Andrew Gilligan

The real threat to Britain

Andrew Gilligan says that reducing our liberties in response to terrorism will make us less safe

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In these frightening days, we must seek our consolations where we can; and one of mine, over the last month, has been running a private contest to log the most idiotic remark made by one of the battalions of ‘security experts’ on standby at times like this to provide vitally needed, life-sustaining, 24-hour fatuous commentary on all major broadcast news outlets.

There was the lady from the prestigious think-tank on Sky News who said, quite late on 7 July, that the bombings were ‘clearly a major incident’. There was the ‘risk management consultant’ on The World Tonight who said that shooting people in the head, à la Jean Charles de Menezes, was not necessarily intended to kill them. There is the Home Office minister, Hazel Blears, but she has had to be disqualified on suspicion of cheating. Like the old East German Olympic women’s shot-putting team, she is simply too good.

No: the Spectator-engraved handcuffs go to the former anti-terrorist branch officer who suggested on Newsnight the other week that the police should be granted their latest wish, to detain anyone they like without charge for three months, because they ‘needed to allow Muslim suspects time to pray’.

This naked power-grab masquerading as concern for the victims’ religious rights struck me as the very essence of New Labour. It is also an example of Britain’s exciting new post-7 July streamlined legislative process. The Upper House (the Association of Chief Police Officers and the heads of the intelligence services) proposes a measure, and a short time later the Lower House (Mr Blair) does it, or something similar.

So, perhaps as soon as next month, we will have, in the Prime Minister’s words, a ‘significant extension’ of detention without trial bringing us close to, or actually into parity with, apartheid-era South Africa. We will have a criminal offence of ‘condoning terrorism’ anywhere in the world which appears, from the few details available, to be defined so broadly as to have covered support for Nelson Mandela’s ANC, had it been in force at the time. A more contemporary example covered by the new law might be supporting opponents of the despotic regime in Uzbekistan, who have also been described, at least by the Uzbek government, as terrorists.

The ‘consultation document’ containing these proposals turns out to have been produced without much consulting even of the Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, let alone the other political parties. The policy picture is still being coloured in as I write by anonymous briefings to the papers. In short, after a brief period of calm, measured leadership, respectful of the democratic proprieties, the Prime Minister has made a depressing return to New Labour business as usual.

Yet the most dispiriting aspect of all is how eagerly Mr Blair’s 12-point plan has been greeted by much of the public and by those parts of the political spectrum whose constitutional duty is to check and scrutinise. These measures merit the beadiest scrutiny. Why is a single successful terrorist attack, killing just over 50 people, enough to persuade us to abolish habeas corpus, a cornerstone of our liberty? Why was this major step not deemed remotely necessary in the United States, a country attacked far more devastatingly than Britain? Why does this country so fear freedom and so willingly embrace repression?

Perhaps it is because we believe the threat to us is new, unique and terrible. If so, we are wrong. The threat is serious, but it must be kept in proportion. It is true that Islamist terrorists lack the political constraints of our old enemies, the IRA. Undeniably, they want to kill us in very large numbers. But all the evidence suggests that they are simply no longer able to do so. Their attacks may be more lethal than the IRA’s were, but they are far less frequent.

The new, virtual ‘e-Qa’eda’ of amateur, self-tasking grouplets which has arisen since the old organisation bit the dust in November 2001 is almost certainly incapable of mounting any attack as organised and sophisticated as 9/11, which was two years in the planning. Any list of al-Qa’eda-linked attacks, including the one published by Downing Street itself, shows a trend of declining sophistication and lethality. The homemade bombs of 7 July were a sign of weakness, not strength.

The phenomenon of suicide bombing is new and frightening. But last week’s revelation in the US (not denied by Scotland Yard) that the 7 July bombs were probably set off by mobile-phone timers raises at least some doubt over whether these were, in fact, suicide attacks. For obvious reasons, suicide bombers do not use timers. It is at least possible that some or all of the bombers were duped into believing that they would have time to escape before their devices exploded. If this was the case, it would not have made any difference to the death toll on 7 July, but it would mean that the general threat was less serious than our worst fears.

More broadly, those who support these new measures appear to be working under a fundamental misconception: that there is some sort of ratio, or in Mr Blair’s words a ‘balance’, between security and liberty; that the more liberty you have, the less security you have, and that the way to increase security is to reduce liberty. In fact, the relationship, if any, is exactly the reverse. Terrorism loves repression, hates fairness. Reducing liberty will make us all less safe, not more.

Internment in Northern Ireland gave a grateful Provisional IRA the biggest single boost in its history, and the 12 months after it was introduced were the most violent in the 30 years of the Troubles. Our main weapon against Islamist terror will not be guns, or policemen, or phone-taps, or laws; it will be British Muslims’ willingness to inform on the traitors in their midst. Let us remember that the vast majority of those detained under the current 14-day anti-terrorist law are innocent; 97 per cent have been released without charge. If those people are now to be locked up for months on police fishing expeditions, if mosques are to be closed, non-violent organisations and books to be suppressed, that can only reduce Muslims’ willingness to inform. It may even create permanent Northern Ireland-style alienated neighbourhoods, willing to harbour and actively assist the terrorists.

Perhaps we believe that the police, who have mostly played a blinder, should not be denied the powers they seek. Actually, their success over the last month suggests that they are managing rather well with the powers they already have. Any opposition worth the name would be asking the constabulary a few hard questions, such as: how many times have you actually let a dangerous terrorist go because you ran out of time to hold him?

And there remains a sneaking suspicion that the police want the new detention rights as much for their own administrative convenience as for their value in fighting terrorism. Many delays in the processing of terrorist suspects arise because the police station, sorry, the ‘high-security’ police station at Paddington Green, where most are taken, has only two secure interview suites. Our first recourse should surely be to recruit a few more interrogators and build a few more interview rooms rather than sacrifice the rights of millions.

Not all of Mr Blair’s plans are so objectionable. Omar Bakri Mohammed and his fellow hate preachers have been laughing at us for years. Quite clearly, part of their contempt for the British state derives from its liberalism towards them. Bakri encourages people to bomb us, so social services buy him a free car; little wonder he concludes that our society is decadent. But inaction against Bakri, and the other beards of jihad, was not and is not a failure of law . Laws to act against them have existed for years. Incitement to murder is a crime. Incitement to racial hatred is a crime. Many other powers have been added under anti-terrorism laws since 2001. Social security benefits and free cars can be withdrawn from those who render themselves unavailable for work because of urgent bomb-making duties. Bakri could have been deported without fear that he would be tortured, as his voluntary ‘holiday’ in Lebanon this week proves.

The fact is that the government chose for many years not to use these powers. Well before the July attacks, the police had sent at least seven files about Islamic preachers to the Crown Prosecution Service, but it has been sitting on them for months. For years the security services explicitly advised ministers not to act against hate preachers in the belief that they ‘would not bite the hand that fed’ them and would ‘keep terrorism off the streets of the UK’ if they were left in peace to plot terrorism on the streets of, say, New York.

These are actual quotes from an MI5 officer, in an official document from the Special Immigration Appeals Commission in respect of a man called Abu Qatada, sometimes referred to as ‘al-Qa’eda’s ambassador to Europe’. Abu Qatada was permitted to operate openly from a semi in west London for nearly six years by the British government. Like many other ‘Londonistanis’, he was whisked into a maximum-security wing at Belmarshistan only after 9/11. He is now under house arrest.

Much has been made of the spooks’ decision to reduce the security threat level the month before the London bombings, a decision which seems doubly unfortunate in the light of warnings of an attack reportedly received from Pakistan, the United States, Saudi Arabia and France. But threat assessment is a very inexact science. MI5’s real and far more serious misjudgment was to permit the likes of Abu Qatada not just to live in Britain but to organise openly here. How ironic that some of those now campaigning hardest for the new repressive laws — the intelligence services — are the very same people whose errors did so much to create the problem in the first place. Indeed, the person who will ‘lead’ the latest crackdown will not be poor Mr Clarke but the government’s unelected ‘intelligence and security co-ordinator’ Bill Jeffrey.

One of Britain’s most important assets as a nation is its reputation for political and legal stability. Investors come here because this is a country that does not make much law by spasm, or administrative fiat; rights cannot simply be abolished overnight because they have become inexpedient or unfashionable. That may no longer be the case. The government is trying to make up for past failings with a flurry of legislation that will change this country for the worse. All it really needs to do is to enforce the laws it already has; but that, of course, would entail admitting that it was wrong not to do so before.

Andrew Gilligan is defence and diplomatic editor of The Spectator and a feature writer for the London Evening Standard.