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The 2015 UK Election: A False Sense of Security

Calum Jeffray and Clare Ellis
RUSI Newsbrief, 1 May 2015
Terrorism and Conflict, UK, Defence Policy, National Security, Europe
Despite a strong focus on defence, the manifestos of the main political parties standing for election across the UK are strikingly lacking in detail when it comes to issues of national security

National security is not a priority for a political party trying to win a general election. However, it is the first duty of government. One would expect, therefore, that national security concerns would still feature in manifestos; whilst some may feel these are redundant, their purpose is to reflect the thoughts, ambitions and priorities of a party on the cusp of power. Yet in the manifestos presented in the run-up to the UK election, critical national security issues are only addressed in very broad, general terms – if at all. This comes in contrast to very specific pledges made on defence – including the renewal of Trident, building new aircraft carriers, and sustaining the number of serving armed-forces personnel. It is surprising and disconcerting that the Labour Party manifesto, for example, does not mention organised crime. Each party scrutinises aspects of national security, but examples are limited and lack sufficient detail. For politicians, pledges on cyber-security and illicit goods are unlikely to sway many voters in comparison to commitments on hospital waiting lists or class sizes. This does not mean, however, that these are not important issues. Whilst there is consensus that the government must protect the population from national security threats, each party disagrees on how this should be achieved.

This is particularly concerning given the immediacy with which the new government will have to undertake a Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), Spending Review, and update the National Security Strategy after the election. Whilst reviewing national security policy will therefore be an urgent and important task for the new government, the positions of the parties vying to form it are largely unclear to the electorate. As such, given the scale of the security threats the UK continues to face, it is important to consider how the main political parties have considered (or not) three key national security issues that are likely to be top of the new government’s in-tray.

Countering Violent Extremism: The terrorist threat level in the UK is currently ‘severe’, indicating that an attack is ‘highly likely’. This reflects growing trends towards violent extremism and an increasingly challenging environment in which to counter it. In addition to persistent threats from right-wing, single-issue and Northern Ireland-related terrorism, the threat from Islamist violent extremism has never been greater. Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula, Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram present threats that permeate across international borders. This has materialised through recent, deadly attacks in Ottawa, Sydney, Paris and Copenhagen. But for the intervention of our security services, the UK would also be on that list.

International terrorism directly threatens the UK’s security through returning foreign fighters and spontaneous violent extremists. An unprecedented number of fighters have travelled to Syria and Iraq, including an estimated 600 from the UK. The return of such battlefield-trained extremists represents a significant risk and will continue to do so. Of further concern are those who become radicalised but remain in the UK to conduct an attack. Acting without direction from a wider network, these lone actors offer limited detection opportunities.

Daesh and other groups place increasing emphasis on this form of assault, a forced tactical shift reflecting the repeated disruption of complex plots by the security services. In this environment, the role of the Prevent strategy has never been more important. And yet, political parties still have very different views on its scope and how it should be implemented.

Urgent work is required by the incumbent government, and of all the national security issues, violent extremism did indeed receive the greatest consideration within the manifestos. Each major party acknowledges the issue, although UKIP fails to propose any specific policies and the Liberal Democrats offer few initiatives beyond continuing support for existing powers.

Labour is more precise, outlining an overhaul of the allegedly ‘troubled’ Prevent strategy and an intention to establish mandatory de-radicalisation programmes for those returning from Syria. The Conservatives go further still, suggesting new powers to restrict the activity of extremists who do not breach current terrorism legislation. These include Banning Orders, Extremism Disruption Orders, and measures to prevent extremists from working with children. However, even here the detail remains insufficient to fully assess the merit of such proposals.

Tackling Organised Crime: In contrast to violent extremism, organised crime was largely omitted from manifestos. This is striking given that organised crime costs the UK an estimated £24 billion each year. It destabilises the financial system and threatens economic prosperity, undermines the security of national borders, and can directly facilitate terrorist activity. The coalition government recognised this, consistently framing organised crime as a national threat and listing it as a tier-two risk alongside a chemical or nuclear attack.

Beyond a commitment to increase co-operation with the EU, the Liberal Democrat manifesto offered no specific policies addressing organised crime. The Conservatives reaffirmed their commitment to tackling crimes such as child sexual exploitation and modern slavery, but detailed neither a comprehensive organised-crime policy nor specific initiatives. Indeed, the term ‘organised crime’ appears only once in eighty-four pages. The manifestos of the coalition parties do not, therefore, reflect the strong, focused approach taken under the 2010–15 government, which saw the creation of the National Crime Agency, reinvigoration of the Regional Organised Crime Units, and introduction of a new Serious and Organised Crime Strategy.

Examination of the other manifestos offers little reassurance. Labour made no direct reference to organised crime. The only indication that it is on the party’s radar is the proposed creation of a new child-protection unit to tackle child sexual exploitation. Although acknowledging the threat from specific areas of human trafficking and modern slavery, UKIP also failed to mention organised crime.

The failure to address organised crime does not reflect the scale of the threat the new government is likely to face. Organised-crime groups are resilient, entrepreneurial and adaptive; they respond to countermeasures by adjusting their tactics, displacing their activity to other locations, and diversifying to alternative products. They may be operating in markets and ways that have not yet been detected or even imagined by law enforcement. In the same manner as defence, the threat landscape continues to evolve and the UK’s response must evolve with it.

Cyber-security: The cyber threat is arguably the most diverse and rapidly evolving risk to national security, and derives from both hostile states and non-state actors including terrorist, organised-crime and ‘hacktivist’ groups. The coalition government made a substantial investment (totalling £860 million) in the National Cyber Security Programme. However, given the scale of the issue, the new government will need to sustain this investment to 2020 and beyond. GCHQ believes that the scale and rate of cyber-attacks show little sign of abating. As more and more of the nation’s public and private assets move online, attacks are becoming increasingly targeted and sophisticated, and the emergent ‘Internet of Things’ is connecting devices and objects to a greater degree than ever before.

A new government will have to tackle cyber-attacks on national infrastructure, military threats, as well as cyber-crime, yet few of the manifestos provide insight into how each party will ensure the nation is more resilient to these threats. UKIP plans to create the role of director of national intelligence to oversee (amongst other things) the development of cyber-security measures. Labour has committed only to ‘consult’ on creating a statutory requirement for all private companies to report serious cyber-attacks threatening national infrastructure.

Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives all pay more attention to the military and defence aspects of cyber-security, pledging investment in the UK’s cyber-defence capabilities – without, of course, giving an indication of how much this would cost. Labour also set out plans to secure the MoD’s networks, as well as supply chains in the private defence sector, by requiring all companies working with the ministry to sign up to a cyber-security charter (though it did not detail what this charter would include).

Unlike most of the other main parties, Labour did not specifically address cyber-crime in its manifesto. Both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats pledged to allocate ‘appropriate’ resources to the security and law-enforcement agencies to combat cyber-crime. The Liberal Democrats also expressed a desire to strengthen the role of the European Cyber Crime Centre. UKIP was the only party that considered the legislative framework surrounding cyber-security, claiming that it wanted to review ‘what is and what is not a criminal offence’ in relation to Internet- and cyber-crimes.

Security and intelligence reform: Whilst most of the political parties at least made reference to the three national security challenges outlined above, in each case the manifestos contained insufficient detail on particular policies to make an informed judgment on which party is likely to protect the British public most effectively from threats to national security over the next five years – and, importantly, how they plan to do so.

Nowhere is this latter question more relevant than in relation to the interception and retention of communications data. Internet surveillance and data privacy has become one of the most pressing issues of the day. It is an area in which reform is evidently needed.

All of the parties mention the issue and make bold statements on security-service powers and Internet freedoms. It is easy to agree that the police, security service and intelligence agencies should have the powers they need to protect the public, that oversight should be comprehensive and that the public should have its privacy respected. None of the parties, however, provides any detail as to how this should be achieved.

Political parties frequently say that their first duty in government will be to protect the nation, but they are not forthcoming on the details. In a democratic society, the public should have the opportunity to understand where the parties will place valuable national security resources. None of the parties has clearly articulated its policies and, as the campaigns draw to a close, no party leader has made a speech on national security. Perhaps they think voters do not care.

Calum Jeffray
Research Fellow, National Security and Resilience, RUSI.
Twitter: @calumjeffray

Clare Ellis
Research Analyst, National Security and Resilience, RUSI.
Twitter: @cfa_ellis

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