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Britain 'will not want to carry on as before'

June 4, 2017

The latest attack in London comes only days ahead of one of Britain's most crucial general elections in decades. DW asked political scientist Anthony Glees what bearing it might have.

Britannien London - Terroranschlag
Image: Getty Images/AFP/D. Leal-Ollivas

DW: Major political parties have, at least temporarily, suspended the election campaign. Is it possible to assess the political consequences of the attack's coming so shortly before the parliamentary elections?

Anthony Glees: I think it is possible to asses the consequences. For one thing we've got a Labour Party led by somebody who believes that you can talk to terrorists and bring them to the conference table. The Islamists are clearly not people who want to talk to anybody at a conference table. They want to explode the conference table.

We've also got a Conservative prime minister who, when she was in the Home Office, abolished one of the few measures that could have protected people in Britain from this kind of terrorism: namely, control orders.

I think it's inevitable that, in the next few days of the election campaign, people will look to the security record of Jeremy Corbyn, who's also said he's opposed to a shoot-to-kill policy. I don't think you'd find anyone in London this morning that was not grateful that police shot these people to kill them within eight minutes of being called out. Jeremy Corbyn has also made a big deal out of his relationship with the IRA and with other groups, like Fatah and Hamas, that many people consider to be terrorists

However, there will also be questions about Theresa May's judgment because her past has also been, by no means, uncheckered.

As home secretary, May was responsible for budget cuts to the police. On the other hand, citizens often trust the Conservatives more than the left.  What will sway them more come election day?  

It's a very good question because the positions have actually been outlined. And, in the aftermath of the Manchester bombing almost a fortnight ago, people did know very clearly what the two sides of the arguments were. Jeremy Corbyn, who looking at the issue globally, said that what's significant is that Britain should not intervene in foreign wars - that we should talk peace to the world rather than intervening, and that there is a kind of link, an unspecified link, between Islamist terrorism and the sort of foreign policy that Britain has had in the past.

Then, there's Theresa May, who's been saying we need more of the same but nothing too dramatic.

Professor Anthony Glees
Glees  is a professor at the University of Buckingham and directs its intelligence studies program. He has written and lectured on Islamism, terrorism, counterterrorism and aspects of the history of British intelligenceImage: University of Buckingham

These are arguments that we've already been thinking about against the background of the terrorist attack in Manchester, and what's happened is that Jeremy Corbyn has been doing well. Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party are increasing their popular support. Theresa May is losing popular support.

My feeling is that, at the end of the day on Thursday, it will rebound in favor of Theresa May, and that is because - even if she has made mistakes and even if the Conservatives have made mistakes - the ideology of the Conservative Party on security has been clear and strong and firm, whereas the ideology of Labour under Corbyn has been decidedly pacifist and weak. I don't think that will play well on Thursday, when people are actually at the ballot box.

After every attack, we see police being deployed and foreign leaders expressing their solidarity. However, nothing seems to be changing. Are politicians powerless on this issue?

I don't think they're powerless. I think there are things that they can do that they've been reluctant to do, but Theresa May just a few minutes ago (on Sunday morning) spoke about the need to tighten up substantially things like powers of arrest, the powers of detention and the powers of exclusion from the United Kingdom. The doubling of the number of people in MI5, Britain's security service, is also very important. They tell us that there are 23,000 people in the United Kingdom who want to do us harm. We can't fight these people - let alone defeat them - with the same number of people in our security service as we had when we were talking about hundreds, or a few thousand.

We still have no information about the organizers of the attack, but there is an assumption that we are dealing with terrorism by Islamists. The UK seems to be targeted relatively often. Is there a specific reason for this?

I think the reason is that we have been weakened as a country by a number of things: by successive elections, the Scottish referendum, the general election, the Brexit referendum and now this general election.

We're a very divided, very uncertain country, and we look vulnerable. Islamists are like the big beasts in the jungle: They go for those they perceive as being weak, and that is the position that Britain is in right now. Without doubt, the Brexit issue has weakened Britain because nobody knows what Brexit means or how it will play out. Nobody knows - not even those who supported it have come up with any clear idea.

There are historical reasons, as well, such as the invasion of Iraq - not that that was an attack on Islamism, of course: It was an attack on Saddam Hussein and his purported weapons of mass destruction.

So far, people in Britain have shown restraint in their response. Are you seeing any risk of that changing in the future?

I think the British people will demand the gloves come off now. I think there will be more control orders, there'll be more exclusion, there'll be more MI5 officers, there may be other measures, as well. I think the British people will not want to carry on as before.

Richard Connor Reporting on stories from around the world, with a particular focus on Europe — especially Germany.