Anthony Sampson: There should be less, not more, security in the corridors of power

The real solution is to deprive Westminster and the centres of authority of their insulation and secretive mystique
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The Independent Online

Before we become obsessed by the demands for total security, let's be clear about the real cost of it; and face the fact that it's impossible to live in a risk-free environment if we are to maintain any sense of democracy and open government.

Before we become obsessed by the demands for total security, let's be clear about the real cost of it; and face the fact that it's impossible to live in a risk-free environment if we are to maintain any sense of democracy and open government.

The Palace of Westminster was always highly exposed - even after Guy Fawkes had tried to blow it up. In the heart of the capital, with a long river frontage vulnerable to any speedboat with a bomb, it is a symbol of openness. Members of Parliament are meant to be seen as representing their people, without any special rights for protection. Only the prime minister, as the leader of the nation, is an obvious target for terrorists - and he only goes there once a week.

But the problem about the security industry - the fastest-growing of all - is that it quickly becomes an end in itself, as it accumulates guards, gates and equipment. It may not be very effective in excluding intruders; but it is the natural ally of bureaucracy, encouraging all institutions to cut themselves off from the public.

And it has transformed the nature of politics, as is most evident, not at Westminster, but at the party conferences, which begin this weekend with the Liberal Democrats at Bournemouth.

Twenty years ago, the conferences were still what they were first meant to be, occasions when politicians could present themselves to their voters, where they could mingle with the public in seaside resorts chosen for their holiday atmosphere. The party leaders could still preserve a relaxed accessibility: they could walk along the beach or explore the funfairs where anyone could go up and talk to them. There was a slight risk of being pelted with rotten eggs or tomatoes; but that was always part of the game of the hustings.

Then came the Brighton bomb from the IRA in 1984, which nearly killed Mrs Thatcher and injured two of her ministers. Mrs Thatcher herself rightly saw it as a threat to democracy: "an attempt to cripple Her Majesty's democratically elected government", and she refused to be cowed.

But party conferences were never the same again. The conference centres were converted into fortresses, excluding anyone who did not have the elaborate credentials. Police moved in everywhere, closing streets, commandeering car parks. Politicians were driven from the centres to hotels lest they met angry members of the public.

The Labour conference in Bournemouth last year looked as if it had been taken over by an army of occupation. Visitors had little chance of a casual encounter with a politician on the beach.

The extension of security fitted all too well with the changing political machinery, which encouraged zealous party organisers to keep out trouble-makers and manipulate the debates and TV cameras with little danger of unexpected interruptions from ordinary voters. They could pre-plan the agenda of resolutions and standing ovations, and project debates onto the television screens, without awkward objections from interlopers.

However it is not just politicians, but bureaucrats who wish to keep the public at bay, who now see security as their natural ally. Anyone who wants to avoid contact with their customers - voters, shareholders, consumers or viewers - finds an ideal excuse for excluding them: "for security reasons".

Over the past 20 years, most big office blocks have become more like fortresses defended against casual visitors. As a journalist who tries to keep in touch with very different professions, I've become painfully aware of the change. The rituals of security - writing the name in the book, receiving the badge, waiting in reception, being escorted through the corridors by minions with swipe-cards to open the doors - have become the accepted rites of entry, taken for granted like passports and immigration desks to a foreign country.

The denizens with their own badges and swipe-cards take the rituals for granted, and welcome them as the keys to their own territory, to the castle where they can pull up the drawbridge. But for visitors, they are a constant reminder of the wide moat between them and us.

In sequestered occupations, like accounting, banking or insurance, this insulation may be harmless enough. But for any business - including (dare we say) the media - which depends on understanding its customers, the protection exacts a heavy price; for the whole machinery of security encourages the natural tendency of all bureaucracies to turn inward.

And in politics, the price is more expensive than anywhere; for the cult of security encourages the segregation and professionalisation of people who desperately need to follow an opposite trend - to come closer to their constituents and followers, at a time when they are losing contact with millions of young and alienated non-voters, on whom their future should depend.

So how far is this huge apparatus really conditioned by the need for security, or how far has it become a self-sustaining industry which is part of a bureaucratic momentum. For myself, I have never felt confident of the security rituals; after my travels through corporate castles, I have collected a whole drawer of name-tags which I have forgotten to give in on leaving. I have never noticed a really watchful security guard - even in the most secretive Whitehall bastions - who was on the lookout for a suspicious intruder.

When I visit a media headquarters, sometimes giving my name to three successive guardians, I keep wondering: what is the manuscript or laptop so secret and precious that it is worth all this cost, in both money and isolation.

The question is still more pressing among politicians, whether at party conferences, or in Westminster. What secrets in MPs' offices are so crucial, what intruders are so dangerous, that they justify still stricter security to protect them, when the price of that security is a still more segregated political class, cut off from the public, who in turn are alienated from them.

The answer now, of course, is that the intruders could be terrorists with guns or bombs. But that is not convincing. For real protection against terrorists requires far more subtle techniques by much more watchful specialists than the present easygoing inspectors. And everyone knows that serious terrorists could spray the terraces with machine guns, and even sabotage the debating chamber, much more easily than Guy Fawkes.

The real solution is not to extend security still further, which only provides still further challenges to The Sun or to exhibitionist demonstrators to find their way in. It is to deprive Westminster and the centres of power of their insulation and their secretive mystique, and to confine elaborate security to the few important offices which contain real national secrets.

The more open politics and government appear, the more they seem as ordinary as Oxford Street, the less they will excite protesters or terrorists - who depend, in the end, on attracting attention and high drama.