The failures of internment, segregation by faith schools and why the young don’t vote

Peter Wilby's First Thoughts.

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Across western Europe in the 1970s and 1980s, the IRA, Spain’s Basque separatists, Italy’s Red Brigades, West Germany’s Baader-Meinhof gang and several others mounted many more terrorist attacks, leading to many more casualties, than Islamists have achieved since 2001.

However, recent outrages in London and Manchester, as well as those in Paris, Nice, Berlin and elsewhere, feel more personally threatening than attacks of previous times. The terrorism of the past was mostly directed against state, military, police or business and financial targets. The 9/11 attacks, horrific though they were, conformed to that pattern. Recent terrorist attacks are directed against leisure targets: pop concerts, holiday resorts, Christmas markets or just places where people eat and drink on a Saturday night. They are intended, like much aerial bombing in the Second World War, to undermine civilian morale.

Yet even the Nazis, who killed 43,000 in the 1940-41 London Blitz alone, had no principled objection to people having a good time. Islamists want above all to stop ordinary folk, including children, having fun. That is what makes the attacks seem peculiarly threatening to all of us.

Extreme views

Leave aside the civil liberties and human rights arguments. You do not need to be a “politically correct” liberal to believe that internment, shutting mosques, banning burkas, outlawing advocacy of sharia law and other ideas now washing around would be counterproductive.

Internment, introduced in Northern Ireland in 1971, acted as a recruiting sergeant for the IRA. It made many members of working-class Irish Catholic communities, in mainland cities as well as Belfast and Londonderry, reluctant to help the authorities even if they didn’t support violence. The British state was already struggling to get their co-operation. Many, perhaps most, Irish Catholic families had at least one member (living or dead) who once clashed with British troops or, in the 1920s, the Black and Tans, special constables recruited largely from recently demobbed soldiers.

Though conflict between Christians and Muslims goes back centuries, history did not leave such personal scars among most Muslims who migrated here. Muslims are willing, and sometimes eager, to inform on their co-religionists in a way that many Irish Catholics weren’t. That is one reason why numerous terrorist plots were foiled and others perhaps ought to have been. Similar objections apply to most other proposals. Promising “tough” action is like a gateway drug. It will fail to achieve the desired results, and the next step is to find something stronger.

Algorithm of the night

One should be sceptical of newspapers’ reports on the iniquities of social media giants because Facebook and Google have stolen most of their advertising. And I accept that I understand little about the internet’s workings, which is why I am not as rich as Mark Zuckerberg. But it seems that these companies can develop algorithms that identify precisely which consumers will buy particular goods and services. Why, then, can’t they develop algorithms that reliably block videos showing how to make bombs or how to execute a kaffir? The right to free speech does not include the right to glorify murder or explain how to go about it. Perhaps a video of the local comprehensive’s production of Macbeth would be accidentally removed. I could live with that.

Separate lives

Theresa May wants us to stop living “in a series of separated, segregated communities”. Yet as the late Darcus Howe never tired of pointing out in these pages, segregation developed because when black and brown people moved into an area, whites got the hell out. What does May want exactly? Are white families to be forcibly moved from Leamington Spa to the Springfield and Sparkbrook wards in Birmingham, and from Virginia Water in Surrey to Tower Hamlets? Or are potential jihadists to be housed in Chelsea? And if May is worried about segregation in schooling, why does she, at the behest of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, propose to remove the cap that prevents new state schools (“free schools”) from selecting 50 per cent of their entrants by faith?

Tsunami time

Since I regarded the Paris climate deal as too little, too late, I shall not lose sleep over Donald Trump’s decision to pull out. If governments intend to achieve the agreement’s stated aim – to keep global temperatures below 2C above pre-industrial levels – why do so many, including our own, still support drilling for oil and fracking for gas? Serious attempts to stop global warming will happen only when a monstrous and unprecedented weather event – a tsunami that wipes out London, say, or a tornado that hits Davos during the World Economic Forum – directly affects the global rich. All polluting fuels will then be banned and every competent scientist ordered to find some technological fix to ameliorate the damage already done to the climate.

Get out the vote

So did Jeremy get the youth vote out? If he did, it was a miracle. The problem is not just that young people are apathetic about elections but also that party activists find them, compared with the older generation, less rewarding to canvass. When, many years ago, I canvassed regularly for Labour, under-25s were rarely at their registered addresses (many had moved months if not years before) and, if at home, had plans for a party, a film or “a drink with my mates”. The over-65s, always at home, were thrilled if you offered a lift to the polling station, a car ride then being a rare treat, worth dressing up for specially. I wasn’t always sure they intended to vote Labour but party affiliations were not then shown on ballot papers and I kept repeating our candidate’s name until they entered the polling station. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article appears in the 08 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Election special