Will Tory Homeland Security make us safer?

Alex Holland
17 April 2010

For most people there must be few things more despicable than playing political football with national security.

You’d imagine no party would risk this, especially the Conservatives, who see defence as one of their strongest areas.

The main national security policy in their new manifesto is to create a UK Homeland Military Command.

But this policy, superficially about increasing the safety of British subjects, could very well do the reverse, and seems to be primarily motivated by an attempt to cynically score points against the government.

In 2009, Conservative Shadow Security Minister Baroness Pauline Neville-Jones declared that if elected, the Conservatives would seek to involve the military more in domestic counter-terrorism.

In the words of the Baroness, a UK Homeland Military Command would not only get the armed forces to help the emergency services deal with the aftermath of attacks, but would assist the police "in meeting the terrorists head on". 
The Baroness has repeatedly said she believes a Mumbai-style attack could do similar damage in the UK, unless there is an increase of military intervention in UK home affairs.

This effectively means the Baroness is arguing the UK's current ability to respond to such an attack is comparable with that of Mumbai in 2008, if not weaker.

This is a ludicrous analysis for the Conservatives’ senior security spokesperson to make on this issue, and is definitely not one on which to base policy and the safety of British lives.

The Mumbai attacks were a horror that rightly drew sympathy from around the world. Pundits at the time heralded a new face to terrorism – relatively low-tech and cheap for the attackers, yet high-impact in terms of lives lost and targets hit.

However, what made Mumbai's casualty level so devastating was not primarily the weapons or techniques the attackers used. What led to such a high number of deaths was the inability of the Indian security services to react to the assault.

Amongst numerous alleged failings, the most infamous is that it took ten hours from the beginning of the attacks for Indian commandos to respond and 72 hours to finally resolve the situation.

When working in Delhi in 2007 I came to know serving Black Kat commandos who had to operate in such situations. They were brave, skilled and committed to their duties. However it was also clear they lacked anything like the proportional level of numbers, training or support to act as effectively as their British equivalents could in similar scenarios.

To give an example, let's put ourselves in Neville-Jones’ head and imagine a Mumbai-style blitz happening at a high-profile London hotel. Picture a group of determined attackers speeding up the Thames and storming the Ritz. Does Baroness Neville-Jones seriously imagine it would take the Met's armed response units as long as ten hours to begin to respond to such an attack?

As someone who grew up in Brixton I can say the police would be much quicker than that. Due to the crime and social damage caused by the previous Conservative government my neighbourhood was blighted by gun violence. Once an armed man was cornered outside my bedroom window. The police arrived amazingly fast and, unable to safely take the man into the custody, he was shot dead.

Thankfully crime has dropped significantly since Labour came to power. Even so, sustained government investment and training for armed police has meant they are maintained at a high state of readiness for gun crime or terrorism.

If anybody had the same desire to ‘do a Mumbai’ in the UK they would find it infinitely harder for this reason alone. They would also have to contend with much more extensive police surveillance as well as command and control in the UK than existed in India in 2008.

For Neville-Jones to imply that Britain is as vulnerable as India was to the damage of a Mumbai-style attack is a grossly irresponsible misrepresentation of the true nature of the threats facing the UK.

In general the whole Conservative approach to this vital matter appears sloppy. For example their green paper on the topic has spelling mistakes on the contents list and the Baroness herself is prone to some inspired Freudian slips on security issues such as saying Georgia invaded Russia in 2008:

Even having said that, one would think that with her time spent as Chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee and as a British diplomat in Asia she wouldn't be so naive about the respective counter terrorist capabilities of countries like India and the UK.

One gets the feeling that rather than being woefully unaware of the actual dangers the UK faces she and the Conservatives are up to something else –trying to score cheap points against Labour by claiming the government has left the UK unprepared for a threat that is nowhere near as bad as the Conservatives make out.

This kickabout politics might not be so serious were the implications for our safety not involved. The desire to more actively involve the military in UK domestic counter-terrorism, especially in urban settings, is a radical and potentially very dangerous move.

While the SAS are a world class 'final option' for killing hostage-takers, their encounters in the urban battleground of Northern Ireland left a number of civilians dead.

One of the recognised strengths of British counter terrorism is the benefit of its muscular policing approaching rather than a more French-in-Algeria fighting stance.

Tragic instances like the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes at my local tube, Stockwell, would only be more likely if soldiers are deployed into sensitive urban settings.

So please Baroness Neville-Jones, put the football away and stop playing politics with our country's safety.

This post originally appeared on the Samosa. Alex Holland is Associate Editor of The Samosa, defence reporter and Brixton Hill Labour Council Candidate.

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