Executive measures, terrorism and national security

Here’s a book I’d like to read:

“Executive Measures, Terrorism and National Security: Have the Rules of the Game Changed?”, by David Bonner, Ashgate Press, ISBN: 978-0754647560.

However, this £65 scholarly monograph by a Leicester University law professor is unlikely to go on my Amazon wish-list anytime soon.

According to a Leicester University press release announcing publication of the book, the starting point of the discussion is Tony Blair’s infamous declaration of August 2005 that, in relation to terrorism and the measures required to combat it, “the rules of the game are changing”.

We are told that Bonner’s book presents “an historical and contemporary legal analysis of governmental use of ‘executive measures’, rather than criminal process, to deal with terrorism and national security threats.”

The press release goes on to paraphrase Ulster academic Colm Campbell’s endorsement:

“…a ‘cogent challenge’ to the Prime Minister’s claim. Reflecting on the proper role of the judiciary, it suggests that the only rule that clearly has changed is one that Mr Blair would prefer had not: a new willingness of the courts in the Human Rights Act era to subject executive use of these powers to searching scrutiny rather than, as in the past, to be over deferential to executive and legislative opinion.”

This is an important point. When liberal opinion rightly decries new threats to civil liberties, and the centralisation of state power, we are at the same time seeing an increasing willingness of the courts – driven by civil society – to scrutinise and check the state’s use of executive powers. Maybe the political dynamic is more complex and mature than some give it credit for.

I’m just glad that our judiciary are not appointed by political patronage, as they are in the US. That said, British judges are still nowhere near as liberal and proactive as their counterparts in some other European democracies. I recall Neal Ascherson writing about this some years ago, but do not have the sources to hand.

Another reviewer – Durham University’s Ian Leigh – says:

“…this scholarly account shows that we have faced the danger of oppressive over-reaction to threats to national security many times before … Will we learn from history or are we doomed merely to repeat it?”

I’m not sure we ever “repeat” history, as such, but those with political power and the will to retain it do play on the popular modern obsession with present over past. And all the more so as we suffer from an increasing information deluge, and allow ourselves less and less time for the study of who and what went before.


Frank Furedi will next week speak at Chatham House on how to diminish the impact of terrorist threats. Furedi says:

“Unlike in previous wars and conflicts, today our sense of terror precedes and extends beyond acts of terrorism. Official reaction is driven by a narrative of fear that invites us to regard terrorism as incomprehensible, senseless and beyond meaning. Such a response based on confusion authorises acts of speculation and fantasy as legitimate forms of threat assessment. This dramatisation of security transmits a sense of helplessness that inadvertently offers society’s enemies an invitation to terrorise. The good news is that it is not very difficult to diminish the impact of this threat through changing the way we engage with it.”

As with most Furedist writings, there is a superficial plausibility to the above. But the more one reads it, the less it makes sense.