Woolwich, surveillance, politics and extremism

I wasn’t going to write a post on this initially. Even at this early stage, there will be a million other blog posts on the topic (a million better written blog posts on the topic). But there are some things I felt I could not ignore or not pass comment on. Sometimes the urge to share a perspective on events is too strong not to ignore, or to bury away for fear of being seen to make political points on the back of what is a very tragic and distressing event. Given that, this may come across as a somewhat confused and stumbling post.

Whilst still coming to terms with an event that has shocked everyone, there are already the familiar rumblings about How This Must Not Happen Again. As is to be expected, the talk of legislation has once more reared its head, in particular the Draft Communications Data Bill has been put forward as a necessary step to ensure such events are prevented. Unsurprisingly, this has been proposed by the usual authoritarian figures, principally John Reid, a man who was and remains a keen believer in invasive state power (and is, incidentally, a spokesman for the security industry in the House of Lords – being a director of security firm G4S).

But, as we know, the Draft Communications Data Bill would have made no discernible difference in this case. Both suspects were, apparently, known to the security services before this terrible event took place. They already had their suspicions about these individuals without the power of the Draft Communications Data Bill, so it is unclear how much difference the powers behind the proposed bill would make in this particular case. Even Eric Pickles, not one I am keen to cast in a positive light in normal circumstances, argued that it would have made no difference whatsoever in this case.

Whenever such an event as this takes place, security measures are proposed that, so the politicians claim, will make the streets safer and prevent such tragedies from happening again. But will they really? Will any legislation prevent two individuals armed with knives from going out onto the streets and butchering someone in broad daylight? No, the problem of violent extremism, no matter how it manifests itself, needs to be tackled at a far deeper level than just through simple, flawed legislation.

Whilst it is impossible to know their true motivations, or the sequence of events that led to their decision to launch such a vicious attack, one does wonder how violent extremism in general can be tackled effectively. I should emphasise here that I am not talking about the incident in Woolwich, but rather the broader issue of extremism and marginalisation. Could it be, perhaps, that our political culture is so limited as to push individuals ever closer to the fringes of both the political spectrum and of society in general? Where factors such as poverty probably have a far greater impact, perhaps the way political discourse is framed in this country is also a contributory factor?

Over the past fifty or sixty years (perhaps more than that), our political system has increasingly crowded around the so-called ‘centre-ground’. Despite what many of the ‘loyalists’ on either side might argue, there is very little difference between the main political parties. They have been broadly united on a number of key issues in the recent past, from the invasion of Afghanistan to the need for ‘austerity’. There is very little room for discussion on the margins of these issues (how often do you hear a mainstream politician argue against ‘austerity’, for example, considering the number of esteemed economists who argue it is a damaging economic policy?). For those who take a reasonable position in opposition to these policies (reject ‘austerity’ or oppose foreign wars, both entirely reasonable positions), where is there to go? Given the majority of the media and the political discourse doesn’t really enable reasonable arguments in opposition to the governing orthodoxy (or at least very rarely), it is perhaps no surprise the people shift to the fringes to look for answers. And when you shift to the fringes, where you feel that no-one is listening or representing you, desperation sets in – the desperation to be heard.

In my entire voting life, I have never voted for the Labour Party. The first time I was able to vote was in 1997 and I chose not to vote Labour, predominantly because I felt Blair was, in essence, a Tory wrapped in a red cloak (a very flimsy red cloak at that). However, whilst I am not pre-disposed to voting for Labour, this doesn’t mean to say I would never have considered voting Labour had I lived in an earlier era. Take the Attlee government of the immediate post-war period. If the Labour Party adopted the kind of platform Attlee’s government occupied, I would be more inclined to vote for them as it is a great deal closer to my position than the current Labour Party (although perhaps still not as close as I would like). But this is no longer the party of Attlee and Bevin, and it is highly unlikely ever to be so again. They have, in essence, conceded the battle fought in the 1980s and have accepted neo-liberal economic positions that are at odds with the views and positions espoused by those at the heart of the Attlee government (even though that government was itself not as radical as many would have liked).

So what is left for me? I cannot conceivably vote for any of the major parties, and I am left with the fringes (or the Greens) and I fear that many others across our society equally feel that their views have been marginalised and that there is no-one expressing their own particular point of view. People feel that there is no-one speaking for them and consequently that they have little option but to look to the fringes for the answers they crave. Whether that be radical preachers in mosques, or racist thugs. This isolation from the mainstream and marginalisation is not an excuse for violence, one does not have to resort to violence to express a perspective that public discourse has pushed to the fringes. But one wonders whether the marginalisation itself would be minimised if public discourse wasn’t constrained within such tight boundaries. If, for example, it was seen as reasonable to argue that ‘austerity’ is built on a false premise or that the wars in the Middle East are immoral, perhaps those that hold those reasonable views would not feel so marginalised and consequently pushed to the extremes.

Throughout history, a clustering around the centre-ground has resulted in people being pushed to the extremes in ever-increasing numbers. Where the answers provided by the centre seem inadequate, people begin to look elsewhere for answers. Perhaps we should pause for a minute and ponder whether it is healthy for our society to have otherwise reasonable and sensible positions (moral and political) pushed to the margins. Perhaps, and this seems incredibly naive I accept, perhaps our political debate should be more mature, accepting that there are reasonable views outside the orthodoxy. Of course, broadening public discourse would in no way be a panacea in terms of dealing with extremism or marginalisation but perhaps providing that room for alternative voices in the public debate would be a step towards dealing with the problem

As I said at the beginning, these are at present rather confused and incomplete thoughts. There is no doubt that the murder in Woolwich was a deeply shocking and tragic event. I am not convinced, however, that any amount of legislation or ‘snooping’ will prevent such despicable acts from happening again in the future. The only thing I am sure of is that we need to look at our society, our political culture and our public discourse and see if we can find some answers. We certainly should not look to John Reid and his authoritarian acolytes.