Tackling terrorism is a difficult job – and that's why it should be taken away from Whitehall

The remarkably shallow election campaign focus on security reinforces the urgent need to depoliticise our collective response

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The Independent Online

As we grieve for the victims of recent terrorist attacks, we must shift to new ways of thinking to help us tackle the most brutal terrorist violence of modern times.

We are in this for the long haul, so our new approach must be above party politics. If it is to succeed, it requires the type of long-term strategic thinking and leadership that many politicians and community leaders have dodged for years. Most difficult for many, this must include rigorous analysis and honesty about past mistakes – including the occasional major failure caused by Whitehall group-think.

For decades now, UK governments have been complicit in allowing the importation and incubation of neo-Salafist ideology. Now, a generation later, we are beginning to see what a huge mistake that this has been. We have compounded this mistake by allowing some of our communities to plough their own furrow, failing to instil British values and norms, and thereby facilitating those who seek to do us harm.

We are facing a very 21st century, complex, national emergency that has embedded itself over decades. Getting to grips with this challenge of our age will require the efforts of almost all sectors of our national life. The remarkably shallow election campaign focus on security reinforces the urgent need to depoliticise our collective response.

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Most important of all, however, we must recognise that the traditional Whitehall structure needs to change. For all the many successes we have seen, overall the system has demonstrated that it is simply not up to this job. It has ducked difficult questions and failed to keep us safe. It has allowed a home-grown enemy to flourish.

Whitehall must now delegate and devolve control so that local and regional leaders have access to all the necessary levers across their communities, and are in full charge. Whitehall will be busy enough managing and controlling issues at the national and international level.

At present there is no one individual responsible or accountable across the board for security and community resilience and cohesion in, say, London, the Midlands, or the North West. Our divide and rule Whitehall-dominated present system with multiple layers and bodies and talking-shop committees must be replaced with one regional 'boss' in overall charge. Not only is this the pragmatic way ahead to manage an integrated security and community campaign of this scale, but it meets the mood of the nation which has clearly lost confidence in the established party political process with all jobs in the hands of the governing party.

So I suggest the following: power, responsibility and accountability for security, community resilience and cohesion for each region of the UK must lie in the hands of one person. This individual requires secretary of state level authority and control over all security and community related departments, officials and elected mayors and police commissioners within their region. Each region will have different needs and dynamics and balances between security and non-security resources. The traditional centralised Whitehall approach, with the Prime Minister, overseeing each department is long past its shelf life.

It is also time for new honest and focused engagement with Muslims in Britain about the corruption of their faith that we are witnessing across the world. At the same time, we must reassure the vast majority of British Muslims that they are equally respected, valued and welcome as any other citizen. This new engagement can only be done effectively at local and regional level, underneath the responsibility of the PM.

These regional bosses must report directly to the Prime Minister – who is the one individual ultimately responsible, and accountable, for the UK’s safety. Regional bosses must not solely herald from the political party of government, and they must be exceptional leaders and listeners.

What is at stake is too serious to leave to one Home Secretary and a confused structure of committees. By devolving control of this campaign to regional level, we will soon establish who and what works best. We will then be able to reinforce success and learn from successes and failures. 

With Brexit and a national emergency staring us in the face, we have no option other than to be bold. It is time to be truly innovative and entrepreneurial. We have often been our best and inspiration to others when history calls.

The big question is will our next government do better than those who allowed this situation to develop? Will it have the courage to do the necessary uncomfortable thinking and give us the combined security and community structure fit for purpose in tackling this enormous challenge?

Nigel Hall is a former brigadier and the founder and managing director of NHJ Strategic Consulting.