Fifteen years ago this month, the 7/7 atrocity took place. Fifty-two innocents were killed and several hundred injured after Islamist terrorists exploded bombs on London’s transport network.
That horror was followed by the Glasgow airport attack, the murder of Lee Rigby, an assault on Westminster Bridge in which four people were killed, the attack on London Bridge during 2017’s general election campaign, the Manchester arena bombing which caused 22 fatalities, and a mass of other plots and incidents.
Yet no group of Conservative politicians suddenly set up an Islamism Research Group during this period “to promote debate and fresh thinking about how Britain should respond to the rise of radical Islamism”. Why?
There are a mass of reasons, bound up as a rule by the difference between a trend within a great religion, and the actions of a nation state. But this site can’t help but wonder whether the current Tory reaction to China as a security threat is disproportionate, given others, of which Islamist extremism abroad and here continues to be one.
For whatever one may say about Huawei’s presence on these islands, the Chinese company hasn’t detonated bombs on the underground, as far as we know. Nor has it attempted murder in Salisbury by means of chemical weapons, like elements of the Russian state, if not that country’s government itself.
Don’t get us wrong. We are all for the new China Research Group of Tory MPs, one of whose leading members, Neil O’Brien, is a ConservativeHome columnist, and has written for us about why it was set up, and on how China deals with its critics abroad by bullying, hostage taking, censorship, bribery.
But it seems to us that the great eye of the Conservative Party, as it swivels its gaze towards China, risks missing other threats that are closer to home – for all the security problems posed by Huawei, to which the Government’s response is reasonable, and all the implications of China’s tearing-up of its commitments to Hong Kong.
To put the matter at its most simple, there are three main threats to our security, all of which are very different. China is a strong power, but is a long way away. Russia is a weaker one, but is a great deal nearer. And Islamist extremism is already within.
James Wild wrote yesterday on this site about the current and delayed Strategic Defence and Security Review. Its task must be to analyse these challenges, plus others, and draw up a coherent response. It must do so in the context of the post-Brexit landscape both in the rest of Europe and in our leading post-war ally, America.
For it may be that Donald Trump turns out to be rule rather than the exception, and that the United States continues to turn inwards, as it grapples with cultural divisions. The NATO family is a troubled one, with Turkey and Hungary looking east to Russia. We don’t want to be part of an EU army; but our EU neighbours are defence partners.
While the Ministers, civil servants, defence chiefs and the security services draw up a plan, Conservative MPs will be advancing their own ideas, and not just in relation to China. Forty-five MPs have served in the armed forces as regulars or reservists. Forty-one of them are Tories.
And while defence and foreign affairs aren’t the same, the two overlap. Furthermore, some Conservatives have become experts in the latter without serving in the armed forces at all. We cite an obvious example: William Hague, former Foreign Secretary, now Chairman of the Royal United Services Institute.
The current chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Tom Tugendhat, a former military assistant to the Chief of the Defence Staff, is another. But while it’s easy to come up with other Tory names in Parliament – Tobias Ellwood, Bob Seely, Crispin Blunt – it’s harder to cite those in the universities and academia.
ConservativeHome asked three people for a list of names – the chair of a Select Committee; the head of a think-tank; a former Defence Minister. All were able to come up with non-Conservative experts, living and dead, easily enough, or at least of people who don’t identify as such: Michael Howard, Laurence Freedman.
John Bew, the Prime Minister’s Chief Foreign Affairs adviser, has written an acclaimed biography of Clement Attlee. Jeremy Black, formerly of Exeter University, and who like Bew is also associated with Policy Exchange, is one of the Tory-ish exceptions.
Strategic Defence and Security Reviews have different priorities over time, as they must. Russia was not considered a threat to our national security in 2010. By 2015, it was viewed as one of several. By the time of the 2018 National Security Capability Review, it was perhaps the most prominent.
Our proprietor and Isabel Oakeshott’s book on defence, White Flag, captures the mood of these recent years – opening as it does with an account of how the radar station at Saxa Vord, closed at the end of the Cold War, was officially re-opened in 2018.
“Whether the Kremlin discovered that hundreds of miles of airspace were rendered invisible to the UK’s armed forces after Saxa Vord, we cannot say,” write the authors. But Russia has never somehow become embedded in our national infrastructure.
With China, the main challenge will be to “wash that man right out my hair” – in other words, to get it out of our physical and virtual networks. That will take a time. More broadly, it is our sixth largest export market and fourth biggest source of imports.
Although it is a very long way from being on Britain’s doorstep, the Government will presumably settle on a variant of the detente-style Soviet-era strategy, which implies a form of cool if not cold war. Especially if it swallows up Hong Kong entirely, or tries to.
The balance between conventional and cyber defence is being ferociously contested in the review – and if Boris Johnson didn’t have the numbers in Parliament to support his previous Huawei policy, despite his 80 seat majority, he won’t have them for further substantial cuts in the army, if it comes to votes.
With Russia, the biggest risk is not so much its persistent probing of our borders, but of conflict somehow being blundered into in Eastern Europe, whether through conventional or other means. Meanwhile, the killing of Osama Bin Laden and the pressure on ISIS can lure one into thinking that the Islamist threat is spent.
But the greater Middle East, the source of the problem, remains fundamentally weak, under-developed and unstable.
In crude terms, what is most needed to counter it here is not a military presence or even a cyber one so much as a network of spies and informers. Whether government is willing to put in the required grunt work, as the Conservative gaze turns to China and Tory MPs prepare to defend the army, is unclear.
We are not, repeat not, pro-China – that’s to say, pro that country’s Communist party. But there is a danger of the Government becoming preoccupied with the dangers it poses at the expense of those from elsewhere.