March 1, 2016
In my previous piece (2nd February) I said that immigration was close to the top of Britons’ concerns, according to an Economist/Ipsos MORI poll. Security, identified in the poll as ‘Defence/foreign affairs/terrorism’, was regarded as the most important issue, although it was only just ahead of immigration. However, as I suggested, the various concerns are hard to separate from each other: immigration is linked in some people’s minds to security.
On 21st February 2016, Iain Duncan Smith MP (he is Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and a member of the Cabinet) was interviewed on BBC Radio 4. He gave the interview just after a Cabinet meeting, which followed immediately on the Prime Minister’s return from the Brussels negotiations on the UK’s relationship to the EU. He said that staying in the EU ‘exposes (the) UK to terror risk’; it will make the UK more vulnerable to Paris-style terrorist attacks.
Do these claims stand up to examination? Why should being in the EU make the UK more vulnerable, increasing the probability of Paris-style terrorist attacks? Why would the UK be safer outside the EU? This blog attempts to provide some answers to these questions. It ends with some observations on wider concerns about terrorism.
One feature of the Paris attacks, much remarked on, was that at least some of the attackers came from outside France – Belgium to be precise. Because of the open borders, it is said, they were not able to be detained on the way to Paris, even though some of them were known to police. However, the UK is not in Schengen and has passport checks for everyone entering, including people from the EU. Individuals who are on the radar as potential terrorists can therefore be picked up, assuming that the required intelligence is communicated. There are of course a few people who manage to smuggle themselves into the UK, for example in the back of a truck. However, anyone planning a serious terrorist attack is hardly likely to rely on smuggling people.
If the UK left the EU, the only difference from today would be that EU citizens could not remain indefinitely without permission. The UK would continue to receive large numbers of people as visitors for tourism, business and other reasons. Would-be terrorists would not be looking to stay. Security intelligence would be required to allow suspects to be picked up at the border, just as they are currently. Such intelligence is critical; it is totally unrealistic to vet people in advance of entry. Close international co-operation between police and other security services is essential. It’s not likely that leaving the EU would make co-operation better; the reverse, if anything.
A final point to note about terrorism in the UK is that the worst outrage in recent years – the 7th July 2005 co-ordinated attacks on public transport in London – was committed by UK citizens. There have also been some attempted attacks that failed, one of which was just two weeks later. Again, the perpetrators were UK citizens.
The threat of terrorism, in particular from groups such as al Qaeda, Daesh and other self-styled jihadis, is now a major concern around the world, in some cases bordering on the paranoid. Donald Trump, for example, is playing on the fear with his fantasy about not letting Muslims into the USA. Obviously, we should not minimise the threat; we need to be cautious.
But we also need a sense of perspective. In the years following the 9/11 attacks – 2002 to 2015 – the total number of deaths in the USA from firearms, including homicides, accidents and suicides, amounted to around 400,000. These figures dwarf the 400 or so killed by terrorism within the USA and overseas in attacks targeting Americans: that’s one death from terrorism to 1,000 from non-terrorist firearms incidents. And some of the terrorist attacks had no connection with Islamic extremism: one was targeted at an abortion clinic, another was committed by a white supremacist, for instance. One thing the jihadis are trying to do is sow fear into Western societies. Excessive overreaction is just what they want.
Notes and sources
 The Economist/Ipsos MORI poll of issues facing Britain, December 2015. The results can be found at: https://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/3673/EconomistIpsos-MORI-December-2015-Issues-Index.aspx. The figures include the most important and other important issues, not just the most important.
 See http://edition.cnn.com/2015/10/02/us/oregon-shooting-terrorism-gun-violence/ for more information.pbye