Brown dumps UK's National Security Strategy

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
17 June 2008

Anthony Barnett (London, OK):The Prime Minister has just given an outrageous speech on security and liberty to ippr: thin but full of misrepresentations of his critics.

It is in effect a response to his disastrous victory in winning the vote on 42 days (thanks to the Lord-to-be Ian Paisley) and David Davis’s striking campaign that is already swinging public opinion away from the government on the issue (see Fergus Shanahan in today’s Sun and Guy's overview).

Brown attempted to cover 42 days detention without charge, the use of DNA, and ID cards. In some areas the government seems to be moving under the pressure of opinion. I don’t believe in being alarmist on these matters where precision of thought, argument, policy and deed are so important. So I am just going to respond to two aspects, of his speech: what Brown says about 42 days and, first, his general approach.

This is to suggest that if you don’t agree with him you are a 20th century wanker unable to face up to the positive changes, yes, but also the threats of modern times and how we must use modern methods to ensure our security in the age of terror plots of gigabytical complexity.

Here is a taste from the beginning:

“The modern security challenge is defined by new and unprecedented threats: terrorism; global organised crime; organised drug trafficking and people trafficking. This is the new world in which government must work out how it best discharges its duty to protect people.”

And later:

“It could be said that for too long we have used nineteenth century means to solve twenty first century problems. Instead we must have twenty first century methods to deal with twenty first century challenges. So I want to focus today on the use of modern technology in fighting crime and protecting our borders - and focus on the argument that new laws or new technologies threaten the rights of the individual.”

And here is a classic in the lead up to his addressing the issue of 42 days:

“And there is, in my view, a British way of meeting this challenge. The British way cannot be a head-in-the-sand approach that ignores the fact that the world has changed with the advent of terrorism which aims for civilian casualties on a massive scale and which respects not only no law, but also no recognisable moral framework.”

I have to admit this passage made me angry. Indeed the use of “British way” here is equivalent of Blair’s attempt to use “the Third Way” as a kind of moral bullying, there being only one such way and he being its leader. Here we are told either you are a patriotic British-wayer or you are a head-in-the-sander. There is no concession that many of us who oppose 42 days are fully aware of the novel nature of the security issues of modern society. This is not an argument between the future and the past. To try and present it as such is a characteristic New Labour trope, a slight-of-hand that positions opponents not as ‘wrong’ as in an argument between equals, but as has-beens, futile clingers-on-to-antique-thinking. In short, it is an ad hominem argument (ya-boo, you suck) dressed up as futurology..

Fortunately there is a simple way of proving that the Prime Minister has his pants in a twist on this one. In the penultimate paragraph of today’s speech the Prime Minister claims that his policy has always been to try and create cross-party consensus on key issues from the constitution to the use of intercept evidence. Included in this list is, “our first ever National Security Strategy published in March”. Heard of that have you?

My guess is that as the speech was nearing its final draft a bright member of Brown’s staff said, oh don’t forget we already have a national security strategy!

This document is actually very interesting and thoughtful. I recommend it to anyone concerned about these matters. It is sub-titled “Security in an interdependent world”. Its definition of what modern security needs to address is more sweeping and convincing than the Prime Minister’s definition quoted above. It includes:

"international terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, conflicts and failed states, pandemics, and trans-national crime. These and other threats and risks are driven by a diverse and interconnected set of underlying factors, including climate change, competition for energy, poverty and poor governance, demographic changes and globalisation."

The thrust of the – I almost said “our” but clearly the Prime Minister is ignoring it – National Security Strategy, which is published by the Cabinet Office and is 60 clear and well-written pages, is to seek a coalition of interests in support of counter-terrorism and ensure coordination across government departments. I won’t go on about it now, but this genuinely is a 21st century approach. The day after it was published, Peter Neumann at Kings College London organised an exceptionally helpful briefing session on it. He pointed out that it had been hopelessly presented and the press coverage was useless: the Guardian called it “bland and oddly romantic”; the Times “perversely distant”; the Telegraph a “damp squib” (sounds oddly reminiscent of the reaction to David Davis!). His panel by contrast saw an important shift underway from national security being seen as state security to being understood as human security.

There was a riveting exchange that I am not allowed to report as the discussion was off-the-record between John Reid, the ex-Home Secretary and David Omand who was the government’s security and intelligence coordinator from 2002-2005. They clashed over what lines of command would be needed to make the strategy work, given that the various departments of state are in competition for its resources and authority. Here, without much doubt, is a job for a man who really wants to drag Britain out of the twentieth century, instead of bad-mouthing the rest of us. So, in fact the Prime Minister is at war with his own government's official security approach, which is broader, more far-sighted are far more in tune with the realities of our time than his grandstanding.

Second, on 42 Days the Prime Minister called for:

“an approach that is prepared to make the difficult decisions to protect our security - not by ignoring the demands of liberty but always at the same time doing everything we can to protect the individual from unfair or arbitrary treatment. This is the driving force behind the proposals the Government is bringing forward - including the counter- terrorism provisions we asked Parliament to approve last week. And we don't suggest these changes to be tough or populist - but because we believe they are necessary.

Let us turn first to the issue of terrorism legislation, and in particular detention before charge. There are two key respects in which the terrorist threat has changed:

  • the threat of suicide attacks without warning and mass casualties, requiring the police and security services to intervene earlier to avert tragedy, but without necessarily having the evidence to charge,
  • the increasing complexity of plots - with many thousands of exhibits having to be examined, far in excess of IRA investigations in the past - and networks spanning the globe, requiring days and weeks to pursue and unravel
These are the arguments which led us to propose a procedure under which in only the rarest circumstances - a grave and exceptional terrorist threat - detention before charge could be extended from 28 to 42 days. And I believe that people do appreciate the complexity of the issue - and recognise that the way in which we balance the need to maintain our security with the need to safeguard our basic freedoms must be renewed in a changing world."

And he continues,

“the safeguards cannot lie in measures that make it impossible for the police to complete an investigation into terrorist activities – something which would in the end harm all our civil liberties - but must lie instead in ensuring that the civil liberties of a person detained are protected by clear rules and by proper accountability”.

This is completely unconvincing. To hold innocent people, as already happens, for 27 days and then release them without compensation and without giving them any reason for this punishment is arbitrary. Second, everyone agrees that high numbers of innocent people are likely to be arrested in preventative policing against terrorism. This does not justify continuing to hold them without any evidence. If there is any grounds for suspicion - then they should be charged with this.

As for complexity, as has been carefully pointed out, placing a charge is not the same as mounting a prosecution. The idea that those opposing 42 Days are supporting “measures that make it impossible for the police to complete an investigation into terrorist activities” is a gross calumny.

The key point, as set out in what should have been this country’s national security strategy, is the building of reasoned consensus against obvious threats. It is outrageous for the Prime Minister to argue against his opponents of which I am now one, in grotestque and insulting language like this and then say he seeks a consensus. I am afraid that Gordon Brown is subverting Britain’s security strategy not building it.

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