UK Challenge: Depoliticizing Security

Posted: May 18, 2010 in HSToday
Tags: , , , , ,

My latest for HSToday, looking at the British election fall-out from a counter-terrorism perspective (following my earlier post about the manifestos). This subject hopefully will get more interesting, rather than continue to fester as it is at the moment with no new ideas. Though I suppose I need to start to developing some good new ones too. Any thoughts or reactions appreciated as ever.

UK Challenge: Depoliticizing Security

by Raffaello Pantucci

Monday, 17 May 2010

New coalition government must work to forge consensus on terror.

While much of the UK has been focused on what the implications will be of the first coalition government since the Second World War, the question of what this means for counter-terrorism policy has largely slipped under the radar. Last time there was a political handover like this in Britain; terrorists attempted an attack, immediately setting the headlines for the new government.

Fortunately, so far, Britain has been spared a repeat of the attempted car bombings in London and Glasgow in late June 2007. However, the new coalition Conservative-Liberal government wasted no time in taking the pulse of the current threat level during the maiden meeting of the newly formed National Security Council. According to the official Downing Street report, during the session the Prime Minister “received briefings on the political and military situation in Afghanistan, including from his new National Security Adviser, Sir Peter Ricketts and from the Chief of the Defence Staff. The Prime Minister was then updated on the wider UK security situation.”

Unlike the United States, the UK has only now created a special cabinet group which will become the decision-making focus of British security strategy and interests. The appointment of a senior civil servant, Sir Peter Ricketts, to the post of National Security Adviser was seen as a slight surprise, given the belief that this remit might be handed to Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, who served as security adviser in the shadow Conservative cabinet. Ricketts, a long-time apolitical civil servant, has previously served as UK Ambassador to NATO, Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) and most recently as Permanent Under Secretary at the Foreign Office. Dame Neville-Jones, another former Chairman of the JIC, instead assumed the role of Minister for Security.

The split appointment likely reflects the desire to impose some semblance of de-politicization to the area of security, which has otherwise largely been taken over by the Conservative side of the coalition. Cameron stalwarts William Hague at the Foreign Office and Liam Fox at Defence retain the roles they had shadowed. Other key security appointments include Theresa May to become Home Secretary; Conservative heavy-weight Ken Clarke to the role of Justice Minister and Eric Pickles to the role of running the Department for Communities and Local Government. A few Liberals received lower ranking appointments in relevant ministries, though no Liberals have been sent to the Home Office at all. Conservative Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, the daughter of Pakistani migrants, was appointed to be Minister without Portfolio and Chairman of the Conservative Party, making her the first female Muslim to serve in Britain’s cabinet.

At the same time this almost complete Conservative domination of security policy (and counter-terrorism policy in particular) does not particularly cast a light on what changes might be on the way under the new administration. In an election that was largely dominated by domestic economic issues and the novelty of televised leadership debates, there was almost no mention of counter-terrorism policy. In their href=”http://icsr.info/blog/The-Big-Three-Counter-Terrorism-Strategies “>manifestoes none of the three main parties identified any great changes in strategy though the Conservatives did say that they would ban Hizb-ut-Tahrir – following through on a threat first made by Prime Minister Blair in the wake of the July 2005 London bombings.

This does not necessarily presage some sort of grand agreement. As James Brandon of the Quilliam Foundation counter-radicalization think tank put it, “Over the past few years it has been clear that there are significant policy differences between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats when it comes to the detail of counter-extremism strategy. Under a coalition government compromises will no doubt have to be made on both sides – although at the moment it is anyone’s guess as to what exactly these will be.”

Some of these guesses were answered in the grand agreement document that the coalition government published which highlighted a list of “civil liberties” which they felt had been suppressed under Labour. Key amongst these was the announcement of a “Freedom or Great Repeal Bill” which would scrap the ID cards scheme, re-establish the “protection of historic freedoms through the defence of trial by jury,” ensure anti-terrorism legislation was not misused, and improve regulation of internet, email and CCTV storage. While both parties raised the question of what to do about controversial control orders in their manifesto’s, there is no mention of it here suggesting the possibility of future clashes over the topic. Overall there is an interesting confluence in opinion between the two parties appears to have been found around the issue of infringements in civil liberties that many perceive were allowed under the previous government in the pursuit of security in the UK.

Looking back further, the Conservative party had in the past proposed to  “conduct a review of the Government’s Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) Strategy, which is supposed to stop vulnerable people from becoming terrorists but which has been accused of spying on innocent Muslims.” The PVE strategy is intended to be the cornerstone of the long-term British answer to countering terrorism, but it has of late lagged.. It remains unclear how the new coalition government will take this forwards, though discussions with officials in the UK in the year before the election highlighted a general sense that a change of government was imminent and that some accounting of how counter-terrorism money was being spent was highly likely.

For the US the major concern is no doubt the perceived anti-Americanism of the Liberal Democrat party. This has in fact been overplayed, and in counter-terrorism terms, the biggest concern was likely to be the threatened Liberal Democrat “full judicial inquiry into allegations of British complicity in torture and state kidnapping.” The complete lack of any mention of it thus far is not necessarily indicative of the fact that it is going to go away, but it is clear that the Liberal Democrats are simply not going to have the upper hand when it comes to governing counter-terrorism policy and its pursuit.

Beyond counter-terrorism, Europe remains one of the major sticking points in the coalition, with a deeply Euro-skeptic wing of the Conservative party unlikely to sit well with the pro-European Liberal Democrat party. For an America that is eager to see Europe stand strong together, this may prove an irritant, but the strategic centrality of the Anglo-American “special relationship” (especially to the Conservative Party) means that there is unlikely to be any major shift in transatlantic relations between the US and UK.

Raff Pantucci is a UK corrspondent for HSToday.us and frequent contributor to Homeland Security Today magazine.

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