possible that Labour would be the net beneficiary.

Many observers commented at the beginning of the campaign that this election was the Prime Minister’s to lose. On present trends, she may well remain as PM, but with a pyrrhic victory rather than an emphatic one. At the end of a campaign that has, against expectations, hinged so much on her natural territory of policing and terrorism, that might provoke some very sobering reflection.

Banner image: Britain votes, but not necessarily on what this election was supposed to be all about – Brexit.


Professor Michael Clarke
Distinguished Fellow

Professor Michael Clarke was Director-General of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) from 2007 to 2015 when he retired from... read more

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