16 October 2020

Beyond Covid, the UK must face up to renewed threats


While the debate about pandemic management rages on, we ought not to lose sight of the various other threats the UK continues to face. Exploitative forces within and without are looking to take advantage of Covid-induced institutional frailties to sow division and destabilise our democracy.

These were the themes which emerged from Ken McCallum’s first media briefing as the new Director General of MI5. 

Among the dangers he outlined were the rise of far-right extremism, now the fastest-growing terror threat in the UK, alongside the established prevailing threat of Islamist extremism.

As I’ve set out for CapX previously, the pandemic has highlighted the crassly opportunistic instincts of extremists. Neo-Nazi organisations have weaponised the virus to incite hatred towards Jews through unfounded conspiracy theories.

Far-right cyber-actors have also sought to generate anti-Muslim hatred by sharing misleading footage of pre-pandemic gatherings as if they had taken place after the outbreak. Islamist ideologues have also exploited the situation to peddle an aggressively anti-government narrative, including claims that a vaccine will be used to deliberately harm minority communities, or that the pandemic itself is just a pretext to “control” the population.

The threats are not all home-grown, of course. McCallum also cited Russian, Chinese, and Iranian espionage as a problem – one growing in severity and complexity. It’s not just the Government being targeted, but companies, critical infrastructure and academia too. Of particular concern is the arrival of Russian ‘Black PR’, which seeks to intensify existing polarisation in British political life, as well as shape outcomes in the English judicial system.

As for China, McCallum raised the well-documented concerns about the involvement of Huawei in our 5G infrastructure, with a parliamentary inquiry concluding there was “clear evidence” of collusion between the technology company and the Chinese Communist Party. There is growing concern too over the UK’s vulnerability to Chinese espionage through our universities, with a new report documenting the potential scale of the risks.

Meanwhile, a recent report by Facebook revealed that Iran’s state broadcaster had sought to influence the outcome of a number of Western elections – including the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence.

The pandemic is a serious wake-up call, reminding us how important it is to invest in creating resilient local communities which are resilient against divisive extremist narratives. High-trust, cohesive communities, fostered through positive intergroup contact, are integral to reducing the socially corrosive impact of radical ideologies.

And given the prevalence of unfounded online conspiracy theories, the UK needs to develop a more sophisticated counter-disinformation infrastructure – something that is also crucial to repel the efforts of Russia, Iran and China to to undermine our democracy. 

Addressing these issues is not simply a matter of technical fixes, better cyber defences, important though they may be. What the UK needs is a grand project of democratic renewal which strengthens the relationship between citizen and state.The UK lags behind the likes of Germany, Canada and Australia in terms of political trust and satisfaction with the democracy – something which is unlikely to have improved after the Government’s often chaotic, flustered approach to the pandemic.

Another crucial lesson from this awful year is the urgent need to shift away from our tired, inefficient, over-centralised model of governance, to a more dynamic, efficient, localised arrangement. That decentralisation must mean handing more power to trusted local bodies with specialist, on-the-ground knowledge – something which will in turn make our communities more resilient to those who seek to divide us.

There are some things that are the preserve of central government, however, not least protecting us all from the risk of industrial espionage in strategically sensitive sectors. Covid must be the spur to reform our institutions, making them immune to hostile states who want to undermine both our democracy and the rule of law itself.

This government likes its three-word slogans. Here is one it should now adopt: resilience, resilience, resilience.

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Dr Rakib Ehsan is a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.