After Manchester

The terrorist attack in Manchester makes clear the vulnerabilities of the ruling Conservatives, who have struggled to control the debates generated by the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Published : Jun 07, 2017 12:30 IST

Members of the public observe a minute’s silence in remembrance of those who lost their lives in the Manchester Arena attack, on May 25, in Manchester.

Members of the public observe a minute’s silence in remembrance of those who lost their lives in the Manchester Arena attack, on May 25, in Manchester.

Just as striking as the horror of the attack on the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester on May 22 were the numerous acts of kindness, bravery and solidarity that followed it. From the moments after Salman Abedi, a 22-year-old Briton of Libyan origin, unleashed death and misery at the foyer to the arena where thousands of young fans and their families had gathered, people sprang into action—whether it was a homeless man who rushed in to help the dying and the injured, or the taxi drivers from across communities who offered free rides home to the survivors, or the city’s five gurdwaras that began offering langar and shelter, or the off-duty National Health Service staff who rushed in to support their colleagues (including one surgeon, who it emerged had been at the concert with his daughter).

The city’s response in the days after the attack has been commendable: attempts by the Far Right English Defence League to stage a protest and make political capital out of the tragedy were angrily shouted down by members of the public, while on the evening of May 23, less than 24 hours after the attack, thousands from across the city’s diverse communities gathered in Albert Square in the heart of Manchester to show solidarity and vow not to be divided. A day later, at a vigil, the mother of one of the dead implored people to “stay together” and not let “this beat any of us”. In the immediate aftermath, politicians from across the main political parties reiterated the need for solidarity: Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn hailed the city’s defiance and pride in “refusing to be divided by hate”, while Prime Minister Theresa May emphasised the messages of “solidarity and hope” that characterised the response of Manchester’s population to the attack, and the “spirit” that pervaded Manchester and Britain that would never be broken.

With its diverse population (around 14 per cent Asian), it is little surprise that Manchester was targeted by the Islamic State (I.S.), which has made a habit of hitting multicultural cities in Europe, from Brussels to Berlin. The I.S. has claimed responsibility for the attack through social media channels. While the bomber, Abedi, was British, his Libyan ancestry will feed into the Far Right’s messages of hatred and fear. While the main political parties paused general election campaigning in the United Kingdom for three days following the attack, the U.K. Independence Party launched its manifesto on May 25 with a calculated attempt to link the Manchester bombing to the government’s immigration policy. The party, which has been performing poorly in the opinion polls and had a bad run in recent local elections, will in all likelihood see Manchester as its last-ditch opportunity to win support for its strong anti-immigrant (it wants to reduce net migration to zero) and anti-Islam (it wants to ban the burqa and the niqab) agenda.

The initial expectation following the bombing was that it would strengthen support for the Conservatives, ahead of the June 8 election. Throughout the snap election campaign, the Conservatives had attempted to portray Labour as weak on issues of defence and security, focussing, for example, on the debate that took place within the party on Britain’s Trident nuclear defence programme, whose renewal Corbyn has committed the party to, but which some other members of the Shadow Cabinet have suggested could be part of a strategic defence review. The right-wing tabloids had even tried to suggest Corbyn was soft on terror, pointing to past comments about Hizbollah and Hamas, as well as the Irish Republican Army.

However, from the early days after the attack, the Conservatives’ vulnerabilities became clear. The decision to put military guards on the streets and in prominent locations in London, following the decision to raise the country’s threat level to “severe” (it has now returned to “critical”), raised questions about government funding for the police, and senior government officials were forced to defend the government’s track record and insist that the police had more than adequate resources to deal with the current threat level. Following the admirable way in which eight hospitals in the area around Manchester dealt with the grim aftermath of the bombing (with many staff coming in off shift), other emergency services, such as the Accident and Emergency Services, have drawn attention. Opposition parties have argued that the Accident and Emergency Services has long been underfunded and under-resourced, while many of its workers (doctors and nurses alike) have been subject to real-term cuts in their wages.

Questions have also been raised about the government’s “Prevent” programme, a key part of its domestic counterterrorism strategy since 2011, focussing on preventing the radicalisation of the young and the vulnerable by recruiters at home and abroad, through the creation of networks across local organisations from faith schools to prisons. People in positions of authority are meant to report any suspicious activity. The scheme has already met criticism for potentially causing further divisions and stoking prejudice. But after it emerged that Abedi had been reported to the anti-terror hotline a number of times, it has also now raised questions about its fundamental effectiveness. While no government can prevent all attacks—Britain’s intelligence services have prevented 18 attacks since 2013—the failure to follow up on community concerns about Abedi is particularly striking.

Some have also pointed to a wider failure of the prevention strategy and its clash with Britain’s foreign policy priorities. In a recent article, the publication Middle East Eye presented shocking details of Britain’s open-door policy towards Libyan exiles and British Libyans from 2011, which enabled them to join the uprising against Muammar Qaddafi. Among them were some who were being monitored by counterterrorism programmes in the U.K. In one particularly shocking incident revealed by the publication, a British fighter who had been subject to an anti-terror control order was able to call an MI5 operative to persuade counterterrorism police officers at an airport to let him board the plane.

The failure of British interventionism in conflicts abroad when it came to strengthening security at home was brought to the forefront by Corbyn in the days after the attack. In a passionate speech, which began with a minute’s silence for the attack’s victims, Corbyn said that while blame for the atrocity lay with the terrorists alone, protecting the country in the long term required an informed understanding of the causes of terrorism.

“No rationale based on the actions of any government can remotely excuse, or even adequately explain, outrages like this week’s massacre… but we must be brave enough to admit the war on terror is not working,” he said. “We need a way to reduce the threat from countries that nurture terrorists and generate terrorism.” He pledged that a Labour government would focus on strengthening national security, and would only deploy troops abroad if there was a clear need and a plan, adequate resources and a focus on delivering an outcome that delivered lasting peace. While the immediate target of his comments was the Conservative government, it was also a clear critique of past Labour policy, including in Iraq and Afghanistan, of which Corbyn has been a long-term critic.

Corbyn’s comments were met by the anticipatable howls of outrage from the Conservatives. But the Conservatives have struggled to control the debate that the comments unleashed, given their closeness to what had been said not only by those within the intelligence community, but also by members of the Conservative party.

While Prime Minister Theresa May sought to suggest that Corbyn was putting the blame for the attacks on British foreign policy, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon faced public ridicule after criticising a quote put to him by Channel 4 presenter Krishnan Guru-Murthy, which he thought belonged to Corbyn. “Isn’t it possible that things like the Iraq war did not create the problem of murderous Islamic fundamentalists, though the war has unquestionably sharpened the resentments felt by such people in this country and given them new pretext?” The words were those of none other than Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, dating back to the London bombings of 2005.

In what has been one of the most fast-moving electoral campaigns in recent British history, when it comes to party support there is still much that could change. However, what has become apparent is that terror attacks can have an unexpected impact—or lack of impact—on public opinion. In the early days after the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox last year by a right-wing extremist, just over a month before the referendum, some had thought it would change the tide on the anti-immigrant rhetoric being deployed in political campaigning, but that has not proved to be the case. In 2004, just three days before a general election in Spain, terrorists bombed Madrid’s train system, killing 192 people. The result proved disastrous for the centre-right People’s Party government, which had supported the American war in Iraq and which had led in the pre-attack polls. Ultimately it was the Socialists who won decisively.

In Britain, polls had already begun to show a narrowing of the gap between the Labour and the Conservatives following the publication of the two parties’ manifestos and the controversy over Conservative positioning on social care for the elderly. A poll by YouGov published on May 26, on the basis of polling conducted before the terror attack on Manchester, found that the Conservatives’ lead had fallen to 5 points from 9 points the week before. Whether the attack on Manchester can swing the balance even further remains to be seen.

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