Speak loudly but carry no stick
The government’s surprisingly liberal anti-terrorism regime
The murder of James Foley, an American journalist kidnapped by jihadists in Syria, was always likely to fill newspapers. His killer’s British accent has started a storm (seeBagehot). Since the news broke, David Cameron, the prime minister, has argued for “a tough security response”. Theresa May, the home secretary, added that “we must do all that we can to stop radicalisation”, and hinted at new laws. Boris Johnson, London’s mayor and a would-be MP, called for a “swift and minor” change to the law, to the effect that anybody who travels to a war zone without informing the authorities can be presumed to have gone for terrorist purposes.
Such musings worried lawyers and civil-liberties campaigners, who are accustomed to governments reacting to enormities with draconian new laws. But if the recent past is any guide, they can rest easy. Through a peculiar combination of high principle and low muddle, and almost despite itself, the government has adopted a surprisingly liberal position in the balance between security and liberty.
A task force set up after the murder of Lee Rigby for instance, a soldier, by two fanatical Muslims last year has largely been a talking shop for senior politicians, says Martin Innes, an expert at Cardiff University. Mrs May’s plan to make it easier for the security services to snoop on internet use was blocked by the Liberal Democrats. They also snipped away at new powers to strip naturalised Britons of their citizenship.