The problem with shamelessly populist governments is knowing when to take them seriously. Yes, the notion that the House of Lords might be transplanted to York grabs headlines, but is it really going to happen? Ditto the ambitions of Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s chief adviser, to turn Whitehall into a scene from an extremely angry cyberpunk novel. It makes good copy. But is it just the noise that regimes of this sort blast forth on every available channel to keep us distracted?
Knee-jerk announcements breed knee-jerk responses. So it is not surprising that the Government’s new anti-terror measures, formally introduced into Parliament today, should already have generated a measure of scorn and scepticism. At the heart of the proposed legislation — a response to the London Bridge attack in November — is the reform of automatic release for terrorist offenders (as well as those convicted of crimes such as rape, manslaughter and causing grievous bodily harm), who will now have to serve at least two-thirds of their sentences. Judges already have the power to delay automatic release, but the new statutory instruments would mandate what is discretionary.
Alongside the proposed tightening of sentencing rules, the Home Office and Ministry of Justice are examining the case for the use of polygraph tests on convicted terrorists (to test the extent of rehabilitation). There will, we are told, be more counter-terrorist specialist probation officers, new national standards for managing terrorist offenders released on licence, and a review of inter-agency collaboration under the Mappa (multi-agency public protection arrangements) system.
Robert Buckland, the Justice Secretary, has already felt compelled to deny that the Government is seeking to politicise the London Bridge tragedy, in which Usman Khan, a convicted terrorist who had been released halfway through his sentence, killed Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones and injured three others. Meanwhile, Diane Abbott, the shadow Home Secretary (yes, still), dismissed the Government’s proposals as evidence of a wasted decade.
Let us be honest: the political class as a whole disgraced itself in the immediate aftermath of the attack. Boris Johnson, the Home Secretary Priti Patel, and Jeremy Corbyn all made elementary factual errors on the complex penal system and legislative history that had made Khan’s release possible. In the midst of the election campaign, it was hard to take either main party seriously on an issue of the highest seriousness.
Deradicalisation is an ideal worth pursuing but equally the stakes are too high for credulity or naivety
Yet that issue, and the profound questions it poses about the rehabilitation of radicalised offenders, has not gone away. So, whatever one feels about the sloganeering instincts of the Government, it is important to address its proposals on their merits.
The objection, for instance, that we have sufficient anti-terror legislation on the books misses the point about the nature of this particular conflict. After the 7/7 attacks, Tony Blair declared: “The rules of the game are changing.” After the Manchester and first London Bridge attacks in 2017, Theresa May announced that “things need to change”. Now it is Johnson’s turn.
One can frame this, as Abbott did, as evidence of sustained failure. Or one can approach violent jihadism with the sophistication and nuance it merits. As the US constitutional historian, Philip Bobbitt, writes in his masterly book, Terror and Consent, the threat is constantly mutating, seeking fresh vulnerabilities, “like new antibiotic-resistant strains of tuberculosis”. This reflects an essential, under-appreciated reality: there is no single, simple response to an enemy whose defining characteristic is militant adaptability. The only certainty about this week’s anti-terror measures is that they will not be the last. Indeed, how could they be?
Deradicalisation, for instance, is unquestionably worth pursuing: the Home Office’s Desistence and Disengagement Programme seeks to usher offenders back into mainstream society, with intensive psychological and pastoral support. Yet the case of Khan, an alumnus of several deradicalisation programmes, is evidence that a committed jihadi can either play the system or be swiftly re-radicalised on release. It is in everyone’s interests that the foot soldiers of radical Islamism be persuaded to change their ways.
The stakes are too high for credulity or naivety. With individuals such as Khan, the state has a duty to err on the side of caution. The prospective use of lie detector tests naturally sets off liberal alarm bells, but it is worth remembering that polygraph evidence has already been used effectively with sex offenders seeking release. Nor does the charge of “politicisation” carry much weight. It is the task of politicians to make laws on behalf of, and in the interests of, those they represent. That is an essential aspect of what constitutes politics.
We live in an age in which the political trade is held in spectacularly low esteem. But that does not make the policy challenges that politicians face any less pressing or complex. It is the instinct of populists to steer clear of the difficult stuff. But when, as in this case, they do hug the cactus of responsible government, let us not be churlish.
This is a conflict that will occupy us for generations, not decades. It is unequivocally welcome that Johnson and co appear to recognise this bleak, enveloping truth.