Hunters in the House

There’s little point securing institutions from the outside, if they have failed to win the loyalty of those on the inside.

The invasion of the chamber of the House of Commons by a handful of pro-hunt campaigners last week led to the usual debate about security at public buildings.

Much of the discussion focused on the anachronism of allowing ‘men in tights’, rather than the Metropolitan Police, to dictate security arrangements at parliament. The fact that in recent years the police have failed to stop Greenpeace activists from scaling Big Ben and a self-styled comedy terrorist from getting into Prince William’s birthday party at Windsor Castle seems to have been forgotten.

But there is something more interesting going on here than a typical security blunder. Whether or not the protesters who got in through the relatively obscure Speaker’s entrance were, as suspected, directly aided by somebody inside – an MP, a researcher or a contractor – they clearly benefited from insider knowledge about the layout of parliament.

There is little point securing institutions from the outside, with CCTV, concrete blocks or armed guards, if those institutions have failed to win the loyalty of those on the inside. Many of the individuals employed in the House in the past will have disagreed with decisions taken in the chamber; but they would also have had a sense that their own private political persuasions were not sufficient to trump the significance of a public institution.

Of course some would have had to sign a piece of paper declaring that they were not politically motivated (although for obvious reasons the same could not apply to MPs and their researchers). But there would have been a clear divide between private morality and public action, which no longer seems to apply today.

This became evident earlier this year when former Privy Council member Clare Short – who threatened to resign, then stayed, and was finally dismissed for her views on the legality of invading Iraq – chose to go public and break the Official Secrets Act in relation to the UK’s role in spying on UN officials. This suggested that, for some in public office, personal moral conscience can take precedence over issues of public security.

Short, like pro-hunt activists, could have made her views known in public and tried to win support for them. That is the political process. Her willingness to bypass such a process reflected her own intellectual incompetence, and her contempt for the public. She was not alone. Throughout 2002 and early 2003, many ‘secrets’ relating to the forthcoming invasion of Iraq were leaked from within the Pentagon. It was well known that senior military staff were not happy with the proposals coming from within the White House. But again, rather than trying to win the argument behind closed doors, they went to the media.

The images from inside Abu Ghraib prison were also leaked by elements within the US military, rather than having emerged as the result of investigative journalism or Iraqis protesting about their treatment by coalition forces. Across the developed world, key social institutions seem unable to hold the line on what they are for. They fail to win the hearts and minds even of those they employ. It is this internal uncertainty that can give rise to breaches of security.

Real security derives from the quiet confidence of knowing who you are, what you stand for and where you are heading. And that is a political question, about how to cohere a consensus around social aims and values.

A journalist remarked to me during a recent radio interview that it was hardly difficult to infiltrate the House of Commons considering how many of its functions have now been outsourced. Catering, building, even security and IT are regularly performed by contractors. It’s a wonder, he said, that they haven’t outsourced the MPs themselves.

Funny as it was, this example also reveals something fundamental about what is happening today. Nobody wants to take responsibility for anything – because they don’t really believe in it. And this process starts at the very highest level of society. For example, there are more mercenaries and private security contractors in Iraq than there are British troops.

If the establishment wants some real security then the least it could do is take responsibility for its actions, and try to win the support of those individuals it employs.

First published on spiked, 24 September 2004

Animal-Rights Terrorism and the Demise of Political Debate

Winning over the many may be difficult but remains essential for defeating the few.

This summer, the United Kingdom Home Office launched a crackdown on animal-rights protestors who intimidate or harass people associated directly, or indirectly, with experiments on animals. The move followed action against the construction of an £18 million biomedical research
facility at South Parks Road in Oxford.

This had led the main contractor, Walter Lily & Co Ltd, like the concrete suppliers RMC before them, to pull out of the project to replace and update the university’s animal-testing facilities.

Both companies are subsidiaries of Montpellier plc, whose executive cars had been damaged with paint. The parent company’s investors had also received spoof letters purporting to come from the senior management team, and advising them to withdraw their interests in the company or risk being identified on a website run by activists. Why anyone would think that a company would threaten its own shareholders is not evident, but this led to a 20 per cent drop in the share price as some investors bailed out.

Read the full article (pdf format)

First published in World Defence Systems Vol.7, No.2, Autumn 2004, pp.202-203

Review: Cellular Phones, Public Fears, and A Culture of Precaution

Risk analysis today falls broadly into two opposite, methodological camps. Those who appeal to scientific evidence to explain or critique what they consider to be exaggerated public fears, and those who focus on sociological data to highlight people’s perceptions and hence seek to justify a more precautionary outlook. While most recognize that risk contains both a material element and a perceptual element, there is rarely a meeting of ways in their methods of analysis.

This is where Adam Burgess’ contribution to the debate is to be warmly welcomed. Rather than falsely comparing the statistical risk of one activity with another, as many in the scientific camp are prone to doing, Burgess, a lecturer in sociology at the University of Bath has produced an explicitly sociological analysis. But rather than taking people’s perceptions at face value he seeks to explain how these perceptions came to be constructed in the first place, thereby, challenging these and critiquing precaution.

Read the full review (pdf)

Cellular Phones, Public Fears, and a Culture of Precaution, Risk Analysis,
Vol.24, No.4, August 2004, pp.1066-1068

Facing the possibility of bioterrorism

Abstract: The possibility of bioterrorism has been met by significant financial outlays to map out public health responses. These have included comprehensive audits of potential agents, as well as exploring mechanisms for counteracting their impact. Psychological intervention and communication have been identified as key areas requiring further work, as fear of infection could pose a greater strain on social resources than the pathogens themselves. Bioterrorism provides a powerful metaphor for e´ lite fears of social corrosion from within. Accordingly, a broader historical and cultural perspective is required to understand why individuals and societies feel so vulnerable to what remain largely speculative scenarios. http://newsite.durodie.net

Facing the Possibility of Bio-Terrorism, Current Opinion in Biotechnology, Vol.15, No.3, pp.264-268, June 2004