John McTernan: Waging war on terror requires winning over public

How many people will have felt that the uncovering of an Al-Qaeda plot to blow up transatlantic cargo planes was just too convenient for UK and US governments? More, I suspect, than is healthy for a functioning democracy. After all, this American "intell" has made Obama look decisive - at a time when he is being pummelled by the polls.

And it has swept British benefit reforms off the front page too. Security is the first need of humans, according to psychologists, and one of the founding purposes of government, according to political theorists. How then did we reach a point that dyed-in-the-wool cynicism was such a strong response to government messages about terrorism?

There is no doubt that, fairly or unfairly, the Blair government was thought to be too histrionic on the issue. The symbol of this was the vote on 90 days custody for suspected terrorists. No matter that this was a maximum, authorised a week at a time by a judge - and that it was supported by the police. The Labour government failed to make the case - even in its own Cabinet. But more tellingly it became a partisan, party political issue with Tories and Liberal Democrats in opposition. Some of this was principled, if wrong in my view, seeing a violation of English traditions going back to Magna Carta. Other parts of the opposition felt more cynical - but whatever the motivation, British politics crossed a line, abandoning the assumptions that had run all the way through the Northern Ireland Troubles that tackling terrorism required a bi-partisan approach.

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Those tensions are being played out again today - this time within the coalition itself. Part of the coalition agreement was a review of the control order system. This is a far from ideal system where people the state consider hugely dangerous, but who they believe they cannot convict, are deprived of their liberty.

This system has been drastically curtailed by the courts but in a way only exists because of them - it would be preferable simply to deport people who are a threat to our security. Rightly, however, the courts say the accused have human rights too and can't be sent back to countries where they would be tortured or murdered by the state.

So, to uphold our very standards of justice we have a system that appears to the Lib Dems to violate our own standards. Hence reports, briefed by Liberal Democrat sources, that the Home Office-led review has to find against control orders.

Swiftly followed by a counter punch from Theresa May, the Home Secretary, that she is in charge of the review and not Lib Dem peer, and former Director of Public Prosecutions, Lord Ken Macdonald.

Interestingly, this is not a single party issue.Former Labour MP and minister Tony McNulty wrote a thoughtful piece last week reflecting on his Home Office experience and concluding that both control orders and detention of suspects without trial for 28 days without charges were wrong. Not even his closest friends or biggest fans would accuse McNulty of being a bleeding heart liberal.

On the one hand this reminds one of the iron law of reviews - don't hold them, if you can help it, because they always have to report. On the other, there's something really serious here. Since 9/11 in the US, the Madrid bombings, 7/7 in London - and, indeed, the Glasgow Airport bombing, it has been clear that Western democracies are vulnerable to violent terrorism. The lack of incidents since then has been a tribute to our security services and police (and indeed the vast flow of intelligence from within the Muslim community), not proof that that there is no threat.

Over 100 people are currently serving in British jails because they have been convicted of acts of terrorism or conspiracy to commit such acts. Active plots have been successfully investigated, disrupted and prosecuted. Proof, if it were needed, that we are at the sharp end of a war.

But public cynicism runs high. At base, this is because politicians of all parties are simply failing to make that straightforward case. Of course, the reputation of politics stands at an all time low. Yet, the threat is real and proximate.

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That is why we see, first the head of MI5, the brilliant Jonathan Evans, and then the head of MI6, Sir John Sawers, making the public case for what is manifestly obvious - that people inside the UK are trying to kill their fellow citizens.

There is no doubt in my mind that politicians can and must make a far better case for the war on terrorists. It should be their paramount duty to protect citizens. Equally, their core skill is analysing and synthesising complex information and communicating it to a wide range of people. But this involves levelling with people about what they are truly doing to combat the problem.

In the UK, the Metropolitan Police have the lead and their efforts are overseen by the enormously impressive John Yates. Of course, specifics in Scotland are the responsibility of the Scottish Government. And here's a niggle; Strathclyde Police play the same role in Scotland as the Met do for England - they devise and mainly deliver the strategy.

But they are funded not directly by the UK government - instead the Scottish Government gets its share of the Met's anti-terrorism funding which comes from a "top-slice" of all England's policing budgets. But senior Strathclyde officers who know the budget worry that this time round they won't get their fair share - 10 per cent of the Met anti-terror budget.

This is, undoubtedly one of the toughest jobs for a politician. Balancing the right not to be a victim of terrorism against the right not to be victimised by the state.Focusing enough on taking potential terrorists off the streets quickly while ensuring the system has the evidence for a successful prosecution.

To win a war you have to prosecute it. But before that you need permission. Have our politicians been honest with us about the threat we face and how they combat it? In all honesty, I'm not sure they have.