Gordon Brown’s state of terror
The British prime minister’s announcement of new security measures, and his promotion of wide-ranging new partnerships to root out extremism in the United Kingdom, confirms that counterterrorism is fast becoming one of the main organising principles of society in the twenty-first century.
Gordon Brown used the annual security statement to parliament to announce a wide range of new proposals for combating terrorism. In a packed House of Commons, he presented both hard measures – increased surveillance, checks, barriers and monitoring – as well as softer ones designed to win the hearts and minds of those who might be tempted by terror.
On the same day, a related article by him in the tabloid Sun newspaper, entitled ‘I need YOUR help to beat terrorists’, sought to drive the message home. This was, he proposed, ‘a generation-long challenge’, that would require a partnership ‘with everyone’. He concluded, for those who had still not absorbed the breadth or gravity of the situation, with a piece of over-inflated, pseudo-Churchillian prose exhorting us to ‘fight street by street, community by community and year by year’.
But his actual proposals look anything but brave or combative. Rather, they are a concession and a gift to the handful of nihilistic, self-styled, radical Islamists, fantasists and wannabe terrorists whose actual impact on British life, were it not for such grandiose and vacuous security responses, remains largely marginal.
In fact, Brown’s mantra on the need for ‘physical barriers’ is the perfect metaphor for the authorities’ inability to tackle this limited threat either intellectually or emotionally. Unwilling to believe that the nation is not about to crumble in a heap of cowering vulnerability, and unable to provide any grand vision of why British society is worth defending, Brown hides behind steel doors and blast-proof windows.
Last summer, after failed attempts by alleged al-Qaeda sympathisers to detonate gas canisters at a London nightclub and Glasgow Airport, the new prime minister, less than 24 hours in the post, asked the former head of defence intelligence and the Navy, Sir Alan West, to conduct a review of security in public places. Sir Alan’s report back, now in his new capacity as Labour minister for security, formed a key part of these proposals, arguing, amongst other things, for the designing, or redesigning, of public spaces and buildings – specifically airports, major railway stations, shopping centres and sports facilities – to deter future terrorists, or to mitigate their possible impact.
As I have argued on spiked before, this focus on managing risks, rather than projecting a sense of positive purpose, reflects a defeatist attitude that can only encourage those who would want to have a go. This outlook deflects society from clarifying and pursuing any grand broader aims and objectives (see Britain’s bunker mentality, by Bill Durodié). Turning ourselves into some kind of Fortress Britain offers an easy win to the small number of cack-handed idiots we truly confront. Bombing civilisation out of existence is an impossible task, but turning society in on itself has been achieved far too easily.
Now, according to the new proposals, planners and architects will be required to consider their designs from a counterterrorist perspective, relocating windows to reduce the risk should they shatter, placing obstacles on pavements to prevent vehicle-borne devices and not building underground car parks – a restriction guaranteed to warm the heart of many environmentalists. In fact, such buildings have successfully been designed previously. They were called castles. But whilst functional, they were never the emblems of a free and open society such as ours.
Such measures have not been forced upon us through the activities of hardened terrorists – the prime minister noted in his speech that ‘no major failures in our protective security have been identified’. It is the new ethos of precaution that has been adopted throughout government that is driving these proposals. In effect, this argues that in all instances of uncertainty or doubt, society should be reorganised along the lines of the worst that might happen, applying an ‘act first, find the evidence later’ principle of organisation.
Far from suffering from ‘a failure of imagination’, the criticism levelled at the US security services by the 9/11 Commission report, it would seem now that officials and politicians seem keen to imagine rather too much. ‘Terrorism can hit us anywhere from any place’, argued Brown in the Sun. As such limitless possibilities might mean attacks beyond the major public buildings and places his security minister’s report addressed, the prime minister, in his speech to the Commons, also offered ‘updates’, ‘more detailed advice’ and ‘greater vigilance’ for other, less prominent places, such as shops, schools, hospitals and places of religious worship.
This support will be backed up by guidance and training from 160 counter-terrorism advisers who will clearly have very busy jobs. To help them in their thankless task of spreading the Gospel of Doom across the entire nation, local authorities will also now be mandated, as part of their performance framework, to assess the measures they have taken to counter terrorism. Judging by the way such targets tend to be usurped by those who are called upon to enact them, it is likely that any minor act, such as watering the hanging flower baskets that adorn many city centres, will now be counted as a possible opportunity for deterring terror.
More insidiously, Brown hopes to engage young people in opposing so-called ‘extremist influences’ not just in schools and colleges - which, over recent years, have already been turned into social engineering outlets - but also ‘through the media, culture, sport and arts’. The British Library, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Sport England, Tate Britain and Arts Council England have already signed up to such initiatives.
Once upon a time, it was just the former education secretary, Charles Clarke, who thought that ‘education for its own sake is a bit dodgy’. Now, it appears, Gordon Brown and others are proposing we all go much further than that. Culture for its own sake, sport for its own sake and the arts for their own sake, without a good dose of anti-radicalisation thrown in for good measure, are all a bit dodgy, too, it would seem.
In short, British society is to be reorganised around precaution and the fear of terrorism. Everything we do, from the buildings we use to the ideas that are taught, will be informed by the risk of a handful of nihilistic nutters blowing us all to smithereens. Society will be built - often literally - in fear of the uncommon enemy rather than to further the common good.
A youth panel to advise the government was also announced. By this logic, it is the government that is in need of support. That may not be too far from the truth. Lord West has already had to make an embarrassing U-turn regarding his endorsement, or not, for longer periods of detention without trial. West explained away his unfortunate public disagreement with the prime minister as the act of a ‘simple sailor’.
While the UK government is keen on advising President Musharraf of Pakistan as to the need to end his state of emergency, the British authorities will nevertheless seek to use their own set of emergency powers to achieve the goal of holding suspects without charge for longer than is currently allowed. Without some kind of permanent emergency in Britain today, there would be little to talk about.
First published by spiked, 15 November 2007