Cameron is doing the Islamic State’s work for it
Our government would rather crack down on its citizens' liberty than enter into a battle of ideas with IS.
Last week, at the UK Conservative Party conference, home secretary Theresa May set out her party’s plan for dealing with the Islamic State (IS). She indicated that the Conservative manifesto for the 2015 General Election would include a renewed commitment to the stalled Communications Data Bill, popularly named the ‘snoopers’ charter’. She also promised widespread crackdowns on hate preachers’ ability to speak in public and an extension of already existing powers to outlaw terrorist groups under the Terrorism Act. The tone of her announcement was apocalyptic. She said that failing to hand greater powers to the state to monitor these groups would be ‘outrageously irresponsible’, and even went so far as to suggest that such a failure could facilitate Islamic State obtaining nuclear weapons.
Her plan was met with criticism. The Labour Party, which has rather set the standard over the past decade for expanding the state’s powers of surveillance, said that the measures were ‘too little, too late’. Of course, only the doyens of New Labour, architects of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2001, which rapidly expanded the remit of state surveillance into citizens’ lives, could see these plans as ‘too little’. Meanwhile, the former Tory attorney general, Dominic Grieve, said that while the measures had ‘merit’ with respect to ‘dealing with group activity’, the imposition of further restrictions on the liberty of individuals could inhibit the longterm ‘battle for values’ against IS.
Of course, Grieve seems to ignore the possibility that the freedom to associate would once have been considered a key democratic freedom in the UK, one which is set to be bulldozed by May’s plans. But he does have a point. We are engaged in a ‘battle of values’ with IS. We are fighting for the minds of the young people who are, in greater and greater numbers, abandoning the UK for war in the Middle East. The depressing part is that the West is proving time and again that it is woefully unable to win any battle over principles. It is now estimated that between 600 and 1,500 British citizens have travelled to Iraq and Syria to fight for IS. In response, our authorities are trying to rebuild our society around IS’s fearmongering propaganda by further limiting freedom and curtailing individual rights. This shows that the UK government is itself caught up in a culture of fear, in which any reasoned and practical engagement with the problem of IS has been replaced by a blind, kneejerk draconianism – one which tries to quell the threat of IS abroad through rampant legal crackdowns on personal freedom at home.
Fear and confusion have consistently characterised Britain’s response to IS. It began in early September with UK prime minister David Cameron’s ludicrous plan to strip UK citizens fighting in Syria of their passports, a plan which was widely denounced as impractical, dangerous and potentially illegal. Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, announced in the same week that the coalition government would not seek to introduce such ‘exclusion powers’. On 3 September, Labour Party leader Ed Miliband rightly pointed out that the coalition was ‘all over the place’ when it came to deciding what to do about IS, albeit that Miliband himself supported the ‘relocation’ of suspected IS fighters.
But this fearful climate has not only influenced the West’s political response – it has also influenced its military one. Little justification or explanation has been provided as to the qualified and slow-moving nature of the West’s military response to IS. Decisions as to whether to arm the Kurdish fighters, or to bomb IS from the air, have consistently felt arbitrary. One US commentator, attending the Conservative Party conference, described the mood regarding IS intervention as ‘ambivalent’. The US justified the commencement of its own aerial campaign by reference to an ‘imminent’ IS attack against US interests, but little evidence has been presented as to the nature of the threat, with some suggesting that it has been exaggerated. President Obama himself admitted that his administration had initially ‘underestimated’ the threat of IS. Similarly, the decision of the UK parliament to assist in the airstrikes seemed to come out of nowhere, and was once again justified on the basis of apocalyptic predictions about the physical danger IS posed to Britain.
In the course of IS’s rapid expansion, two important and related factors have emerged with regards to Britain’s response to this new enemy. The first is that the British state has no idea how to deal with IS, and the second is that it is clearly not afraid to demonstrate its confusion through seemingly arbitrary and authoritarian decision-making. This means that, when it comes to the battle of ideas, IS is pushing at a dangerously open door. If we fail to hold true to some of those basic values which at least purport to underpin British life – democracy, freedom and equality before the law – then the battle with IS will be over before it has truly begun.
Luke Gittos is law editor at spiked, a solicitor practising criminal law and convenor of the London Legal Salon. He will be speaking at the debate Judgement by our peers: is the jury out? and Victims’ law: therapeutic justice or moral crusade? at the Battle of Ideas festival, held at the Barbican in London on 18-19 October. Get tickets here.