Politicians throw around the word ‘terrorism’ too lightly, putting us at risk


Ben Anstey

Recent events in Kenya and Nigeria appear to support the view that terrorism remains as dangerous and prevalent as it seemed after 9/11. Yet this perception relies upon some quite rash assumptions. For example, what is terrorism, actually? If you give this question some serious thought, it becomes apparent that the term is full of confusion. Politicians perpetuate – and exploit – this ambiguity; causing greater harm by diverting attention away from issues which really do need to be addressed.

When people talk of ‘terrorism’ now, they are typically describing non-state subversive groups using violence to spread fear and achieve a specific political aim. That has not always been the case.

The term ‘terrorism’ was (probably) first used on a large scale to refer to actions of the state itself – specifically the Jacobin government of post-revolutionary France. In mid-nineteenth century Europe, it was used to refer to targeted political assassinations. These were far from universally condemned and the label ‘terrorist’ was often worn with pride. It was not until the mid-twentieth century that the term really acquired its modern meaning.

Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram would seem to fit the ‘modern’ concept of terrorism. The attack on the Westgate mall in Nairobi callously used innocent shoppers as instruments in communicating a message about hostilities in neighbouring Somalia. It was chosen as a venue because it was popular with foreign expats and likely to therefore attract the attention of the international media. Similarly, the recent attacks in Nigeria (including the killing of 50 at an agricultural college in Yobe State) were all the more shocking for their choice of targets – defenceless students and children.

The fact that these militants have grossly miscalculated in their choice of methods is clear from the results which have actually come about. Kenya’s government has not announced any plans to withdraw from Somalia. And the Nigerian government is not to be found cowering under desks and inviting Boko Haram to come in and introduce a national Islamist curriculum. Rather, they have responded by bombing Boko Haram camps and making arrests. This demonstrates not just the futility of the actions of the ‘terrorists’, but also a depressing truth about the inevitable response. Violence will be met with further violence.

Responsibility for the ensuing cycle of violence lies not only with the ‘terrorists’, however. A more or less deliberate trend has been the politicians’ lazy use of the word ‘terrorist’ to describe people and phenomena that we all ought to be afraid of – without really understanding who they are or what they might do (let alone why). Groups as dissimilar as the African National Congress, al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, the IRA, Basque separatists, and the pathetic Angry Brigade (a small British anarchist group in the 1970s) all get thrown into the same category.

The coalition government perpetuates the confusion over ‘terrorism’, sometimes for political ends. A couple of weeks ago, the Home Secretary Theresa May warned that an independent Scotland would be more vulnerable to terrorist attacks than if it remained in the United Kingdom.

The real evil here is that this over-simplification and vagueness rules out any chance of constructive dialogue and an examination of underlying grievances – if any. It is Us vs. Them. As Tony Blair put it in 2006: “This is not a clash between civilizations. It is a clash about civilization…a struggle between democracy and violence.”

Some prominent academics suggest that ‘terrorism’ should be abandoned in its entirety. This will not happen in practice, but what would be welcome is a more careful and contextualised approach.

Terrorism should be understood as a tactic – available to any actor – and one or even several acts of terrorism should not necessarily result in attachment of the label ‘terrorist’ and all that that entails. For example, there is much support for the claim that the carpet bombing of Dresden was an act of terrorism, but few would seriously claim that Britain and the United States are ‘terrorist’ states. Where acts of ‘terrorism’ are identified, these should then be examined in their specific contexts – religious, psychological, cultural, political, strategic – and properly and systematically addressed as such, rather than taking the glib approach that all ‘terrorists’ and acts of ‘terrorism’ are the same.

It may be that, in many cases, underlying causes are irrational and cannot be addressed, but the damaging and lazy use of the ‘T’ word ensures that opportunities to prevent further innocent deaths are missed as a result. The distressing and depressing cycle of violence will not be broken in this way.

This article represents the author’s own views and not necessarily those of any organisation with which he is affiliated.

At last, the Scottish Tories seem to be moving in the right devolutionary direction

Nik Darlington 3.02pm

At long last, the Scottish Conservatives are moving in the right direction on devolution.

Nearly one year ago, when commenting on the launch of the unionist Devo Plus group, I wrote that the Tories have to embrace greater devolution if they are to make any meaningful inroads in Scottish politics. Ruth Davidson assumed the leadership with a supposed "line in the sand" and little more than lukewarm acknowledgement of the Scotland Bill (which received Royal Assent last May). That line in the sand had to shift.

Now it seems to be doing so. Ms Davidson is already undertaking an internal review of devolution, though that in itself is only encouraging in part. More so is the recent intervention by Scotland Office minister David Mundell, the sole Tory MP north of the border.

The Scotsman reports today on research compiled by the Centre for Public Policy for the Regions, calling for MSPs to take control of £22 billion worth of extra tax-raising powers. And indeed they should. I’ve long maintained that a Tory revival in Scotland is largely dependent on Holyrood becoming as responsible for raising money as it is for spending it. What’s more, greater tax flexibility could be the making of Scotland.

Mr Mundell appears to have embraced this position and claimed that the pro-union parties will have put a proper devolution offer on the table long before the SNP gets round to spelling out its own case for independence (the amateurish efforts over the past year frankly do not count - or at least Nat supporters should hope so).

Scots will vote to remain in the Union, of that I have little doubt. Yet without a compellingly pro-devolution case put in advance, many shall do so begrudgingly. That is why this is a crucial moment for the Scottish Conservatives. Remember, however Scottish he himself is, David Mundell is merely an ‘English minister’ in the government of an ‘English Prime Minister’. To resonate truly, the party in Scotland must follow his lead.

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Brian Monteith’s ‘speech that Ruth won’t make’ is worth a wry read for Scottish Tories

Nik Darlington 9.53am

Ruth Davidson has been leader of the Scottish Conservative & Unionist party for twelve months, and she is marking it today with a speech.

We have aired differing views about Ms Davidson on these pages. Prior to the leadership election, Craig Barrett wrote a compelling case for her candidacy. Yet I have harboured doubts for some time about her effectiveness in post. A refusal to countenance greater devolution in Scotland weakens her position in the great independence / separation debate; she is also missing an opportunity to craft an appealingly distinctive Tory message.

Moreover, even the early arguments in her favour tended to focus on who she wasn’t (Murdo Fraser) and who was supporting her.

The Scotsman's Brian Monteith has a playful piece in the paper this morning, about “the speech that Ruth won’t make”. The nub of it is devolution, and more of it. Worth reading in full, but here’s an extract:

…until we are honest with ourselves and identify what we are doing wrong, we shall never be able to move forward and be taken in trust by the Scottish public.

So tonight I wish to say a few home truths, not just to you here but to the Scottish people outside.

…we have allowed ourselves to be defined as anti-Scottish. Not because we are, but because it suits them to cast us as outside of society, to de-normalise voting Conservative.

Since becoming leader, I have challenged David Cameron on issues, like supporting a Heathrow third runway, when it has been in Scotland’s interests to do so.  But that is not enough, for we - the oldest political party in Scotland - are still defined as an English party. For us to advance, that must end… We must change and we should recognise in the spirit of Disraeli that to make devolution work requires us to recast Great Britain.

We must, therefore, recognise that the devolution settlement needs a new federal Britain where Scotland stands proudly within the British family. We can reduce the number of politicians, we can reduce the amount of government - call it Devo Simple or Devo Federal - but we must become the advocate of positive change rather than the beleaguered rearguard against inevitable defeat.

Only then, for us, can things get better.

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Scotland’s unionists have to spell out what a ‘No’ vote means for devolution

Nik Darlington 11.25am

Today in Edinburgh, David Cameron, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, meets Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland, to sign off the terms of an independence referendum to be held in autumn 2014.

Some are calling it historic. Not quite. The referendum itself shall be historic. Nonetheless, the occasion demands more gravity than it is being given. Britain’s summer of all summers has neutered the separatist cause; the polls consistently suggest a comfortable victory for the unionists. But with two years until the vote, the dangers remain.

Alistair Darling is right to favour next year. It is just one of the regrettable oversights of the Prime Minister’s negotiations. Though on balance, despite my criticisms of Mr Cameron on the radio yesterday (approx 1hr33’ in), presentationally speaking today has been well-handled. He has largely got what he wanted to achieve, and done so in a way that does not look like an overbearing Englishman - indeed, he has even permitted the appearance of his kowtowing to Mr Salmond.

Yet we are where we are. There shall be a vote, it shall be a straight ‘yes-no’ gunfight, and it shall take place approximately seven hundred years after the Battle of Bannockburn.

Over at the Spectator, Alex Massie worries about the absence of a second question - that outlet for the majority caucus of Scots who desire more devolution within the Union. This was put to me on the radio yesterday and I have to say that I agree. I’m not necessarily in favour of a second question because that could result in a close and indeterminate outcome, and subsequent re-match. However, like Alex, I worry about a unionist campaign that offers a bit more devolution if Scots vote to stay, but doesn’t spell out what it looks like.

Mr Cameron is guilty of making such a fudged offer; his Scottish party leader, Ruth Davidson, is guilty of making little such offer at all, as I have said on these pages before. Refusing to countenance further devolution within the Union is not so much drawing lines in the sand, as putting one’s head in it.

Principally here we’re talking about taxation. Holyrood currently spends money that it hasn’t raised. Until Scottish politicians have to raise taxes as well as spend them, there will be no fiscal impetus for a Tory revival. That much is simple. The Devo Plus campaign ought to be considered.

But putting party concerns aside, now that we have the terms of the referendum campaign, the unionists have to make a case for a better Union settlement once Scots have voted to stay.

Also putting party concerns aside, I do believe that there needs to be a more prominent role for Gordon Brown. Alistair Darling is an excellent choice to front the unionist campaign. Yet if the former Prime Minister desires a central role (and I understand that he does), one should be found. Fraser Nelson dismisses the notion entirely, though for reasons that seem to me discontinuous. Whatever his image down south, Gordon Brown retains a certain following and respect in Scotland.

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Miliband and Cruddas’ English nationalism could be a stroke of genius

Nik Darlington 11.58am

The Telegraph's chief Labour party cheerleader, Mary Riddell, heralded his appointment as one to make David Cameron feel very nervous. The Indy's political editor, Andrew Grice, wrote that it was the act of an “emboldened” Ed Miliband. Gaby Hinsliff, former political editor of the Observer, asked if his radical thinking could be the key to getting his party re-elected.

Jon Cruddas, the enigmatic MP for Dagenham & Rainham, assumed his new role as Labour’s policy chief burdened with heavy expectations and high praise from left, right and centre.

Cruddas’ intellect is undoubted, though his ideology is hard to pin down. Very much a man of the ‘Left’ and of the union movement, and a regular rebel against New Labour, he still managed to maintain a close relationship with the Blair camp and was a prominent supporter of David Miliband’s leadership bid. Though his own thinking is typically more restrained than Lord Glasman’s, he is seen as a torch bearer for ‘Blue Labour’. He has advocated a referendum on EU membership.

He is also frustrated, passionately so, by the emasculation of Labour’s traditional working-class vote, above all in England. And this theme is writ large across Ed Miliband’s speech today on the subject of Scottish independence and the Union.

"We in the Labour Party have been too reluctant to talk about England in recent years. We’ve concentrated on shaping a new politics for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

"But some people in England felt Labour’s attention had turned away. That something was holding us back from celebrating England too. That we were too nervous to talk of English pride and English character. Connecting it to the kind of nationalism that left us ill at ease…

"Now more than ever, as we make the case for the United Kingdom throughout the United Kingdom, we must talk about England."

It might at first glance seem a peculiar strategy, to try to win over the Scots by championing English nationalism. Yet though the independence referendum will take place in Scotland, the most profound battle could be fought south of the border, in English hearts and minds. Polling regularly suggests the English are more open to Scottish separation than the Scots themselves.

It is saying to people in England that the Union is worth campaigning for. That all corners of the United Kingdom have something to gain from being together, rather than apart.

I have always been one of those people, as Mr Miliband describes today, who has found English nationalism a touch unsavoury. On any questionnaire, in particular on immigration cards, I stubbornly insist on being ‘British’, rather than ‘English’ or even from the ‘UK’. As someone with something of a mongrel heritage (aren’t we all?), of English, Scottish, Irish (even Czech) descent, the catch-all convenience of being British has always felt more natural and proud.

But I also believe in the local, the small, and the distinctive. The United Kingdom is nothing if it is not able to celebrate unique histories, cultures, flags and faiths. That includes the English.

Ed Miliband’s speech today is smart on two levels. First, it starts a debate about what it means to be in the Union from an English perspective, for if the English can’t be bothered with it, why should the Scots? Second, it is an attempt by Labour to re-connect with its soul.

And it has Jon Cruddas’ fingerprints all over it. The man isn’t hanging about.

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Can the Scottish Conservatives become the true Tartan Tories?

David Cowan 9.10am

The Conservative party’s dearth of support in Scotland is one of the reasons why we got a hung parliament in 2010.

In 1997, the Conservatives were completely wiped out north of the border, their vote share reduced to 17.5 per cent.

Fourteen years, two leaders and numerous reforms later, 250,000 more voters were lost in May 2011.

The received wisdom is that Margaret Thatcher’s time in office was the fatal blow to popular Scottish Conservatism. However, Iain Gray’s anti-Thatcher rhetoric failed to rouse Labour support earlier this year. Scottish Conservatives are no longer seen as a threat, more an irrelevancy. Alex Salmond, the First Minister, even said that Scots simply "didn’t mind the economic side" of Mrs Thatcher’s policies.

Leadership and personalities have little to do with the predicament. Annabel Goldie had a +10 approval rating, whilst Iain Gray’s was merely +1, yet the Labour party still beat the Tories in the overall vote.

Moreover, it is not wholly a problem of policy or philosophy. There is a large centre-right voting faction in Scotland that deserted the Conservative party in 1997, which has now plumped for either the SNP’s patriotic populism, or the Liberal Democrats’ brand of localism.

The real failing is that the Scottish Conservatives are perceived as the tail end of an overwhelmingly English political party.

Polling carried out by Murdo Fraser, one of the front-runners in the party’s leadership race, revealed that only 6 per cent of Scots think the Scottish Conservatives stand for Scottish issues, whilst 50 per cent think they stand for English issues.

This perception is exacerbated by the Conservative party leading a coalition government in Westminster but with only one MP in Scotland. The Lib Dems’ eleven MPs helps to balance this out but so long as the Conservatives have only a negligible position in Scotland it will be difficult to govern on their own from Westminster.

Of those running for the Scottish Conservative party leadership, no one has grasped this fact more clearly than Murdo Fraser. He has set out a solid argument for why the Scottish Conservatives should become a new centre-right party, with a strong Scottish identity and with localism at its heart. A YouGov poll shows that 33 per cent of Scottish voters (and 43 per cent of young people aged 18-24) support Murdo Fraser’s proposal.

It is not a new suggestion. Prior to 1965,  the Scottish Unionist Party and the Conservative and Unionist Party were two separate entities but taking the same party whip at Westminster. The Scottish Unionists enjoyed over a decade of electoral success.

During this ‘golden age’, the Scottish Unionists even managed to secure an unprecedented majority of the Scottish vote in 1955. It has not since been repeated. The 1964 election saw the Conservatives’ first defeat in Scotland since 1951.

Of course, the 2011 electorate is more politically fragmented than during the 1950s but it is suggestive that the Scottish Conservatives were compromised by the merger in 1965.

According to Tory Hoose, a new blog for Scottish Conservatism, Murdo Fraser currently holds a tight lead of 46 per cent to Ruth Davidson’s 44 per cent. There is still some way to go before polling on 4th November.

The next leader of the Scottish Conservatives will have the daunting challenge of preparing for an independence referendum. The Union cannot be defended if the Unionist campaign is dominated by an English-led government in Westminster. Only a bipartisan campaign - like that which saw off the Alternative Vote in May - can triumph against the SNP.

It would be the perfect launchpad for the real Tartan Tories.

Follow David on Twitter @David_Cowan

Salmond rolls up his sleeves, but where are the Unionists?

Daniel Cowdrill 6.53am

The Scottish Nationalist’s success in the Holyrood elections makes a referendum on Scottish secession from the United Kingdom inevitable. While the polls indicate that the Scottish people are pro the UK, Unionists cannot afford to be complacent. Westminster appears to have ruled out a preemptive referendum, and the Scottish Nationalists have bought themselves time to change Scottish opinion before they call the referendum, the timing of which is in their hands.

Recent polling evidence suggests a slight increase in support for secession, and within the results there is another very worrying trend. The only demographic that is clearly opposed to independence is the 65 and above age bracket.  Contrast this to younger groups. 51% of voters under 24 favour independence with 36% against; 40% of those between 25-34 are in favour with 36% against, and 38% of those between 35-44 are in favour with 36% against. If Salmond can galvanise these groups, this could be the most serious threat to the Union in its three hundred year history.

Barely a few weeks into the new Parliament the First Minister picked an extraordinary fight with the Supreme Court. It erupted last month when the court overturned a judgement by Scotland’s highest court convicting Nat Fraser of murdering his estranged wife, Arlene, following her disappearance in 1998. The role of the UK Supreme Court in Scottish criminal cases that engage human rights law has been a running controversy in Scotland for a while, and Salmond lost no time hitting back at the Supreme Court which he argues has ‘no role to play here’.

Salmond has positioned himself carefully. His gripe isn’t with Strasbourg or the European Convention of Human Rights, it’s with the Supreme Court in London. It would have been nice, he told an interviewer, to hear what Strasbourg thought of the Scottish judgement before it was overturned in the name of the European Convention by the Supreme Court in another UK jurisdiction. Salmond wants more cases to go straight to Strasbourg instead, which he argues is more sympathetic to Scottish justice.

Despite heavy criticism from Lord Hope and the Scottish press, the Nat Fraser case has a firm grip of the Scottish psyche, and may play to Salmond’s advantage. His brazen attack on Lord Hope after the latter’s rebuttal of Salmond’s comments in The Times, runs against the deference usually observed towards members of the judiciary, but is indicative of Salmond’s single-minded determination to drive a wedge between Scotland and the rest of the UK, whatever it takes.

A bet against Salmond on the question of secession may be a good one, but is not without risk.  As First Minister, Salmond can utilise his power to influence public opinion. He also has a good rapport with the Scottish people and has appointed the tried and tested Angus Robertson to oversee the campaign. Unionists, on the other hand, are disparate and isolated from events in Scotland. A pro-Union campaign spearheaded by a Conservative led Government in Westminster is likely to fall on deaf ears north of the border, and there is no obvious figurehead that can take the fight to Salmond in Edinburgh. Labour were decimated in the Holyrood elections and elder figures like Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling, and John Reid, are too associated with the party that were so comprehensively rejected by the Scottish people. Against this ill-prepared opposition, it is not difficult to see how a First Minister as deft as Alex Salmond may conquer all.

As the polls narrow slightly and Salmond rolls up his sleeves, there is an urgent need for those of us who support the United Kingdom to mobilise.

Daniel Cowdrill is assistant to Stronger United - a new think-tank setting out the positive case in favour of the United Kingdom - www.strongerunited.co.uk

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