Richard Benyon is a former Army officer and is Conservative candidate for Newbury.
Commentators have tried to be fair to Jeremy Corbyn after his speech on terrorism on Friday. Some concede his views on what have come to be called ‘Blair’s wars’ are held with passion and are heartfelt. He lays the blame for much of the security threat we face at the door of two decades of UK foreign policy. However passionately he declares it, his problem is that he is wrong.
After someone commits an act as vile as the Manchester bombing, the last thing any of us want to do is to try and get into the bomber’s head in the last few days or even moments of his hateful existence. But if we are serious about stopping others (as the police and security services have done on 18 occasions in recent months) we have to understand how loathed our society is by a small but significant group of militant Islamists.
What Corbyn did in his speech was to take the lazy way out. He made no attempt to define the problem of the radicalisation of people like Salman Abedi. Instead, he made comments about British foreign policy that he knew would be seized on as the main thrust of his speech. Corbyn’s problem is that, whatever caveats he worked into the speech, his essential theme does not stand up to scrutiny. The largest number of British casualties in any terrorist attack were the 67 British lives lost in the 9/11 attack in 2001. That was before the so called ‘War on Terror’ was declared. Before Iraq, before Afghanistan, before Libya. Countries like Germany and Belgium didn’t get involved in any meaningful way in any NATO or western expeditionary operations, but they, too, have suffered similar attacks to ourselves. The inconvenient truth that Corbyn cannot face is that there is a small but evil cadre of people in our midst who are not the slightest bit interested in what we have or haven’t done. They hate our liberal way of life. They hate free speech, they hate seeing young people doing what young people do in open western societies. They hate our values.
Corbynistas fulminate when journalists or opponents conflate Corbyn’s opposition to anti-terror legislation and his attraction to the armed struggle by the IRA. What he does not understand is that for many of us this is quite personal. I served for two years in Northern Ireland in the 1980s. In a close-knit battalion of 550 men, 7 were killed in one incident. I was on patrol as news of the attack came through. IRA supporters taunted us by holding up 7 fingers. I will never forget the professional restraint shown by young riflemen under my command as that happened. I remember a survivor being asked what he saw after the attack. His one word answer was ‘torsos’. These were the body parts of his comrades.
Corbyn had a choice. He could have supported the peaceful route to a united Ireland by working with the Social Democratic and Labour Party under the courageous John Hume. But Corbyn made a very public choice to support those that murdered by bomb and bullet. Now in middle age, we veterans have admired how implacable enemies in Northern Ireland have found ways of working together in peace. If the Labour leader were to say that he was hot-headed in those days and that he has now changed his mind, most of us would cut him some slack. But he hasn’t retracted one iota. In a recent interview he declined five times to condemn the IRA.
A sizeable part of his speech was an attack on the Government for reductions in police numbers. This is a legitimate political argument but again, does not stand up in terms of the terrorism threat. Anyone who has been to France will have seen an armed gendarme or soldier on almost every street corner. This has not prevented a spate of attacks which grow ever more vile and depraved. More police on the streets help and reassure us, but unless we are extremely lucky, they do not stop attacks. What does is a complex network of specialists either in the police or security and intelligence services. In 2015 the counter terrorism spend was increased by 20 per cent. The intelligence services are bursting at the seams with new buildings needed for the uplift in numbers of officers. In addition, more specialist armed police officers are available to counter the terrorist threat.
The final nail in the coffin of Corbyn’s counter terrorist credentials is his voting record. He has voted against 17 separate anti-terrorism Acts of Parliament. This includes the Act that outlawed ‘the glorification of terrorism’ and the Act that put MI5 on a legal basis.
Many decent Labour MPs are as incredulous as I am that such a person could be even considered to oversee the defence of the realm and the complex unpredictability of the first duty of any Prime Minister: the safety of its people.