Politics of failure
The government’s response to the Manchester bombing is to promise further crackdowns on democratic rights, writes Eddie Ford
Following the deplorable bombing in Manchester, the government immediately launched Operation Temperer. In preparation since 2015, and authorised by a Cobra emergency meeting, this measure ostensibly aims to augment and free up armed police officers, so they can help with counter-terror operations. Thus 984 soldiers carrying SA-80 assault rifles, with a further 3,800 on standby, were deployed at various ‘sensitive’ sites and events, transport hubs and other crowded public places. Such a display was purely symbolic in nature, as it is hard to see how it could actually prevent a terrorist attack taking place.
Inevitably, there have been calls to strengthen the already draconian anti-terrorist legislation - more surveillance, house arrests, exclusions from the UK, etc. For example, home secretary Amber Rudd confirmed last week that temporary exclusion orders (TEOs) were now in use - which bar suspected jihadi fighters and others from returning to the UK for up to two years. The excluded person’s travel documents are cancelled, and they will be allowed to return only if they agree to take part in ‘deradicalisation’ programmes, or liaise regularly with police. TEOs were introduced two years ago as part of the 2015 Counter-Terrorism and Security Act and, it seems, have only been used once before.
Of course, as almost anyone with actual expertise in this area knows, there is no need for more ‘anti-terrorist’ laws - with the current legislation you can do almost anything you want. Max Hill QC, the government’s independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, grumbled in the pages of TheDaily Telegraph that “more resources, not new laws, were needed” (May 27). But when has that ever stopped a politician in search of easy popularity? You hastily draw up a badly worded new law and then denounce anybody who opposes it, or appears insufficiently enthusiastic, for being ‘soft on terrorism’. You know how the script goes.
One of the most likely outcomes is increased pressure on websites and internet service providers to remove ‘extremist’ content - an issue that was discussed at the latest G7 meeting in Taormina, Italy. Indeed, it appeared to be about the only thing the various leaders agreed on. The British prime minister claimed to be worried that, as Islamic State loses ground in its heartlands of Iraq and Syria, the threat from extremism is “evolving, rather than disappearing” - with the fight moving from “the battlefield to the internet”.
May, along with others, argued that tech companies should be encouraged to develop tools which automatically identify and remove “harmful material”, and allow them to inform the relevant authorities, so appropriate action can be taken. She also wants industry guidelines to be revised by the big tech companies to make absolutely clear what constitutes such harmful material, with those that fail to do so being “held to account”.
A recent report by the Commons home affairs committee warned that there was “a great deal of evidence” that platforms like Google and Facebook were being used to spread “hate, abuse and extremism” - a trend that “continues to grow at an alarming rate, but it remains unchecked and, even where it is illegal, largely unpoliced”. Previously, the Tories had promised to impose new regulation on the internet. As some of our readers might recall, David Cameron, in his infinite wisdom, talked about banning secure encryption altogether in order to prevent terrorists from eluding the attention of the spooks - a proposal that was obviously technologically and economically illiterate (all online financial transactions use, and depend on, various forms of encryption to prevent a Wild West situation developing).
Anyhow, the G7 issued a final statement about online terrorism (as it were) - focusing on the role of companies like Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon, sometimes referred to collectively by the acronym, ‘Gafa’. While being one of the most important technological achievements in the last decades, the statement noted, the internet has also “proven to be a powerful tool for terrorist purposes”. Therefore ISPs and social media companies must “substantially increase their efforts to address terrorist content”. However, the G7 statement stopped short of calling for measures to penalise firms that failed to meet the necessary requirements, a senior French diplomat at Taormina stating that “the Gafas and the industry need to act quickly to detect and destroy content that calls for terrorism, hatred and radicalisation”.
In the same vein, Brian Lord, a former GCHQ deputy director of intelligence and cyber operations, thinks that the UK government should fine social media companies that fail to take down ‘extremist’ content - arguing that ministers should consider a German-style system, where providers are fined millions of euros for failing to remove “fake news” from their sites. Lord told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that social media is “here to stay and actually it’s just as incumbent on the organisations themselves to adjust their approach to this, as well as the threat of fines”. But, with most of the companies based in the United States, it is far from clear how the Trump administration would view such proposals.
Obviously, all this immediately raises an incredibly difficult and thorny question - what is the definition of ‘extremism’ (let alone ‘fake news’)? As we know, teachers are obliged under the government’s Prevent strategy to report pupils who are showing signs of ‘extremism’ - but what the hell is that? Praying five times a day? Observing Ramadan? Believing that the Koran is literal? People who want to overthrow capitalism or want the working class to rule? Hate the monarchy? We still wait for an answer. With regards to Prevent, Amber Rudd naturally wants to give it a “facelift” - hardly surprising, given that the Commons home affairs committee has called the strategy a “toxic brand”.
Many Muslims, quite understandably, regard Prevent as an intrusive, Big Brother-style system of surveillance that requires teachers to spy on their pupils, as if they were Stasi members. Stories of absurd and misplaced interventions by Prevent are legion. One Muslim student is said to have asked their physics teacher about nuclear fission and got themselves referred to a counter-terrorism team as a result, and a parliamentary inquiry heard - in an example of the law of unintended consequences - that some Muslim parents were afraid of discussing the negative effects of terrorism at home in case their children brought the issue up at school and their conversations were misunderstood.
Prevent aside, one can easily imagine a definition of ‘extremism’ that includes all sorts of people - many of whom are not engaged in acts of violence. We certainly remember the cold war, with MI5 spying on Communist Party members for being ‘extremists’ and ‘foreign agents’, or the McCarthyite blacklist in 1950s Hollywood that denied employment to many actors, screenwriters, directors and musicians or forced then to use pseudonyms if they wanted to get their material performed. When the left and working class movement eventually revives, it is more than possible that such oppressive methods will be used again.
As for Theresa May’s supposed ideological alternatives to terrorism and jihadist extremism, she is busily sponsoring various think-tanks, and other bodies, that promote the ‘British way of life’. Again, what is that meant to be - the British empire or the slave trade? World War I or the capitalist system? Warm beer and old maids bicycling to holy communion? Or is it supposed to be about toleration? Not particularly noticeable, when it comes to British history - quite the opposite actually. What communists in particular do remember, however, is people who have been discriminated against fighting for their rights - the working class, women, gays, etc. Maybe it is the free press? Something else that was fought for in the teeth of ruling class opposition.
There are countless examples of the British establishment’s instinctive hostility to democratic rights and free speech, like wanting to ban the use of the word ‘bloody’ in the 1913 George Bernard Shaw play, Pygmalion, or the Penguin paperback edition of Lady Chatterley’s lover - not the hardback edition, of course, as that was not read by the lower orders. Or Monty Python’s The life of Brian, which was banned for decades by several local councils - only in 2008 did Torbay council finally allow the film to be shown without an X-rating certificate.1
Nothing comes ready-made or handed down from above. There are two Britains, unofficial and official - and the skill of the latter is that it incorporates all these victories from below, which it first resisted ferociously.