I knew that at some point I would be referring to this blog to talk about the deployment of British soldiers in London. I wanted to wait until I had spent a reasonable amount of time in the capital in order to appropriately communicate my thoughts on their presence and what it means for public policy.
Yesterday (Sunday 28th May), I got my chance. I spent what was quite a lovely, if not rain-soaked, afternoon with a female friend in and around Westminster. Originally, we had planned to go on the London Eye, but since the weather made this a little implausible, we headed for the National Gallery and dinner instead.
Before meeting, I walked to Whitechapel via Buckingham Palace Road and The Mall, having been re-routed to London Victoria by limits on Southeastern train services. I got to examine our ‘Paras’ stationed in strategic locations, most notably either side of the front face of Buckingham Palace, at gated side entrances and exits, outside Downing Street and around Westminster Palace.
I was interested in taking a look at this intriguing new development because I wanted to gauge, firstly, whether the introduction of the British Armed Forces to the streets of London would make me, a Londoner, feel safer in the city that I love, and secondly, what kind of impression it would give of Britain’s security and counter-terrorism efforts.
The answer to my first question came very quickly. It did not make me feel safer (and that is not to say that I felt particularly unsafe to begin with). Terrorism is a distant, muted fear in the back of my mind when going about my business in busy commuter and tourist hotspots, but I am usually able to effectively repress any needless overthinking or stress.
I spent some time watching every soldier I spotted. Most appeared utterly bored by the whole ordeal, as I would imagine is the overriding emotion after standing in the same spot watching people for hours on end. Others were entertaining themselves through mild conversation with accompanying police officers (it might be worth asking why we didn’t just reverse cuts and invest in more officers to begin with).
Please don’t think I am attacking individual Paras, but what struck me most was how static and distracted they seemed. They are exceptionally well trained and will, I’m sure, give their utmost to protect citizens in the likely event of more jihadism. But they certainly didn’t make me feel any safer.
If anything, the presence of troops stands as evidence of the now blatant failure of deep cuts to police budgets. This has been made exponentially worse by a sizeable increase in the UK’s population and alterations to the national terror threat level.
French troops were deployed on the streets of Paris many moons ago and we can hardly assert that incidents of terrorism are less likely to take place, if we have been paying attention to anything over the last two years. Any reasonable betting man will also conclude that more attacks are on their way, whether London is cluttered with British Army regiments or not.
Furthermore, what of Manchester? Or Birmingham? Or other major British cities otherwise excluded from the nation’s Westminster-dominated political consensus? Will they be supplemented with soldiers that make them look as vulnerable, violent and incapable of civil defence as the more corrupt corners of Africa and Eastern Europe? I hope not. There are better solutions available to us.
I do think that most of the support their mobilisation this week received was down either to tribal, instinctive support for the country’s foremost line of defence, or to the fact that most people consider soldiers to be exotic and a rare spectacle, which I think explains the craving that many have to take pictures with them and attend various community events and displays.
As a patriot, I admit to sharing in the glamorous appeal that the British Armed Forces retain. I have huge admiration for their skill and bravery. Just not for the decision to station them in predictable and already robustly defended parts of the capital.
Military presence, despite the talent and authority of the individuals on guard, has the ironic effect of making the country look a little weak; frightened into action by jihadists the government isn’t strong enough to take care of by itself.
It violates the country’s most profound value: liberty. Historical accounts tell me that we were once a free, calm country and one not easily panicked at home, but increasingly we seem troubled and unfree. I think this is worth pondering.
Deportations are in order where legally possible, prisons and mosques are in need of thorough combings in the search for radicalising forces and the long, slow path back from the perils of multiculturalism must too be forged. Soldiers, though, could well prove to be a non-answer to a very complicated problem.
And when terrorism once again meets the streets of London, perhaps even Westminster, you’ll see what I mean.