Security in an independent Scotland

An objective analysis of the prospective security situation of an independent Scotland is impossible. There is no objective or settled meaning to the term ‘security’, even in the current governmental and constitutional arrangements of the UK. It is thus not possible to simply produce an objective and comparative list of ‘threats’ to the UK and an independent Scotland. The real question is how governments perceive threats and what they attempt to do about them. The question is therefore not whether an independent Scotland would face different threats to the rest of the UK, but how the government of an independent Scotland would perceive threats and what it would attempt to do about them.

At present, the UK government does not have a coherent approach to ‘security’, and there is no reason to think that an independent Scottish government would be any different. Governments of modern states are sprawling, complex beasts. Getting them to do anything in a coherent, unified way is extremely difficult, especially on issues that span different parts of government, maybe even all parts of government.

There are currently two interpretations of ‘security’ in play within the UK government: the narrow and the broad. The narrow interpretation adopts a traditional understanding of security, in which threats are foreign, military, and state-based. The corresponding parts of government in the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and 10 Downing Street deal with those threats. The National Security Council chaired by the Prime Minister has largely focused on traditional foreign and defence issues, such as the Libyan intervention.

At the same, an alternative broad interpretation of security is being developed elsewhere in the UK government. The UK government’s counter-terrorism strategy document (CONTEST) lists 29 departments and agencies as playing a role in this strategy. The most recent version of the National Security Strategy (NSS) goes further by shifting from ‘security’ to an encompassing list of ‘risks’. These stretch from international terrorism and overseas military crises to border transgressions by illegal immigrants and disruptions to fuel and food supplies. The manifestation of this broad interpretation of security is that security is proliferating across all areas of government, far beyond the traditional narrow remit of foreign and defence policy.

The conclusion we must draw is that there is no single meaning of security in the UK. The reality is that disparate parts of the government perceive ‘threats’ and ‘risks’ differently and develop policies to deal with them in a piecemeal fashion. Whether this is good or bad depends on ones’ view on the relative dangers of security threats on the one hand, or a unified security state on the other.

Would it be different in an independent Scotland? The Scottish government might not perceive threats and risks in the same way. Given the haphazard nature of threat perception in the UK, there is no reason to think that Scotland would independently come up with same list of threats and risks. Scottish politics has been less hostile to immigrants than Westminster politics. The Scottish government might not see immigration as part of the bundle of risks specified in the NSS that includes terrorism, organised crime and smuggling.

My current research on parliamentary security politics at Westminster analyzes this unsettled and changing state of security affairs. The uneven creep of ‘security’ across different areas of government is reflected in a larger number of parliamentary committees handling security issues. Half a dozen now do so regularly (Intelligence and Security, Home Affairs, Foreign Affairs, Defence, Joint Committee on Human Rights, Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy). At least half a dozen more discuss security questions on a less frequent basis (e.g. Lords Committee on the Constitution, Energy, Public Accounts, Energy and Climate Change, Science and Technology, Health). If we were to take the comprehensive list of risks in the NSS seriously, we could argue that every part of government and parliament will find itself dealing with security issues at some point.

Whatever ‘security’ is, it already reaches far beyond the ‘reserved areas of government’ that Holyrood currently leaves to Westminster (e.g. foreign affairs, defence, counter-terrorism). The proliferation of ‘security’ across Westminster has in no way been mirrored in Holyrood. Even in the constitutional status quo, it is not clear that current Scottish arrangements provide adequate scrutiny and oversight of every aspect of ‘security’ that could affect Scotland. Without knowing which new ministries and parliamentary committees an independent Scotland would create, it is difficult to know how ‘security’ would play out in the new constitutional context.

And what of a Scottish House of Lords or equivalent? The House of Lords has often put a brake on the excesses of security politics at Westminster, such as extended pre-charge detention for terrorist suspects. In large part this is thanks to the many lawyers and a scattering of former security officials in its ranks. We do not even know if an independent Scotland would have an upper house of parliament, but we can be certain that it would not be an unelected body of experts and political appointees like the Lords and so would probably not have the same legal and security expertise.

Much hinges on the extent to which an independent Scotland would truly be an ‘independent’ state. If it does not free itself from the current security model at Westminster, we can expect security to be a lengthening rope pulled in several different directions at once. If it does not depart radically from the current Holyrood model, we can expect a continuing lack of scrutiny and oversight. The question of security in an independent Scotland is not a question of what objective threats it would face. It is a constitutional question. The character of security in a modern state is a product of its constitutional arrangements. Leadership, officialdom, parliament; these all shape ‘security’ in different, conflicting ways. Sometimes security shapes them.

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Leveson, liberty, security

‘Freedom’ has featured strongly in responses to the Leveson Report. A swathe of the liberal-right, including Prime Minister David Cameron, have claimed that any state regulation of the press – even Leveson’s minimalist solution of setting the principles of an independent regulator through the law – would amount to ‘crossing the Rubicon of writing elements of press regulation into law of the land‘, with the ‘potential to infringe free speech and the free press.’ The right-leaning weekly newspaper the The Spectator, claiming a long, principled history of libertarianism in standing up for a free press, announced that it ‘would not sign up to anything enforced by government‘. The principle here is that freedom must be absolute, and fiercely protected from compromise. But it is not so much these individual examples that are striking, rather the sheer amount of liberal-right argument mobilized against press regulation, uniting most of the press and Tory party.

The press freedom debate is remarkable if we compare it to the liberty/security debate. There was no clamour from the right for the defense of freedom (with the notable exception of David Davis MP) when suspected terrorists where being locked up without trial or placed under novel forms of house arrest, even though habeas corpus has been as important to liberal democracy as press freedom.

It is all the more remarkable when arguments from the right against statutory press regulation are identical to arguments from the left against counterterrorism powers. For example, on Newsnight Trevor Kavanagh, associate editor of the rightwing tabloid The Sun, said,

‘If we go down the route of legislation in any way shape or form it’s irrevocable, it’s a step you cannot reverse. Once it’s in place there is the possibility of it being incrementally amended upwards. The ratchet will be one way.’

Kavanagh describes what I have called normalization, a process very much at work in counterterrorism and security politics. Once a new government power is enshrined in law it is very difficult to take back. Over time it becomes a baseline for further powers. I do not recall The Sun having much concern about it before.

I would not call this hypocrisy as such. It is a demonstration of the different values at work in different areas of politics. Security is treated as a special case – an exception – in which freedom can and should be compromised. The freedoms compromised are not normally those of middle class commentators, but migrants, suspect communities, radicals of all colours, and other folk devils.

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After the Olympics, how much security is enough?

Mercifully there were no acts of political violence during the London Olympics. So was the extent of the Olympic security operation – the biggest the UK has seen since the second world war – necessary? Despite fears about its impact and image, security does not seem to have had much of a negative effect on the games. The thousands of soldiers drafted in at the last minute to help with security procedures were almost invisible in the TV coverage. The just-in-time trained G4S security staff escaped mishap, and there were no long security queues at venues. One of the biggest cheers from the crowd during Lord Coe’s closing speech was for ‘those who kept us safe’. Compare this to the dreaded ‘what ifs’ of security and it seems like a job well done.

This leads to a self-validating conclusion: this was the right amount security, not too much to hinder enjoyment, and not so little as to risk some of kind of attack. But what does this mean for the future of security? It means that it is difficult to imagine a way back to a lower level of security provision. It means that security is now part of the fabric of social and political life, built into events planning, urban architectures and the infrastructures of the internet, communications and transport. It means that people now accept a certain level of anxiety in their everyday life: just enough to be cautious and accept security measures, but not so much as to become debilitated by fear.

Outright fear is difficult to sustain beyond moments of perceived emergency, but anxiety becomes self-perpetuating when it gets built into our everyday lives. We have to be mindful of what security now means. It does not mean security as a condition or feeling of being completely secure, because our acceptance of security measures depends on this continuing level of anxiety. The job of ‘security’ is to manage and modulate this anxiety by keeping it at precisely this level. In this way, security becomes normalized and is no longer exceptional.

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The ‘humiliating shambles’ of outsourced Olympic security

Two weeks before the start of the London 2012 Olympics, its security arrangements began to fall apart. G4S, a private security company contracted to provide 10,000 security guards revealed that it would miss this target by several thousand. The government called in the army to provide the missing labour. Nick Buckles, chief executive of G4S, was called in front on a parliamentary committee to account for the failings, where he was forced to accept it was a ‘humiliating shambles’ for his company.

What was striking about this episode was its banality in the context of the largest British security operation since the Second World War. The G4S failure was due to vetting and recruitment problems, doubts about staff turning up for shifts, lack of internal company reporting mechanisms, and bad management generally. The press also reported a lack of staff schedules, uniforms or training on scanning machines. This was security as a thoroughly normalized part of public events planning.

The parliamentary hearing was also surprising because there was no mention of the fabled ‘what ifs’ or ‘worst case scenarios’ of security, and no discussion of the existential consequences of failure. Here was an opportunity for politicians to dramatize the security threat, invoke the danger facing the country, and call for something to be done. Instead there was much petty posturing and little substance (‘Will you take responsibility for this fiasco? And aren’t you sorry?’)

There are two explanations for this lack of ‘securitization’. First, this was a hearing of a parliamentary committee, not a full session of parliament. The committee context is naturally less theatrical: its members are more obliged to work together than to grandstand, sitting together in a horseshoe rather than opposing each other in rival camps. Second, as I argue in an imminent article*, security politics tends only to be dramatic in the wake of catastrophic security events such as terrorist attacks, when politics is expected to be as spectacular as the events themselves (politicians ‘must be seen to be doing something’). The rest of the time, security politics becomes normalized and is more mundane.

In some ways this lack of security language is encouraging, for security politics is all too often reactive, symbolic and short sighted, leading to ill-considered, knee-jerk policy, and demonization of the usual suspects. But in other ways a lack of political animus means a lack of critical scrutiny of what is happening in the wider security field, and more importantly a lack of principled opposition.

*Neal, Andrew W., (2012). ‘Normalization and Legislative Exceptionalism: Counterterrorist Lawmaking and the Changing Times of Security Emergencies.’ International Political Sociology, vol. 6, no. 3. (Forthcoming September 2012).

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‘Events dear boy, events’: terrorism and security from the perspective of politics

The study of terrorism and security rarely includes the politics of politicians. This is surprising, because we know that politicians like to appear tough on terror, which surely means something. Nevertheless security politics remains absent from security research.

Politicians do many other things that are important for security. They debate, they ask questions of ministers, they gather evidence from experts, they write reports, and they pass or block new laws. All this can shape security policy,  its effectiveness, its unforeseen consequences, and the message it sends out. It also shapes public perceptions of threat and insecurity.

But terrorism and security scholars see security as a matter for governments and states.

They study what political leaders and their ministers say and do. They study how their policies work. They do not study the politics of politicians.

This excludes a lot. There are many more politicians than members of governments. In the British system, members of parliament (Commons and Lords) outnumber the 95 with government positions by fourteen to one. Even MPs in the governing parties currently outnumber those in the government by almost three to one. So politics and government are not the same thing: most politicians do not govern anything.

In modern political thought, providing security is the reason for the existence of the state. But it is not the reason for the existence of politicians. Politicians have more on their mind than existential survival. Political survival for example.

It is very different to understand security from the perspective of existential threat than to understand security from the perspective of politics.

Politics often concerns serious matters, but it is also a kind of game. However serious security issues are, the political game does not stop. The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called this tension between the public concerns of politics and the competition between politicians a ‘double game’. Terrorism and security scholars see the former but not the latter. What does security mean to politicians? Perhaps a concern for public safety, but also another play in the game.

* This is a summary of an article I published in Critical Studies on Terrorism in April 2012.


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Social networks and security politics

This will be the decade of the social network, and social networks have become a focus of security politics. It is not that social networks are a security threat – nothing so crude. And it is not as simple as governments wishing to spy on you. The security interest in social networks is subtler. It challenges how we think about security and privacy.

When you interact in an online social network like Facebook or Twitter, you create a web of links with other people. Combine this with information on your searches, the sites you visit, and the things you ‘like’ and ‘follow’, and the result is a revealing picture of an individual. However, security is not interested in the individual, at least not in the first instance. It is interested in networks. It is not who you are, but how you are networked.

Security agencies have realised that an individual is not an isolated unit. Human beings are social animals. To live is to interact. As such, individuals never ‘act’ alone. Even individual acts, such as Anders Breivik’s Norwegian mass murder, are preceded by social interactions, in his case with far right groups.

Creating a profile of a particular kind of individual is blunt. A profile is an ‘ideal type’. It creates a large group of ‘fits’. Looking for individuals belonging to particular groups is not only inefficient; it risks fostering group identities and then alienating those very groups. For example, the perception of a war against Muslims alienates thousands and hinders detection of the exceptional individuals and small ‘cells’ that may actually commit violence.

Social network analysis does not work on ‘ideal types’ but on links between people, often in real time. Being identified with a group is not alone interesting for security. But having links to specific individuals interested in violence, others engaged in illegal activities such as fraud, and others interested in militant politics might be.

For this reason, as Marieke de Goede has argued, campaigning against security practices in favour of individual privacy misses the point. Security is not interested in your privacy. And the security services do not care if you use technologies to hide your online identity (such as the Tor internet browser, originally funded by the US Navy and now free to use). Security is interested in your networks.

This is the rationale behind the Draft Communications Bill in the UK. It is a law for data surveillance. The security services and police will have lobbied for it. It would give British security agencies powers to monitor not the content but the use of emails, phone calls, the internet and online communication services such as Skype. As Prime Minister David Cameron told parliament:

what we are trying to do here is not to look at the content of people’s telephone calls, but to update the necessary measures for finding out who called whom and when, because it is that information that has solved almost every serious crime and certainly almost every serious terrorist offence.

It is not surprising that Cameron would argue for these powers in this way. But it is surprising that British security agencies do not already have these powers. Communications technologies have developed in ways that could not have been imagined the last time surveillance powers were legislated in 2000.

Currently, details are few, politicians are staking out their positions, and a ‘no snooper’s charter’ campaign is rolling into action. There will be a struggle, with concessions and safeguards offered. Those against the bill need to work on their arguments because the privacy argument is not enough. Some form of legislation will probably be passed in the end. Social network analysis is here to stay.

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The many faces of Carry on Qatada

British security politics last week descended into farce. The lawyers of radical cleric Abu Qatada lodged an appeal against his deportation to Jordan an hour before a deadline set by the European court of human rights. The Home Office had thought the deadline passed the day before. They now face having to release him on bail while his case goes back to Strasbourg. The row made a fool of Teresa May, the home secretary.

Many different political games are in play here. The quarrel played out in parliament was mere surface. Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, made hay. By tabling an urgent parliamentary question, she forced May back in front of MPs to explain herself and her department. Cooper subjected May to a theatrical drubbing, casting herself as tougher on terror than her weak and incompetent opponent.

Cooper’s attacks are cynical, but they also needle away at tensions in the coalition government. For example, in opposition and on joining the coalition, the Liberal Democrats called for the previous government’s many illiberal security measures to be overturned. This chimed with the liberal tendencies of Tory prime minister David Cameron. It also found unlikely allies on the Tories’ libertarian wing. But it did not sit easily with most other Tories, being further to the right than Cameron. During the government’s review of anti-terrorism laws, there were persistent rumours of deep divisions on the issue. The prime minister is reported to have said privately: ‘We are heading for a f***ing car crash’. Security is one of many issues that threaten coalition stability. The Liberals are now poised to reassert their credentials by blocking new eavesdropping powers for the security services.

There is a less obvious political game playing out between ministers and civil servants. In the British constitutional system, ministers are meant to be accountable for what happens in their department. If something goes right they get the credit, if something goes wrong they get the blame. This convention was recently challenged. Last summer, in a row over passport checks, the home secretary forced the head of the UK border agency to resign. Despite a long and distinguished career, Brodie Clark was cast out as a rogue civil servant. The temptation for May in her current crisis is to blame her civil servants again. This option might now be spent, as it would lack credibility a second time around.

A longer game of security politics is playing out too. The Qatada case has become symbolic. British governments have been trying to deport him for 11 years. They have been blocked by the courts because of his risk of torture in Jordan, or because evidence obtained by torture may be used against him. Most politicians deem Qatada’s human rights less important than the right of a sovereign state to deport an undesirable. This plays to populism, right wing anti-European sentiment, and the bashing of human rights themselves. Labour were prone to this when in government.

One interesting surprise was Theresa May’s defence of the rule of the law:

First, why we cannot just ignore Strasbourg and put Qatada on a plane. In reality we simply could not do this. As ministers, we would not just be breaking the law ourselves but we would be asking government lawyers, officials, the police, law enforcement officers and airline companies to break the law too.

No Labour home secretary ever said anything this subtle. May’s statement deflates the tough-on-terror rhetoric thrown at her from all sides of the house. More interestingly, it punctures the symbolic myth of sovereign decision. Security politics is not simply a state decision on who is a threat, who may come in and who must go out. Security politics is entangled with the everyday work of multiple agencies, businesses and their employees. What they are asked to do in the name of security has consequences for their own social, legal and employment security.

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