Boris Johnson. File
Patrick Cockburn, The Independent
The lifeblood of intelligence agencies is threat inflation: exaggerating the gravity of the dangers menacing the public, and calling for harsher laws to cope with them. MI5 director general Ken McCallum did his best to follow this tradition in his annual speech this week, in which he explained the security risks facing Britain.
He spoke of threats from states such as Russia, China and Iran; from far-right activists, terrorists, and the resurgence of violence in Northern Ireland. Alongside these were the more amorphous threats posed by encrypted messaging, online spying, and cyber attacks.
Many of these developments are less threatening than they look. Russia may engage in gangster-type assassinations, such as the poisoning of the Skripals in Salisbury, but the very crudity of its attacks on its critics underlines the limitations of Russian capabilities. President Putin may relish the fact that his country is treated like a superpower — albeit a demonic one — but it has nothing like the power of the Soviet Union. The idea, for instance, that the Kremlin determined the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election was always a myth. Hillary Clinton’s dire campaign is sufficient explanation for Donald Trump’s election.
Demonising the enemy — exaggerating its strengths and its evil intentions — was central to the propaganda directed against the Soviet Union during the first cold war. Much the same kind of threat inflation is happening in the second cold war, except that this time the primary target is China, whose every action is portrayed as part of a bid for world domination. Shady authoritarian allies like Narendra Modi’s India are promoted as allies of the west in “the struggle for democratic values”.
The threat posed by al-Qaeda and Daesh terrorism is likewise given too much importance. Savage though their attacks have been in western Europe, they were in practice vicious publicity stunts aimed at dominating the news agenda. Politically, this sort of “terrorism” only really succeeds if it can provoke an exaggerated response, as 9/11 did when the US went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq in retaliation.
Britain does indeed face increased dangers, but they have little to do with those on the MI5 list. The greatest threats in a post-Brexit Britain stem from the country being a weaker power than it was five years ago, but pretending to be a stronger one. The gap between pretension and reality is masked by slogans, and by concocted culture wars geared to divert public attention from failings and unfulfilled promises.
The success of “Little Englandism” in the referendum of 2016 and the general election in 2019 had predictable results, at home and abroad. Britain outside the EU is inevitably even more dependent on the US than before. Many will ask what is new about our reliance on Washington. Has it not been Britain’s default position since the Suez crisis in 1956, if not the fall of France in 1940?
But this time around, British dependence on the US is even greater, and comes with an extra twist. It is happening at a moment when America is moving to confront China, and to a lesser degree Russia, in a new cold war in which Britain will be a participant but will have very little influence. Theatrical antics — like sending a British destroyer through Russian-controlled waters off Crimea, and dispatching the aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth to the South China Sea — are gestures designed to persuade public opinion at home that Britain once again has a global role.
Most of the negative consequences of leaving the EU have long been obvious. The move undermined the compromise between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland represented by the Good Friday [Belfast] Agreement of 1998. The MI5 chief McCallum, who knows Northern Ireland well, hints at this, saying that “many of the powerful aspirations of the Belfast Agreement remain unfulfilled” while insisting hopefully that “the holding of multiple identities — British, Irish, Northern Irish — is a living reality for many people, in a way it was not in my youth”.
But a Northern Ireland half-in, half-out of the EU has shifted the balance of power between the communities in the province in a way that is likely to lead to a return to political violence. We have already had a taste of this with the rioting in late March and early April, which was the most serious for years. What we have not yet seen is sectarian killings, but they could start at any moment. If they do, then peace in Northern Ireland will swiftly evaporate.