A confident national identity would be the best counter-terrorism campaign

Winning hearts and minds in the fight against terror requires a confident national identity that challenges hatred and extremism, writes James Bethell.

It was reassuring to hear that the SAS is to rec­eive an extra £1.5bn in funding in response to the Paris attacks earlier this month. The immediate reflexes are naturally muscular and one sleeps better knowing that the Government is beefing up the military, recruiting better spooks, tightening the borders and generally battening down the hatches.

In Britain, we may have run down our security resources recently but the muscle memory is there. We do infiltration, interception and intelligence better than most, which offers some reassurance.

The problem is that security measures will not work on their own. The war on terror is one of hearts and minds. And this is the worry. As a country we have a natural aversion to asserting clear national messages. We appear too comfortable in our own skins to need a clear national identity, and anyway we are four nations with different identities so why bother? 

We pride ourselves on our suspicion of anything that smacks of state-sponsored propaganda. Sure, there are iconic examples from the war – "keep calm and carry on" – but these are memorable because they are exceptional.

More recently, a huge collective effort delivered a national Olympic message that just about hung together in a quirky way with dancing nurses that baffled foreign audiences, but little has stuck.

The Government is tortured by the issue. David Cameron gave "the speech of his life" on counter-extremism in Birmingham earlier this year when he tried to give the fight against extremism the same generational imperative as battles against prejudices such as race or disability.

He spoke about a reticence in enforcing British values over issues such as forced marriage and female genital mutilation.

When it comes to doing things, the focus is on action rather than words. Bashing internet companies over encryption and recruiting snooping cyber geeks yield tangible results. But words and feelings are still important. Retrospectively building a confident national identity to challenge intolerance and extremism is more difficult, but ultimately more valuable.

Of course, if it was easy, they would have done it. Gordon Brown’s efforts to define Britishness exposed the limits of a top-down approach based simply on values. Feelings of ambiguity about Prevent (the soft bit of the Government’s counter-terrorism strategy) and the National Citizenship Service illustrate the limited impact of Whitehall comms programmes.

It is sometimes said that Cameron sees his legacy in terms of holding the country together when others are tearing it apart. This is a noble challenge but not enough to address constitutional and security issues.

The answer is in creating a political consensus that somehow gets past the pacifism of Jeremy Corbyn, Nicola Sturgeon’s strategy of divisiveness and the delicate EU referendum that hangs in the balance.

Maybe this is a suitable challenge for a former Prime Minister in his early 50s with bundles of energy.

James Bethell is founder and managing director of Westbourne Communications

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