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, Islamic 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.
The threat posed by al-Qaeda and Islamic State 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.
Yet the greatest risk to Britain is that it is ruled by a government that has promised far more than it can deliver. This weakness is still masked by the development of the anti-Covid vaccine and the success of the vaccination campaign, but these were achievements of scientists and the NHS. As Dominic Cummings has made clear, Boris Johnson did little but spread chaos.
The problem facing all nationalist populist leaders in the world is that they promise bread and circuses for everybody, but seldom deliver them. This is true of Trump in the US and Modi in India, and is also the case for Johnson in Britain. This was made blatantly clear yesterday when the prime minister made one of his rare public speeches – the first for 10 months – which was supposed to spell out his “levelling up” agenda, the centrepiece of his populist appeal to former Labour voters.
Except that it turns out that there is no such agenda, and his speech consisted of the usual shallow boosterism. Cummings summed it up venomously but accurately as a “crap speech (same he’s given pointlessly umpteen times) supporting crap slogan”. As with foreign policy, there is no social or economic strategy to rescue Britain’s deprived population, despite all those radical pledges.
But there is a political strategy for diverting attention away from the fact that a central plank in Johnson’s platform is missing. The plan is to talk up culture wars, exacerbate divisions, and pretend that critics are unpatriotic or treacherous. Since culture and race go together, this means none-too-subtle dog-whistle appeals to racism. “If we ‘whistle’ and the ‘dog’ reacts we can’t be shocked if it barks and bites,” said Sayeeda Warsi, a Conservative peer and former party chair.
Populist governments play the “culture card” more vigorously in times of trouble. The smallest incidents are exaggerated as threats to national identity. A piece of graffiti scrawled on a statue of Winston Churchill becomes a sign that British culture as a whole is under assault.
Critics can be demonised as unpatriotic, but a surer way of silencing them is to deny them a voice, by putting pressure on independent commentary on the BBC or threatening to sell off Channel 4. The effectiveness of these methods in suppressing criticism and dominating public opinion should not be underestimated. Most of the nationalist populist regimes in the world have a disastrous record, but very few of them have lost power.