Leaving the War on Terror: A Progressive Alternative to Counter-Terrorism Policy

David Miller, Narzanin Massoumi, Ruth Blakeley, Nisha Kapoor

Research output: Book/ReportCommissioned report


Britain’s counter-terrorism policies do not work. They do not work for the British people, who wish to live free of terrorism. They do not work for the various communities in the UK whose experience of counter-terrorism has been one of stigmatisation and criminalisation. And they do not work for the people of the Middle East, South Asia and Africa, whose human rights have been systematically violated in the War on Terror.
Just over two decades ago, the Irish and UK governments signed the Good Friday Agreement, the culmination of a negotiated peace process involving Republican and Loyalist armed groups in Northern Ireland. Principles of human rights, community consent and peace were key to achieving a dramatic reduction in lives lost to political violence. Indeed, by that measure, the Good Friday Agreement was the most successful instrument of counter-terrorism policy-making in recent history.
But the lessons of this success were not registered. The year after the Agreement was signed, Tony Blair’s government introduced the first of the fifteen new Terrorism Acts that have been passed since then in what has become a near-annual parliamentary ritual. Each Act ratcheted up the powers available to the police and intelligence agencies, creating a shadow criminal justice system in which legal principles applicable in other spheres were dispensed with. Alongside this legislative agenda, norms shifted in other ways: the use of surveillance and propaganda was expanded and deepened; military force and extra-judicial killing as counter-terrorist methods became routine; and complicity with torturers was normalised. Intelligence agencies, police forces and the military doubled or tripled their counter-terrorism budgets and held onto this funding even as other sectors were ravaged by austerity measures. The logic of counter-terrorism was spread into every sphere of public life in Britain as workers across government services were expected to become the eyes and ears of national security surveillance. The definition of the threat was itself transformed: no longer simply a matter of individual acts of violence but a much broader danger, understood in terms of clashes of culture, ideology and values, and informed by the Islamophobic principle that Muslim political organisation and dissent should be cast as forms of extremism.
Concerns for human rights, for avoiding the stigmatising and criminalising of communities, or for basing policy on clear statements of goals and evidence of effectiveness were ignored. The number of civilian lives lost in ostenisbly fighting “jihadist” terrorism were many times greater than those that have ever been lost or could have been lost due to “jihadist” terrorism itself. Even on the narrowest measure of success – the reduction of terrorism – the record of UK counter- terrorism over the last twenty years is a poor one.
The relentless expansion and proliferation of this War on Terror apparatus was underpinned by a consensus across the political class from the late 1990s. Central to that consensus were the claims that the UK faced an exceptional threat from “jihadist” terrorism, that this threat was the expression of an ideological rejection of British values among a generation of young Muslims and that, in response, the normal principles of domestic and international law should be suspended.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s Chatham House speech on the War on Terror in the 2017 general election campaign was the first sign of a crack in that consensus. In the days after the killing of twenty-two concert-goers at the Manchester Arena, Corbyn argued that “the war on terror is simply not working” and opinion polls suggested a majority agreed.1
This report offers an account of the failures of current counter-terrorism policies, an analysis of the reasons why they do not work and an outline of a progressive alternative that we hope will be the basis for a future Labour government’s approach. We recognise the difficulty and complexity of the issue of terrorism and the various barriers that stand in the way of a different approach. But we believe the time is right to critically assess the legacy of the last twenty years and change course.
At the heart of our argument is a question of democracy. Counter-terrorism policy-making has failed because its development is unmoored from any substantial process of democratic accountability. Instead, the aims and means of current counter-terrorism policy have been set by a security establishment according to its own interests and values. This security establishment has not sought to provide a consistent and precise definition of terrorism or to seek to counter terrorism in an evidence-based way, based on academic studies of how terrorism comes into existence. It has not sought to ground security policy in the actual problems of political violence that communities in the UK face. And it has repeatedly placed loyalty to elite interests above the need to uphold human rights, especially with respect to Muslim populations, both within the UK and abroad.
The Labour Party has a particular responsibility to address the harms resulting from counter- terrorism as it was the Labour government led by Tony Blair that incorporated the War on Terror into British policy-making and his successor Gordon Brown who continued and extended the paradigm. Labour’s 2017 manifesto already contained policies that align with our argument and can be built upon, such as the call to review Prevent, to address civil liberties concerns with the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and to hold public inquiries on past injustices. However, counter-terrorism policy has been one of the least discussed topics within the Labour Party, despite its deep impact on the lives of the over two million Muslims in the UK. We hope this report will help to initiate a more vigorous discussion.
Clearly, any left-wing Labour government will be attacked by its opponents as weak on national security. The temptation will be to not rock the boat and allow counter-terrorism policy to remain unchanged, the better to secure political victories in the core economic policy areas Labour Party supporters are more focused on. We believe this would be a mistake. It would mean a Labour government failing to uphold principles of human rights and racial and religious equality. But as a political strategy, it would also likely be counter-productive. Conceding ground on security policy will not minimise the attacks from right-wing media organisations or Conservative politicians; and a Labour government would be left defending itself reactively and inconsistently within a policy framework not of its own choosing. In this way, a failure to develop a progressive approach to security could end up undermining the credibility of a Labour government’s broader policy agenda. A better strategy, we believe, is to adopt from the outset a coherent, explicitly stated, progressive policy that can be defended consistently and confidently.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationAmsterdam
PublisherTransnational Institute
Publication statusPublished - 3 Sep 2019

Structured keywords

  • SPS Centre for the Study of Poverty and Social Justice

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