Gordon Brown’s tyranny of security

What life, liberty and politics would be like if he were to become prime minister.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

All those commentators who bang on about how much more open, honest and real British politics would be under Prime Minister Gordon Brown than it has been under Prime Minister Tony Blair must have got a rude awakening listening to Brown’s speech yesterday.

The chancellor talked about terrorism to the Royal United Services Institute in London, in what some referred to as a ‘seminal [moment] in the Gordon Brown for Prime Minister stakes’ (1). If that is true, then we can expect public life and debate to become even more shallow and staid if he ever gets the top job. Brown wants to go a step further than Blair in ratcheting up fear of an overblown terror threat and reorganising British politics and society around suspicion and security. In short, he plans to apply the accountant’s instinctive caution to life, liberty and politics in the twenty-first century, which is likely to make even the Blair era look like a hotbed of political principle.

The bits of Brown’s speech that were leaked to the press before he delivered it suggested he was going to call for a ‘culture war’ to defeat terrorism. Yes, he was going to reiterate New Labour’s argument that we need stringent security measures to protect against terrorism, but he was also going to call for a ‘war of words’, in politics, culture and literature, that would defeat the terror threat by winning over the ‘hearts and minds’ of young Muslims (2). This suggested at least a recognition on the part of Brown’s people that the radicalisation of some Western-born or Western-educated Muslims points to problems within Western society as much as it suggests a big bad threat from without. But in the event, Brown was unable to say what Western values were worth arguing the toss over, and in fact ended up undermining some of them – including liberty and democracy.

‘It is by power of argument, by debate and by dialogue that we will, in the long term, expose and defeat this extremist threat’, said Brown. He said society should engage in a ‘global battle for hearts and minds, and that will mean discussion…through media, culture, arts and literature’. Indeed, he said we can no longer rely on ‘old methods of censorship’ but instead must confront the terrorists’ ideas ‘head on’ (3). Yet in the next breath he called for censorship. He said the Anti-Terrorism Bill, due to be debated by MPs in the House of Commons this week, must retain its section outlawing the ‘glorification’ or ‘condoning’ of acts of terrorism, because such words ‘shock the country’ and might coax impressionable people to ‘emulate’ acts of terror. He cited as an example the ‘recent incidents in London with posters glorifying terrorism’ when clearly ‘boundaries [were] crossed’ – referring to the radical Islamic demo last week at which some weird-beards held banners saying ‘Behead those who insult Islam’ and one guy dressed up as a suicide bomber (but apologised for it later) (4). So Brown says Britain needs to confront the radicals through argument and debate but then turns and runs from an argument with a handful of saps playing fancy-dress terrorists for the cameras.

Brown repeated the word ‘values’ throughout his speech, but didn’t say what those values are. Here, he used the v-word as a ‘hurrah word’, in author Jamie Whyte’s phrase, ‘words so revered and sacramental that any sentence in which they appear is perceived as axiomatic’; words that ‘are injected unexamined into political speeches [so that] the powerful can roll them around their mouths with counterfeit passion’ (5). The fact the Brown should say ‘values’ so often without explaining what those values are only exposes his dearth of values; the fact that he constantly used ‘values’ in the plural suggests there is no singular or overarching value attached to Britishness today; and the fact that he wants new laws to protect these ‘values’ against attacks by the likes of Abu Hamza, some protesters and others suggests that they must be flimsy indeed. Brown’s use of the word ‘values’ cannot be broken down into a list of definable values; rather it is an empty phrase, intended to symbolise goodness or virtue or something.

The only discernible value in Brown’s speech was security. He said the word 61 times. Indeed, he outlined his vision for reorganising the whole of British politics and society around the security agenda. He said that since 9/11, and more recently 7/7, his Treasury had become a ‘department of security’, claiming that ‘I have found myself immersed in measures designed to cut off the sources of terrorist finance’ (surely a task that the chancellor of the exchequer, the man in charge of Britain’s economy, could have designated to a more junior minister?). He also argued that it is ‘not just the Treasury that is a department of security’: ‘So too is almost every other department. We used to think national security was about Home Office policy, and international security about defence policy and foreign affairs. Now we find that national and international action for security issues dominate decisions in transport, energy, immigration and extend to social security and health, and of course in the Treasury, so that coordinating the way we address international terrorism will be a central feature of the coming spending review’.

Even Blair has not gone this far in extending the war on terror into every facet of British political life. In Brown’s view, everything from the organisation of the economy to the distribution of social security to the provision of health must be geared around protecting the nation from terrorists; he talks about the role of social security officials in keeping an eye out for individuals using dodgy identities and the role of health officials in being constantly on alert for some terrible act of terror. Under Brown the war on terror would be more than bloody military interventions abroad and clampdowns on liberty at home, as it has been under Blair’s tenure; it would become the organising principle of British society. Suspicion would be sewn into the fabric of British life, as all state officials would be charged with keeping a watch for evil terrorists. Brown started out saying he would take a culture war to the terrorists; he ended up articulating a vision of Britain battening down the hatches against some bombers with bad intentions and on permanent high alert for evildoers in our midst.

When it comes to justifying this tyranny of security, Brown showed himself to be as adept as Blair at using fear rather than facts. He described the terror threat posed by al-Qaeda as being akin to the threat posed by the Nazis in the 1930s and 40s: ‘Let us be clear: we face enemies that not only have a hatred of the policies we pursue, but a hatred of our very existence. And between justice and evil, humanity and barbarism, no one should be impartial, neutral or disengaged, but engaged, resolute and solid for justice.’ He also talked up the ‘potential threat of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons’ in the hands of such terrorists.

In reality, al-Qaeda is a ragbag of nihilists and wannabe jihadists who can occasionally launch sporadic attacks (a handful of them in the West, but mainly in unstable parts of the East) but cannot do very much more than that. And numerous experts on terrorism doubt whether a) al-Qaeda has access to chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons and b) whether it could effectively use them even if it had them. As one American researcher has said, in the hands of such unprofessional and disorganised outfits these weapons would be better defined as ‘weapons of minimum destruction’ and would be unlikely to cause much damage (6). Brown’s claim that a potentially nuke-armed organisation called al-Qaeda threatens Western civilisation makes Blair’s dodgy dossiers on Saddam and his WMD look almost reasonable.

The pre-speech leaks suggested Brown was going to launch a war of ideas to defeat the terrorists. In fact, he proposed remaking British society to protect against their (vastly exaggerated) threat. He said we need new laws to silence terrorists or their sympathisers, new ID cards to foil them, and a new focus on security in every government department to make sure that they never harm a hair on our heads. This is not a culture war; it is the cultural equivalent of hiding in the trenches and putting up enough sandbags to keep the enemy at a safe distance. Brown’s speech powerfully demonstrated that the real problem today is not a threat from without to our national security, but rather an internal sense of national insecurity – a top-down fear and uncertainty that means the threat of terrorism to society is blown out of all proportion and any Western value worth defending can be sacrificed on the altar of safety.

In this sense, Brown’s speech did indeed send a powerful message to the terrorists: if you want to hurt British society, and get us to change our way of life and write off our civil liberties, then just plant a few homemade bombs on the London Underground.

Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Terror

(1) Brown breaks silence, Snowmail, Channel 4 News, 13 February 2005

(2) Brown vows war on terror funding, BBC News, 10 February 2006

(3) Full text: Brown speech, BBC News, 13 February 2006

(4) See A tale of two demos, by Josie Appleton

(5) Beware of bullshit – there’s a lot of it about, Daily Telegraph, 19 October 2005

(6) See Weapons of Minimum Destruction, by Brendan O’Neill

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today