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Secure or not secure? UK security in 2020

Professor Anthony Glees, from the University of Buckingham, considers the various security tools the new government will have at its disposal after 31 December 2020

Any survey of the current security threats facing the UK (and how best they are to be countered after the UK has left the EU) must begin with the fixed truth that Brexit or no Brexit, the delivery of national security is one of the few core tasks of government, and if it fails to deliver it, its effectiveness and competence will (properly) be called into serious doubt.

This is well understood by those hostile state and sub-state actors who aim to do us damage and is, after all, why they threaten and attack us: it is to rock governments and undermine the confidence of the public in their ability to keep us safe. It has also been well understood by every UK government since the London attacks of 2005 and, we should assume, by the new government led by Boris Johnson, after his landslide victory against Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn. It is not fanciful to see that Corbyn’s clear sympathy for groups that many British people regard as terrorist or revolutionary played a key part in his ignominious defeat, itself a key indicator of the importance of security in our national life.

After reflecting on the nature of the current and potential threats facing the UK at the start of a new decade, we move to consider the various security tools the new government will have at its disposal after 31 December 2020 (the likely date of our full departure from the European Union which will also entail our formal exit from numerous EU-facilitated security institutions and data sharing platforms: Europol, Eurojust, the European Arrest Warrant or EAW, Passenger Name Record Data, INTCEN, ECRIS, SIS I & II, Prum, and several others). There will be those who will insist that because national security was not an EU competence (as the Lisbon Treaty makes plain) and because many intelligence-led arrangements are bilateral and, in any case, the UK prospers from its ongoing participation in the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence sharing partnership, Brexit itself makes no difference to our national security position. Indeed, a few angry voices, such as those of Sir Richard Dearlove, former head of SIS or Richard Walton, former Met chief, either insisted the UK would be more secure post-Brexit or that tools we shared via our EU membership, for example Europol, would be unaffected. The current Home Secretary, Priti Patel, has suggested that Europol could easily be replaced by Interpol as an agency promoting police intelligence sharing after 2020.

As we shall see, the argument that Brexit may make little difference to our security toolkit is perhaps not incorrect but not because such ‘ourselves alone’ claims are correct (they are not) but because the delivery of national security is so vital to any government, however ideological, that when push comes to shove it is unthinkable that the new tools that have been constructed over the past decade together with our former EU partners will not, in some form or another, be given new life. There are very few current security or intelligence chiefs who have not spoken out in favour of very close sharing relationships post-Brexit, including the outgoing heads of MI5 and SIS, and for a very good reason.

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