The political psychology of responding to a second terror attack within only a few days is necessarily different from responding to a first. When Theresa May spoke in the wake of the Manchester atrocity, she said, inter alia, that “I do not want the public to feel unduly alarmed”. She scarcely touched on the cause that inspired the massacre, Islamist extremism, either in the form of the violence that it drives or the ideology that it professes: indeed, she didn’t name it at all. She concentrated on explaining why the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre had raised the threat level from Serious to Critical, and why troops would be deployed on our streets in the form of Operation Temperer. Election campaigning was suspended for the best part of three days.
It would have been clear at once to the Prime Minister, as reports began to come on Saturday of the killings on London Bridge and at Borough Market, that she could not respond to it in the same way. It is doubtless true that one is more likely to be killed by a dog than a terrorist, as Jemima Khan tweeted yesterday, but it was not the moment for May to share that statistic with the public. What counts in political terms is not that most people are unlikely to be caught up in a mass terror attack, but that many believe that they and their families might be. And there is a more fundamental point. Such an assault is a heinous act in itself – regardless of one’s chances of being caught up in it. For a second to follow a first, after 12 years of none, is a life-costing breach of security.
Gone from the Prime Minister’s text, therefore, were soothing calls for calm. She recognised that it could not be business as usual, as this site put it only a few hours earlier. Islamist extremism was named. Campaigning was paused only briefly. “Things need to change, and they need to change in four important ways,” May said, before going on to say, first, that Islamist ideology must be defeated. Second, that it “cannot be allowed the safe space it needs to breed” (thus pointing a finger of blame at the social media giants). Third, that it must be “identified and stamped out”. And, fourth, that the counter-terror strategy will be reviewed to take account of the new terror trend that she described – low-tech murders with vehicles and knives, like Saturday night’s in London.
It goes almost with saying that Jeremy Corbyn, who has scarcely been able to meet a terrorist, during his long years of seeking their acquaintance, without immediately speaking up for him, is not the man to trust with such a programme – or the responsibility of safeguarding Britain’s security. But it is not enough simply to fight Thursday’s election. One has to look forward to what will happen afterwards, on the presumption that he will not be moving into Downing Street, and that May will there. The simple fact is that many people, pondering her statement yesterday, will feel that they have heard much of it before. “The rules of the game have changed,” Tony Blair declared after 7/7. But twelve years on, terror is still on the pitch – after control orders, Charles Clarke, TPIMs, John Reid, Prevent, Jacqui Smith, Contest, Alan Johnson, the counter-extremism strategy – and Theresa May.
To say that voters will feel that they will greet announcements of new strategies as only too familiar is not also to claim that they will dismiss the Prime Minister’s yesterday. Some see the responses to the Manchester and London horrors, both by politicians and the public, as a failure to confront the ideological challenge. They think that one won’t defeat ISIS by greeting it with a chorus of “Don’t look back in anger”. This is true. But this site also suspects that such a reaction to the public mood risks mis-reading it. Most people hadn’t read the sprawling tomes of Marx and Engels. But they understood that defeating communism would mean a long struggle. That they are even less familiar with Qutb and Maududi doesn’t prevent them from grasping the same point.
None the less, public patience isn’t infinite. We can expect further terror attacks, with mass loss of life, as the security services. What will the Prime Minister say then? After all, it is not as though two of her aims – extinguishing Islamist ideology, and mastering Islamist extremism – are within government’s control. They demand the full engagement of British Muslims. That there are 23,000 “persons of interest” to the security services confirms that this isn’t there, as does the thwarting of five plots since the Westminster Bridge attack. It doesn’t follow that most British Muslims support Islamist ideology, let alone Islamist terror: that would be like claiming that most of Northern Ireland’s Catholics, during the Troubles, were supporters of Republican views and acts.
But the comparison may be worth pondering. Most of Ulster’s Catholics are Irish Nationalists, and there was an overlap between this honourable tradition and the IRA’s violent programme: both wanted a united Ireland, the first by the ballot box alone, the second by the armalite too. The population was a sea in parts of which the IRA could swim. The parallel is too obvious to stress. However, problems with May’s programme are not confined to the lack of a visible nation-wide mass campaign by British Muslims against the likes of ISIS. (There are plenty of local initiatives, but they lack cut-through. And British Muslims are of course a special target for the Islamists, who want to recruit their children as suicide bombers or knifemen.)
The Conservative Manifesto promises “action against extremism, especially Islamist extremism”. There is a commitment to new laws if necessary. There is a proposal for a Commission “to identify examples of extremism and expose them”. But we have been here before – and recently. David Cameron promised a Counter-Extremism and Safeguarding Bill in his last Queen’s Speech. An official letter from the body that helps drafts correspondence for Conservative MPs suggested that the Bill’s measures would cover “activities that spread, incite, promote or justify hatred against a person or group of persons on the grounds of that person’s or group of persons’ disability, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, and/or transgender identity”. One Tory MP suggested that they could be deployed against teachers in church schools. A workable definition could not be found. The proposal collapsed.
The Prime Minister is right to seek to confront Islamist extremists – to prevent them, for example, from intimidating Jewish or gay students in universities or, even more seriously, from effectively co-governing parts of our prisons. Perhaps there is a case for the Commission that the manifesto proposes. But if so, it will find it difficult work targeting something that can’t be defined in law (as we have seen). Most of the real work of countering Islamist extremism doesn’t need new legislation at all: cutting off public funds for Islamist ideologues, denying them platforms with Ministers, cutting off patronage, sticking with Prevent. What would certainly require new laws would be a change in anti-terror strategy – to go for, as we put it yesterday, Arrest and Intern or Bug and Charge (which is far preferable). If the new Government doesn’t lead that debate itself, it will find that others do so instead.