Timing the General Election – a view from RUSI’s Director of Homeland Security and Resilience

There are undoubtedly myriad complex reasons, some good and some bad, behind Gordon Brown’s decision not hold a snap General Election in November 2007. From a narrow security perspective, I am most relieved at his final decision not to go to the polls. This is not because I am an ardent fan of his policies, nor because the workload in a Think Tank increases exponentially during a General Election – but because General Elections tend to invite ‘terrorist opportunism’.

Your typical political terrorist – if such a thing exists – aspires to drive a wedge between the state and the citizen. In the absence of an ability, or wish, to participate in mainstream politics, violent acts are used to influence public opinion on political issues or to vie for political power.

A General Election therefore offers an ideal time to make a political point. History is littered with examples of increased terrorist activity in the run-up to General Elections, most recently seen in Madrid in 2004.

It is popular to depict terrorists as mad, bad and evil – a low-life of humanity, insane and evil, driven purely by bloodlust and hatred – yet frequently nothing could be further from the truth. Although the actual acts of terrorism are abhorrent and incomprehensible to the mainstream populous, the thought processes behind the attacks are frequently entirely rational. With respect to a General Election there are three main motivators:

  • The attraction of being able to discredit your political opponent when they are trying to be seen at their most powerful
  • Frustration at being excluded from the political jamboree
  • The opportunity to de-rail mainstream politics

Whilst there is probably little that can be done to reduce the first two motivators, the third can be made much less attractive if the main political parties taking part in the election are in broad agreement with respect to the terrorist threat.

Sadly within the UK this is not the case. There was consensus around the time of the last General Election, but his has been lost since 2005. Terrorism, its perpetrators and how to deal with them – how best to disrupt their acts, and how best to deter people from resorting to the use of terrorist tactics – are all political footballs. This, in turn, threatens to lead the various political parties to overemphasize particular aspects of their security policies and paves the path for extremism to enter security policy.

I very much hope that by the time we do need to go to the polls for a General Election that each main party is in broad agreement with each other regarding National Security. Because, looking at it from the perspective of a terrorist, if you will be treated exactly the same no matter who gets into power, then there is little point in bringing forward attack plans or carrying out spectacular moves. However, if there is no broad consensus then it might just be worth the risk …

Dr Sandra Bell
Director of Homeland Security and Resilience

The view expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI

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