Our history has made Britons nice. Terror means we must learn to be nasty
Britain is a soft target for terrorism because we Britons are too nice. This isn’t a criticism: it’s what makes the country such a wonderful place to live. But we are culturally ill-equipped to deal with conspiracies and extremists. The problem is that the only way to beat terrorists is to change our way of life – but that is exactly what the buggers want. So, we do as little as possible. And being British, we regard doing as little as possible as a sort of victory.
Of course, we shouldn’t downplay what governments have done to fight jihadism. Since 2000 we’ve bombed the Middle East and averaged one new anti-terror law every two years.
But the first job of the state is to protect us, and the failure of the state is plain to see: five dead in Westminster, 22 dead in Manchester, seven dead in London Bridge. Worse: time after time after time it is discovered that the killers were known to the authorities. One of the London Bridge terrorists, Khuram Butt, appeared in a Channel 4 documentary about extremism; he prayed as a jihadi-style flag was unfurled in Regent’s Park.
Why not? Because this is Britain. Our legal system, for starters, forbids it. We have due process: people have a right to know the charge and to face a judge. The state has no right to take away our citizenship. Here we practise the presumption of innocence. We are tried by our peers.
There is a liberal school of thought that it is laws that define a country, and that since Magna Carta we’ve seen a slow balancing of power away from the state and towards the individual. The debate about arming the police, for instance, goes back to the 19th century, when they were first given blue uniforms so as not to look like soldiers – and had to wear them even off duty, to allay fears that they were spying on the public.
Culture defines our response to religious extremism, too. Liberal Britain does not like women covering their faces, but nor will it tell a woman what to wear. And you won’t struggle to find a vicar willing to defend conservative Islam. For the type of Christianity we practise in Britain might be our greatest glory and our greatest weakness. Yes, Christianity has a history of violence and intolerance.
But since at least the 19th century, Christians have reconciled themselves to science, secularism and tolerance – and this has shaped our society, even if atheists refuse to believe it. Our heroes in modern Britain are cops and medics, not killers. We are kind even to dangerous prisoners. When zookeepers shoot an ape to protect a child, half the public takes the side of the ape.
More seriously, the British operate an immigration policy dictated by the heart, not the head. At Catholic Mass a couple of weeks ago, I read the election letter by the bishops of England and Wales that advised us to consider which parties have a migration policy that is “respectful of the unity of marriage and family life”. That’s a decent, Christian notion your Excellencies. But it’s also naive.
The right to a family life has permitted thousands of conservative Muslims to migrate to Britain via marriage, to a country that requires little integration. There have been fraudulent unions, too. Ask the East European girls of Govanhill, Glasgow, forced into sham marriages with men, mainly from Pakistan, who want residency here.
I am not saying, as some do, that the problem begins and ends with Islam. On the contrary, there’s so much we Christians can learn from Muslims about family, charity, hard work and having some fixed notion of who we really are. Christians, by contrast, have talked ourselves out of our own convictions. We cannot tell newcomers how to be British because we’re not 100 per cent sure what being British means anymore. Although the liberal establishment is damn sure it doesn’t involve telling other people to be British.
Well, maybe that has to change. Just as, maybe, we’ll have to arrest a lot more people. The West has faced a terror wave before, from the late Sixties to the early Nineties. The good news is that we won. The bad news is that the state did accrue power, the innocent were spied on, we did betray our liberal traditions.
The Troubles ended not because, as Jeremy Corbyn suggests, we sat down to tea with the IRA but because the British state suppressed it – and with methods that defy our cosy assumption that Britishness is ultimately about leaving others be. No one wants to go through that again. But you don’t fight a war without the expectation that your way of life will change. If we want to win, it must.