Labour's civil liberties deal has been broken

It's amazing how we've given police and the security services the benefit of the doubt

This piece below which I wrote for the Standard pretty much covers my thoughts on the "Crevice" fertiliser plot, although overnight I have been amazed by some of the reaction. I think it's amazing how we have given the police, MI5 and the government the benefit of the doubt. Of course it is right that a determined and lucky bomber will always get through, but these people are paid to protect us from harm. The New Labour deal on civil liberties was that we gave up certain rights in return for security. Now one side of the contract has been broken.

From the Evening Standard:

This was supposed to be the big one: the trial that finally proved to the faint-hearts and doubters that Britain faced a serious terrorist threat. As a bonus, it would also show that the police and the security service were doing a fine job of protecting us from harm. At least that was the idea.

The operation know as “Crevice” was, on the face of it, a triumph of preventative detective work. Journalists covering security issues at the time were told that when the plotters came to court, our understanding of Islamic militancy in Britain would be completely transformed.

Then came 7/7 and everything changed. That terrible morning not only wiped out 52 innocent lives, but also blew a devastating hole in the reputation of the country's anti-terrorist professionals. The trial that finally ended yesterday with life sentences for five British Muslims has indeed proved that no one in the security apparatus was bluffing about the level of the threat. But instead the question now is whether the security service - and their political masters - have learnt the lessons of the failures that allowed 7/7 to take place. For most seriously of all, the full extent of the links between the Crevice plot and the 7/7 bombers have finally been revealed.

We cannot know whether the security services have learnt the lessons of their mistakes in the absence of a full inquiry into the bombings. That is what is now being called for by the opposition parties, survivors of 7/7 and the families of the victims. John Reid's stonewalling on this question is, as Conservative home affairs spokesman David Davis has said, “indefensible”. Nor is Reid's excuse that any inquiry would have to wait until after the end of the trial of the accused 21/7 bombers credible: such legal and operational excuses for will always be possible against a backdrop of ongoing trial and intelligence operations. An inquiry would also be welcomed by many within the Muslim communities who felt the authorities were too slow in waking up to the growing problem of militancy among young people.

Most important, an inquiry would tell us whether 7/7 could have been prevented, and whether the failings of the security service have been addressed, as is implied by ministers, by the additonal funds that have been funnelled into it and other parts of the security apparatus since the London attacks.

The line briefed by intelligence service sources after the London terror attacks was they were “unsighted” and could not be expected to follow every lead of every potential terror plot. Even when stories emerged of the links between some of the 7/7 bombers and the Crevice plotters, they said resources were limited and it was not possible to trace each link in an increasingly intricate British terror network.

It is true that, with the resources available to them in 2003-04, the security service could not follow every single lead. But it is entirely legitimate to question why they did not act against Mohammad Sidique Khan, the man who went on to become the ringleader of the London suicide bombers, when he crossed their radar in February 2004. It is a question not simply of resources, but of operational decisions about the "threshold" for pursuing a given suspect. In Khan's case, even though he had clear links to the would-be Crevice terrorists, he was judged not to pose a risk himself.
If that was an error of judgment as well as a resource problem, then it could happen again.

The Intelligence and Security Committee decided last year that the decision to give this part of the investigation greater priority was understandable.
The terrible truth is that the police and MI5 were barely running to catch up when the bombs went off in July 2005. What both organisations will now admit is that for years after the al-Qaeda suicide attacks on America, they were looking in completely the wrong direction.

All eyes, including those of the media, were focused on terrorists from abroad and North Africa in particular. Vast amounts of time and money were spent on detention without trial and control orders aimed at dissident Algerians and Libyans whose activities were focused on their home countries and Chechnya. Meanwhile, journalists were briefed by security sources that firebrand preachers such as Abu Hamza, the hook-handed imam of Finsbury Park mosque and Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed of the now-banned al-Muhajiroun, were merely jokers and buffoons.

The wake-up call came in April 2003, when two young British Muslims, Omar Sharif and Asif Hanif, were identified as the suicide bombers who attack a Tel Aviv seafront bar. But by then it was too late. Sharif was linked to Sheikh Omar and his organisation, but still the authorities were in collective denial. It took another year to turn around the juggernaut and focus attention on the homegrown threat.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that Omar Khyam was also an al-Muhajiroun recruit. Such was the level of denial, however, that senior police officers were briefing in the immediate aftermath of 7/7 that they were examining a possible North African connection. Of all the commentators during the frenzy that followed the bombings, only the former Metropolitan Police commissioner Sir John Stevens called it correctly by predicting that the culprits would turn out to be British.

The Blair government has also been slow to wake to the full scale of radicalism and discontent among Britain's Muslim youth - even though the Prime Minister himself promised the “rules of the game have changed”.

Meanwhile the Leader of the House, Jack Straw, reinvented himself last October as the champion of liberal values went he took a stand against the full-face veil. Now, in an article for the foreign affairs think tank Chatham House, he has argued that this country had to develop a “British story”, to counter extremism. And yet it was Straw who, as Home Secretary, established the ill-judged alliance with the Muslim Council of Britain, which utterly failed to alert ministers to the true nature of the problem.
When Straw took over at the Foreign Office, much of the responsibility for community cohesion went with him, a historic error in the fight against extremism.

However, like Gordon Brown, he is right to identify the battle for hearts and minds as the only way forward now. Brown's new cultural Cold War is at yet undefined. But a good place to begin, the moment he becomes Prime Minister, would be to overturn John Reid's decision not to launch an inquiry into 7/7. There could be no better way of beginning to find common ground on the most urgent issue of our times - and thus begin a new chapter in the "British story".

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Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear