John McTernan says the public needs greater transparency from those charged with keeping us safe if we are to back government measures to combat terrorism
SECURITY is the first duty of a government. It is the founding argument for income tax: to pay for the defence of the realm. And it is the ultimate test of any political party. Voters do not think often about defence and security, but they judge incredibly harshly. Labour’s worst ever defeat followed after it declared for unilateralism.
It is no surprise that this is a fundamental issue. It is, after all, one of the few existential questions in politics: shall our country exist or not? Indeed, the union between Scotland and England was driven, in large part, by a shared external threat from Catholic France.
This issue is now back at the centre of British politics as a result of a number of separate, but interlinked, issues. The most immediate danger is the failure of TPIMs (Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures) – the new regime for restricting the liberty of those who are a threat to lives in Britain, but who cannot be successfully prosecuted.
Now, that seems potentially a dangerous proposition: taking harsh action against people you admit you can’t convict. Isn’t “innocent until proven guilty” the central principle of justice? Well, we are under attack from terrorists and while some may not like the phrase “war on terrorism”, be absolutely sure that the terrorists are comfortable with waging war against us.
In this fight, the UK government is using the techniques that work against conspiracies: infiltration, informers and bugging. It isn’t hard to understand that some of that information, if exposed in court, would reveal who was gathering information and what methods were being used. Hence some of the legal arrangements in place now.
There are two obvious questions: is this fair, and does it work? On the former, the measures in place are fair and proportionate. Tragically, a large number of people in the UK have been killed by jihadist terrorists, and a significant number here in Scotland and in England were saved from death or injury by flaws in the designed attack.
More than 100 people are in jail in the UK at the moment because of terrorist attacks they were involved in, or which were – thankfully, and most commonly – frustrated by police and security service intervention. You can imagine what voters would think if people the government know to be terrorists were allowed to roam freely.
But, here’s the rub. The current system is not working. It was revealed this week that, farcically, the terror suspect Mohammed Ahmed Mohamed had entered a mosque dressed as normal, but is now missing after making his escape dressed in a burka – his shoes, and manly bulk giving those tracking him not a second thought. It would make you laugh, if you were not already weeping at the incompetence.
He is the second man under a TPIM to escape surveillance – Ibrahim Magag stepped into a black cab on Boxing Day last year and hasn’t been seen since.
You might well ask “why are we here?” Why is the government neglecting its basic duty of protecting the public? Particularly as, historically, the Conservative Party has been the party of law and order, usually successfully painting its opponents as weak-minded liberals in this area. If it seems that the tables have been turned, part of the answer lies in pure politics.
The formation of the coalition required the Tories to bend towards the Liberal Democrats in some areas. Terrorism laws proved an easy area because of the games that Prime Minister David Cameron chose to play while in opposition. Though the leader of a right-wing party, he chose repeatedly to ally with the far left of the Labour Party to defeat the Blair government tightening up the law on terror. What seemed a game at the time is causing real trouble now.
Labour’s control orders – condemned by Tories and Liberal Democrats as Kafka-esque – were indeed harsh. Individuals could be placed under a 16-hour curfew, moved to a different town, banned from using mobile phones or the internet, and prohibited from meeting named individuals. But with a bloke bounding away in a burka, they don’t look so onerous now.
Worse, we now know that the electronic tagging system is failing and that the TPIMs lapse after a certain period – and can’t be extended without new evidence. So, shortly Mohammed Ahmed Mohammed, and his two co-conspirators, whom Home Secretary Theresa May says were plotting terrorism involving airplanes, will be free to walk the streets burka-less.
This is incompetence of a level that should be causing the government real pain and potentially should cost a Cabinet minister their job. The fact that it is not reflects the confluence of two separate streams. First, the reality that security policy developed by the coalition is at least as much a reaction against Tony Blair as it is designed to protect the public. It is time for ministers to get over Blair – he’s been gone for more than six years, long enough for them to accept the gravity of the threat they are combating without conceding that he was right.
The other, and for the future, more significant strand is the public perception of the security services. Never has their reputation been so low among such a wide range of the public. I recall a boardroom dinner in Edinburgh where it became clear that the majority of people present doubted that there was a “real” threat to Scotland, despite the fact that there was a bomb attempt on Glasgow Airport in 2007. There is no doubt that some of this scepticism derives from – indeed, is legitimised by – the political contest that has seen off control orders.
Some, though, reflects a deep doubt about the authority of the people who are meant to protect us. The security services do themselves no favours at all. They assert, but do not explain. MI5 and MI6 could be far more specific about threats and far clearer about the justification for certain actions – even if they only used information that was in the public domain. But they do not fight for their point of view. They still live in an age of deference; expecting their views to be unchallenged and simply accepted. Look at the response to the revelations about the surveillance activities of the National Security Agency in the United States and GCHQ in the UK – it’s just “move along now, nothing to see”.
The bitter irony is that we need the spooks more than ever, and they need tougher powers – or there will be more burka bandits. But they need us, members of the public, to trust them before we can back them. Instinctively, we want to believe them, but this is the 21st century – authority needs be earned and re-earned. If only they would trust us with more information, then we would trust them with greater powers.