Most of my time in Parliament and government has been spent against the background of high states of alert. We have always been told there are real threats of terrorist violence against the UK state. Can we ever look forward to a time when this is no longer true? Is there a danger that the currency of a heightened state of alert is devalued by its longstanding nature?
I took the threats very seriously when they came from the IRA. Escaping from the bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton unscathed, and avoiding the attack on Downing Street made the threats real and visible. The more generalised threat from ISIL has so far not materialised in the same way in Westminster and Whitehall, though the government would accuse people of complacency if they think its lack of success so far means it is not an effective and real future danger.
The problems with a continued heightened state of alert are how do you keep people suitably vigilant against an evil day when the threat takes on material form? How do you answer the criticism that open borders makes the threat more likely, as there are patterns of behaviour with extremists coming and going to training grounds and command groups in Middle Eastern countries before entering the UK to undertake violent assault.
The dilemma any democratic state faces when responding to a terrorist threat is how do you balance the wish to keep open your society, to preserve your freedoms of speech and assembly, without creating such easy conditions for evil to flourish. If the state tightens security too much and interrupts normal life in the interests of security it can lead to a backlash from those who cherish civil liberties and become suspicious of the extent of the threat and the best way to respond to it. If the state does too little, and there is an assault, then the converse criticism holds sway.
I come to the simple conclusion that as democrats we believe in talking through and voting on our differences, not allowing resort to violence to prosecute disagreements. That is why we need to offer diplomacy and education rather than bombs as our contribution to the various peace processes underway in the Middle East. That is why we need to ask whether violence does simply beget more violence of a kind which can damage our own social fabric. In the meantime we need to be grateful to those intelligence services that have intercepted past plots, and hope they continue to do so. We also need to improve our border controls to deal with extremists wishing to come here.