As Britain responds to its third terrorist attack in as many months, UK Prime Minister Teresa May has declared that “enough is enough”. Speaking after the London Bridge attack she presented a four-point action plan for preventing future attacks. She called for a battle of ideology to countenance the “evil ideology of Islamist extremism”. She called for the elimination of the safe spaces for that ideology to breed (including regulation of cyberspace). And she proposed a review of the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy to ensure that police have enough powers to prevent future attacks.
These things are beyond question. But the elephant on the Downing Street steps was that the Prime Minister has been directly responsible for counter-terrorism over the past seven years and during that time has presided over massive cuts to the very services that keep British citizens safe during times of emergency. Since 2010 there are 19,000 fewer police on the streets of England and Wales, largely the effect of a 20% cut in funding. Our National Health Service A&E services are in crisis with patient safety at risk as staff struggle to cope. Fire services are also under immense pressure, with funding cuts of around 17% since 2010.
Cuts to police forces aren’t just relevant in terms of our ability to respond to serious emergencies, they also affect our ability to gather and act on intelligence which might help to keep us safe. Britain’s model of neighbourhood policing, for example, is based on police working closely and visibly within communities to have a proper grasp on local issues. It is impossible to say that having more police officers would have prevented the recent attacks, and raising the number of police cannot be assured to prevent future attacks. But fewer police officers undoubtedly puts neighbourhood policing at risk and means less ability to prevent and respond to terrorism.
Words are of little use unless they are matched with action. We need to ensure that our emergency services have the resources necessary to keep us safe. But we also need to address the gaps in our foreign policy which can help to create the very ‘spaces’ for terrorism which the Prime Minister says that she wants to eradicate. Our recent foreign interventions in Libya and the Middle East have contributed to the creation of large ungoverned spaces where alternative state actors like Daesh have stepped in to fill the void.
In Saudi Arabia, the UK government has found a friend which is allegedly responsible for funding and giving ideological backing to extremist groups across the Middle East. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia has been accused of committing human rights violations by bombing civilians. Yet with blinkered determination and hypocrisy, the UK government continues to defend its close relationship with Saudi Arabia, including through the sale of British-made weapons.
The UK government is now being criticised for failing to release a report into terrorism funding. The report, commissioned in 2015 and originally due to be published last year, allegedly focuses on the role of Saudi Arabia in funding terrorist groups. A Home Office spokesperson has said that the report may never be made public because of its sensitive contents. Being tough on terrorism means taking action against those who fund, support or commit acts of terror, even if they are a political ‘friend’.
In the wake of the attacks in Manchester and London we are invited by those on all sides of the political debate to sign up to a narrative which identifies terrorists as ‘evil’. But this simplifies the problem and lets those who are responsible off the hook, explaining away their crimes as something biblical that transcends the actions of human beings. Instead of focusing on the details of who is funding terrorism, and the role of political vacuums in failed states – this narrative gives terrorism false inevitability as if it were sent from hell and absolves us of our responsibility to provide a more nuanced understanding of the causes.
The Conservative Party has put ‘strong and stable leadership’ at the heart of its election campaign. That dutiful mantra which it has regurgitated over the past month as if it has woken from an alcoholic nightmare and can do nothing but vomit words into a ceramic bowl. But strong and stable leadership is about actions, not just words.
The question, surely, firstly, mostly, is where we would like to go before we decide how to get there. But for the Conservative Party, after seven years in government, we have already arrived. Their offer to the British people in the General Election is more of the same. More cuts to public services. More arms sales to Saudi Arabia. More bombing of foreign countries. None of these things will help us prevent and respond to future attacks. The Prime Minister would do well to extend her four-point action plan.