Keep Calm and Carry On…

The UK's government's terrorism Threat Level is confused and confusing, raising the Orwellian specter of a state of constant war.
Carl Miller Andrew Somerville
20 July 2011

The UK's government's terrorism Threat Level is confused and confusing, raising the Orwellian specter of a state of constant war.

“… yesterday’s change to the domestic threat level does not mean the overall threat we face has fallen.” Theresa May, Home SecretaryCONTEST Speech’, RUSI, 12 July 2011)

On Monday 11 July, Her Majesty’s Government reduced the UK’s terrorism Threat Level. Moving from a ‘Severe’ to merely a ‘Substantial’ threat from international terrorism, an attack is no longer ‘highly likely’. It’s now only a ‘strong possibility’ in the near future.

It’s hard to know what to make of this. Can we feel relieved, less vulnerable, or less suspicious of suspicious packages? None of these responses feel right. In fact, the gut reaction is to feel uneasy and confused rather than comforted.

After five years, perhaps it is worthwhile to re-examine the threat level regime. There are three reasons why we should:  

First, the practical operation of the threat level has been to plateau. Since the introduction of the Threat Level system in August 2006, we have spent 195 days (and counting) at ‘Substantial’, 1612 days at ‘Severe’ and 7 days at ‘Critical’. We have never been at ‘Moderate’ or ‘Low’. Lingering on the upper edges of this (admittedly uneven) scale is understandable. Lowering the threat level just before an attack would be a disaster for the reputations of those responsible. But there is no point to an understanding of risk without shades of grey. And on the two occasions when the threat level has been raised to Critical, it followed, rather than pre-empted, a terrorist attack.  

Second, what do the threat levels actually mean? US FEMA define ‘highly likely’ as 100% likelihood within a year. For the Home Office, it must be considerably less probable than this, or we would be owed a few terrorist attacks for our extended period under ‘Severe’ threat. The problem is that we do not know what likelihood the UK definitions carry when the assessments are made.

This is especially confused when we consider that a sensible risk assessment - one that must sometimes say that terrorism is less threatening than it once was - is political kryptonite. It must have been this political imperative – that the Home Secretary must never, ever, appear to have dropped the ball – that caused Theresa May to claim this lowering of the threat level didn’t really signify a reduced threat from terrorism only a day after the announcement was made.

Third, and most importantly, what is the terrorism threat level for? Are they meant to keep the public au fait with the latest developments, or are they for internal use? Again, more confusion. The Home Office states that ‘the system of threat levels has been created to keep you informed’ whilst the MI5 website suggests that they are to inform police and ‘security practitioners’, but don’t require a specific response from the public.

Judged by Theresa May’s comments, they don’t seem to have, by themselves, an internal impact. Following the threat level reduction, the Home Secretary stated that it actually doesn’t mean that on the ground that there will be much change in what happens. People won’t see a change in relation to policing and issues like that because we still face a very serious threat’.

But they do not seem to require a change in public behaviour, either. The Home Office advises that we should ‘always remain alert’ but not stop ‘going about your day-to-day life as normal’, and according to MI5 threat levels ‘do not require specific responses from the public’.

But if this is the case, why does the Government publicly communicate a change in the threat levels? Why does the Home Office issue a press release announcing the change, and the Home Secretary deliver a speech that ends up on the Home Office YouTube channel?

The reason for all this confusion is that threat level regime seems to be stillborn child of open government. Principles of open government have rightly thrown increasing levels of light into our Ministries. One can certainly see the ambition, enshrined in the National Security Strategy, of involving the “active participation of the widest cross-section of society”. But one can also see the caginess that is (understandably) endemic in the intelligence community when it comes to sources and methods. These conflicting aims have directly resulted in a fairly ineffective compromise that straddles both worlds and satisfies neither: we are notified of changes to the threat level but not informed very much at all.

The result is a regime that excludes rather than includes: of a discourse of all threat and no explanation. Orwell’s idea in 1984 of using constant war to control the population is a conspiracy theorists’ favourite. In this situation, one can understand why resentment builds. 

More thought must go into what the terrorism threat levels are meant to achieve, who they are targeted at, and how this can be best done. It is a good idea to honestly communicate about terrorism as risk of many to be managed. It is a better idea to do this in a way that doesn’t suggest that people will accept, prima facie, whatever they are told about terrorism without wondering about evidence.

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