Even at times of panic and disaster, we cannot help but be British.
Scenes of horror flooded our TVs this weekend but the clip that will stick with me is Richard Angell, a Labour campaigner who assured a BBC reporter: ‘If me having a gin & tonic with my friends, flirting with handsome men, hanging out with brilliant women is what offends these people so much, I’m going to do it more not less.’ Forced to flee a restaurant where he was dining with friends, Mr Angell’s main concern was that he be allowed back so he could pay his bill.
The inadequates who took out their impotent rage on our big, brash, slightly mad but utterly loveable capital have succeeded only in vindicating Noël Coward: ‘Every Blitz/ Your resistance toughening/ From the Ritz/ To the Anchor and Crown.’
It is in this spirit of British resolve that we must continue with the General Election on Thursday. The timetable of our democracy cannot bend to savages whose names will be forgotten in the time it takes to down a G&T. Election campaigning was suspended on Sunday as a mark of respect for the dead but the next three days should be a debate about the only issue that matters in this election: Keeping ourselves safe.
For while we try to hold our stiff upper lip, we cannot allow Blitz spirit to lull us into complacency. It is not normal for people enjoying a night on the town to be slain in the name of God and we must not allow it to become so. Evil has once again declared war on us and once again we must respond with force — and we must win.
The threat comes not from an abstract, unknowable ‘extremism’ and nor is it as banal as ‘religious fundamentalism’. For one, the Episcopalians have been light on the spree-killing of late; for another, scriptural literalism while dour is hardly an indicator of violent intent. Above all else, you cannot defeat an enemy you refuse to name. The enemy is Islamism, a militant political movement which seeks the submission of non-believers, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, to its brand of Islam. It is an Islam horrific to liberal Muslims around the world and its tactics offend even many dogmatists who share its severe prescriptions.
To pretend that there is no connection to the Qurʾān or the hadith, however, is to inveigle your way out of a difficult conversation. The Muslim holy book and its exegeses, like the scriptures and commentaries of other faiths, contain passages that at first glance appear cruel or wicked. That is why clerics and scholars are tasked with interpreting and teaching the injunctions of these centuries-old texts to those who live in modern, secular societies. Where they fail, and where their offices are usurped by hate preachers, is the gap in which Islamism festers and grows.
The Prime Minister believes the answer lies in depriving Islamists of ‘safe spaces’ online as well as in the physical world. The internet is a powerful propaganda and recruitment tool for jihadists; social media apps the rest of us use to gossip, date, and share family photos allow terrorists to plot their next outrage. Their contempt for the kafir does not extend to our godless, decadent technology.
So when Mrs May says she will pursue ‘international agreements that regulate cyberspace’ her instincts are reasonable but her confidence perhaps excessive. Piecing together a cross-border regulatory framework, to say nothing of addressing the challenge of end-to-end encryption, is a vast, long-term enterprise, if it can ever be achieved. If we go down this path, Mrs May should bear in mind that sweeping incursions on our freedoms in the past, such as New Labour’s attempt to introduce identity cards, failed because the public was not willing to trade hard-won, blood-speckled liberties for vague promises of security.
Away from the digital battlefield, the struggle against Islamism is still waged offline. The Prime Minister warns ‘there is – to be frank – far too much tolerance of extremism in our country. So we need to become far more robust in identifying it and stamping it out – across the public sector and across society’. This is going to entail ‘some difficult and often embarrassing conversations’ and a shift away from ‘separated, segregated communities’. We have heard this speech before, from David Cameron, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. Tough talk is deployed, bold initiatives launched, but progress is agonisingly modest. She is correct that we are too tolerant of Islamism in Britain — in some sections of some Muslims communities, in parts of the media and academia, in shades of political opinion, and in attitudes to be found in public institutions and the third sector.
The government’s counter-extremism strategy, Prevent, will come under more scrutiny, perhaps more than it can bear. Designed to head off radicalisation before it results in violence, the programme’s aims are worthy but it has suffered from resistance within Muslim communities and a pushback from radical teaching unions. Whether Prevent remains or is replaced, cooperation in the task of arresting jihadist tendencies early on is not optional; personal and political disagreement is acceptable, attempts at frustrating a security measure are not. There can be no place in the public sector for anyone who seeks to undermine Prevent or any replacement scheme.
Few have the appetite for it but we need another debate on British values, how we define them, and how we inculcate them. Schools have a role to play in fostering cohesion and providing children with common ideals arising from the best of Western history and thought. We recognise the damage of social and economic disparities from a young age and seek to correct them; we must begin to do the same with the cultural divide. Britain is a multicultural society and it grows and adapts and strengthens with each new wave of migrants. We should be proud of this but while we respect the many diverse cultures that call Britain home we must insist on a distinct British culture, based on liberty, equality, and the rule of law, that unites us all regardless of origin or creed.
The Prime Minister has been accused of politicising the attacks for raising issues like internet regulation and countering extremism, areas where reasonable people disagree. But it is her comments on policing and anti-terrorism policies that deserve most interrogation because they are where the two main parties disagree and where voters will have to decide which approach they prefer. Mrs May has commended the police for neutralising the terrorists within eight minutes of the attack beginning and yet as Home Secretary she oversaw cuts to policing budgets and a sharp increase in prison radicalisation. Jeremy Corbyn has previously expressed reservations about a shoot-to-kill policy such as the one put into force on Saturday night and has a grim history of lending his support and solidarity to Irish and Islamist terrorists. If assassins had descended not on London’s Borough Market but Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market, would Mr Corbyn’s condemnation have been quite so fulsome?
These are hard questions. They will provoke fierce debate. They will prompt answers not everyone will like. These are the questions a country asks itself when it is at war.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org.