Carry on chillaxing, Prime Minister, we can cope with this in your absence

Remember that on a purely statistical basis, the risk from terrorism is vanishingly small

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The Independent Online

Do you feel less safe in your home, or on the streets,  because at this very moment David Cameron is on a short break with his family in Ibiza? No, me neither.

Yet a large section of the British media is concerned that you might be feeling neglected. Actually, they are not so much concerned: more like apoplectic.

Thus the Daily Mail asks in an extended headline: “Is Ibiza chillaxed enough for you, Prime Minister? As grieving wife and fiancée of terror attack soldier lay flowers at the scene of his murder, Cameron jets off to Ibiza for a sunshine break.” The piece is accompanied by photographs of Cameron and his wife “as they relax at a beachside restaurant in Ibiza 1,500 miles from Woolwich.” How very dare they?

The Sun is even more scandalised, if that were possible. It has a page split between, on the left, a photo of Gunner Lee Rigby’s estranged wife weeping at the flowers marking the spot of his murder and, on the right, a photo of David and Samantha Cameron sipping coffee in the sun. The headline is “Hell… hol”.

According to the newspaper, Cameron was: “leaving Britain engulfed by the biggest terror crisis since 7/7.” It added: “Outrage spread to Twitter, too. Craig Budgen branded the holiday ‘disgraceful’ while Lyle Klich asked ‘Where are the present day Thatchers and Churchills?’”.

Some of us might observe that Twitter is the medium ideally suited to gratuitous expressions of faux-concern. As for the person apparently called Lyle Klich, whose thoughts are so in harmony with those at the Sun, it is worth recalling that Winston Churchill was not averse to a spot of what I suppose we must now call chillaxing. At the height of the Second World War, Churchill broke off critical discussions with the Allied chiefs of staff during a conference on military strategy, insisting that he needed a few days’ R&R in Marrakech. And it wouldn’t have been coffee that Churchill was sipping, while enjoying the sun.

Actually, the Sun was harking back to its own glorious age: the “Crisis? What Crisis?” front page of almost 35 years ago. Back in the ‘winter of discontent’ Prime Minister James Callaghan returned from an economic conference in the West Indian island of Guadelope, looking pleasantly tanned. He was asked at the airport by journalists what he was going to do about the ‘chaos’ in the UK. Callaghan replied, unwisely, that “I don’t think other people in the world would share the view that there is mounting chaos”. He never actually said “Crisis? What Crisis?”, as the Sun had it on their devastating front page the next day. But that headline did capture the mood of the nation, which is what made it so powerfully damaging to the Prime Minister.

I doubt, however, that the country today is similarly convinced that David Cameron has left us all in the lurch, by going ahead with his planned Bank Holiday family break, a few days after the murder in Woolwich of a soldier at the hands of two British Islamists.

Obviously, there was something peculiarly shocking about the incident: the thought of a man having his head all but hacked off in the middle of a London high street is macabre as well as distressing. Yet the fact that the victim was a soldier – and targeted as such – will actually have made the vast majority feel less, rather than more threatened. It was much less random than the previous acts of Islamist terror in the UK – and it is the apparent randomness of terrorism which earns it the right to be called terror: when anyone in the general population can be made to feel a potential target the terrorists achieve their objective of making an entire nation agitated.

After all, on a purely statistical basis, the risk from terrorism is vanishingly small. Some of that may indeed be down to the work of governments’ counter-terrorism, but the dry fact remains that one is more likely in the US or the UK to be killed or injured by a firework than by a jihadist’s explosives. Yet I know of no-one who  refuses to attend a Guy Fawkes party on grounds of risk.

And this is nothing compared to the dangers associated with common-or-garden crime. Thanks to an excellent new  initiative between the police and the Home Office, it is possible to know exactly how many and what sort of crimes have been taking place on the streets of Greenwich, the borough in which Gunner Lee Rigby was cut down.

It shows that in March alone this year there were 65 incidents of violent ‘street level’ criminal assaults in Greenwich and 14 incidents of what were categorised as ‘public disorder and weapons’. For London as a whole, the most recent Home Office annual figure for “knife crime” totals over 12,000 incidents – almost 17 for every 10,000 inhabitants – and “gun crime” just shy of 3,300 incidents.

Londoners seem to have a pretty realistic assessment of relative risks. Surveys show them to have considerable concern about the risks of mugging,  especially involving knives, but not much about the danger of, for example, being blown up in a tube train. If Londoners  were not so admirably phlegmatic about the risks of terrorism, the authorities would doubtless have had to introduce the same sort of interminable baggage  screening in the underground network,  following the 7/7 suicide bombings, as are now universal at airports.

That’s not necessarily a reason to start going all gooey about ‘The spirit of  the Blitz’; but the point is that ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ was a good evocation of the best attitude in the face of an  emergency. Cameron can doubtless keep in touch with events in London via  satellite technology, if he needs to, or he can come back early if he really feels it is beyond the combined wits of the Home Secretary, MI5, MI6 and the Metropolitan Police to handle the matter in his absence.

In fact, if he does rush back, then we really should start to worry. It would mean he worries more about factitious front pages than any Prime Minister should.