High up with Jaqui Smith at the ippr

Clare Coatman
17 October 2008

Clare Coatman (London, oD): Jacqui Smith's speech on counter-terrorism, which she gave to the ippr on Wednesday, has attracted a fiercely critical response from both the media and the opposition parties (you can read the speech in full here). Chris Huhne described the plans for a central database of all mobile phone and internet traffic as "Orwellian" and Dominic Grieve made a strong case that there is no justification for "such an exponential increase in the powers of the state."

Along with OK's Guy Aitchison, I sat in the audience for the speech which was held in the luxurious offices of the law firm Clifford Chance high up in Canary Wharf. Smith started off with a brief history of terrorism in the UK which she described as having two phases. "Phase one" terrorism purportedly spanned the 70's and 80's and was characterised by clearly focused objectives in specific geographical locations; attacks by non-nationals and the lack of a public narrative or use of religious language. "Phase two" terrorism, or 'new terrorism,' is characterised by domestic recruitment; a public narrative; a well defined ideology often expressed in religious language; the willingness to use WMDs to inflict mass casualties and the use of sophisticated technologies. The lessons learnt from tackling phase one terrorism are now "irrelevant" according to Smith.

Smith spoke about revolutionising our approach to combating terrorism to match the very different form it now takes. But, judging from her speech, it seems to me  government is still more interested in gesture politics, and extending their own powers, than in thinking rationally and effectively about the problem. ID cards are meaningless in a fight where citizens themselves are perpetrating acts of terror; a database of who called who and when is futile in a world where everyone has access to untraceable disposable phones (as anyone who has seen The Sopranos, or The Wire will attest to); and a list of who visited what websites is useless in a world where IP subterfuge 'how to' is available to anyone who knows how to Google.

Jacqui Smith's particular brand of logic surfaced again when she used the significantly higher conviction rate for terrorist offences in recent times to illustrate the scale of the threat. Without denying that terrorism is a serious and sustained threat, it has to be admitted that conviction rates will inevitably shoot up when you radically broaden the definition of 'terrorist activities' and you won't allow a defence lawyer to be present during certain proceedings.

More promising were Smith's proposals for tackling the sources of radicalisation (which she admitted was a new approach) though I think one must be far more careful than the government has been in ensuring you don't criminalise legal behaviour (see for example Guy's recent post on some of the nasties still left in the Counter-Terrorism Bill).

Smith's speech was followed by a Q and A session. The BBC's security correspondent, Frank Gardner, challenged Smith on remarks by Lord West that "another great plot is building up again." This is apparently so great a plot that none of Gardner's sources in the intelligence community had any knowledge of it.  He accused the Government of scare-mogering to which Smith blustered that all plots had the potential to be "great" and Gardner ought to know this. The issue was put to Smith multiple times, but I couldn't discern a clear answer. It was a remarkable exchange which was only brought to an end when Carey Oppenheim, the ippr moderator, called time on the event.

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