A response to Owen Jones on debating terrorism

The news this weekend has been dominated by the response of Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, to the brutal Manchester attack. Public opinion was sharply divided by his speech, in which he argued that British foreign policy has contributed to the radicalisation of terrorists like Salman Abedi.

In case, you haven’t seen it yet you can watch it again here.

I gave this post the title of ‘a response to Owen Jones…’ not as an attempt to single him out for criticism, but simply because reading his thoughtful and impassioned post is what inspired me to write my own. I may not agree with his conclusion, but he was right to call out Corbyn’s critics for misrepresenting his position on terrorism and his post is well worth a read.

My argument in a nutshell

There is a saying I remember from my days as a public relations officer: if you can’t sum up your argument in a sentence, then you don’t understand it properly. This is a pretty important rule to live by when your job is to condense 100 page reports into a one page press release, as was mine, and it is just as important to my current profession of teaching people how to debate issues that divide public opinion — like this one. So, here goes.

In a nutshell, I think Jeremy Corbyn may have had a point when he said British foreign policy has made Britain more of a target for terrorist attacks, but I also think his call to change that policy was motivated by his own political ideology and not an honest assessment of how best to keep people safe.

I feel at this point a disclaimer is in order. Whatever I do for a living does not make me any more objective than Owen Jones or anyone else for that matter. When it comes to politics, I would describe myself as a Corbyn-sceptic and tend to agree with the Conservative party on counter-terrorism policy. On most other issues I align most closely with the Liberal Democrats.

It is important that you know that, so you can hold me to the same standard of scrutiny to which I intend to hold Mr Corbyn in this post.

What Owen was definitely right about

Since the speech was delivered on Friday morning, I have seen countless headlines, facebook posts, and interview sound bites accusing Jeremy Corbyn of trying to excuse or explain away Salman Abedi’s heinous act of terror by placing the blame on British foreign policy instead. You only have to watch the first few minutes of his speech to see this is patently not true.

Equally, raising the question of what causes the radicalisation of terrorists like Abedi in the first place is not the same thing as blaming someone else. The way I know this is that nobody is accusing Theresa May of blaming facebook and twitter for the Manchester attacks when she argues that they cause radicalisation by giving ISIS a platform to share their propaganda.

Identifying the conditions that allow people to recruit and organise followers who wish to do us harm does not absolve anyone of anything. Indeed, I would be alarmed if the government was not doing anything to tackle them.

Misrepresenting someone’s position, as Corbyn’s critics have done to him in order to make his argument easier to beat, is what’s known in debating language as a straw man fallacy. It may help you to score some cheap points, but it does not help anyone who is genuinely looking to you for guidance when deciding where they stand in an important debate. Luckily for us, Channel 4 News were on hand to expose this on Friday night, much to the embarrassment of Defence Secretary, Sir Michael Fallon.

The question we need to answer, therefore, is whether Mr. Corbyn was right to claim that British foreign policy helps create those conditions.

Why Jeremy Corbyn may have had a point…

In his post, Owen Jones made a huge effort to deal with the objection that has dominated this debate so far — that there is no link between British foreign policy and the radicalisation of would-be terrorists here in the UK.

He did this by going out of his way to highlight the numerous expert opinions within the British and American intelligence communities that appear to support Jeremy Corbyn’s position.

Now, it should be made clear that none of the paragraphs Owen devoted to this were particularly persuasive. This is simply because arguing that lots of important people agree with you only proves that lots of important people agree with you — and little else. He and Mr. Corbyn didn’t have much time for Tony Blair when he used the exact same method to back up his case for going to war in Iraq, so we shouldn’t let them off either.

Again, in debating circles, we call this an appeal to authority fallacy and it is one of the most pervasive fallacies there is because we place so much trust in the people we consider to be experts — well, some of us still do anyway.

However, the sheer volume of expert opinion that Owen amassed is surely enough to suggest that Corbyn may have had a point — at least one that was worth investigating further rather than dismissing out of hand. Alas, such is the heated nature of this debate, that rather than giving this question the attention it deserves, it has reduced both sides to exchanges like this:

P.S. sorry, Owen, honestly not trying to pick on you here — this is just the best example I could find. Personally I blame the moderator as this is far from the first Sky News debate to descend into an angry tit for tat exchange.

…and why he still failed to persuade me

Because this debate has quite understandably fixated on the perceived link between foreign policy and radicalisation, it has overlooked two other claims that Mr. Corbyn made in his speech that are perhaps even more important.

  1. As Prime Minister, he would do whatever necessary to keep people safe.
  2. British foreign policy must be changed in order to keep people safe.

In other words, he wasn't just trying to convince me that a link between foreign policy and terrorism existed. He was also trying to convince me that foreign policy needed to change as a result, in addition to a raft of other measures, such as increasing the number of police officers. But, most importantly of all, he was trying to convince me that he had reached this conclusion after considering all the available options — as after all, there was nothing he wouldn't do to keep me and my fellow citizens safe.

These are two glaring assumptions that have largely gone unquestioned — mainly because he didn't say much about them. As it turns out, the things politicians don’t say, matter just as much (if not more) than the things they do say, which is where mere fact-checking becomes of limited use.

So, is Jeremy Corbyn willing to do whatever is necessary to keep us safe? No, I don’t think he is, but then I don’t think Theresa May is either and if you think that question through for a moment, would you really want to vote for someone who would be willing to do whatever it takes? In the extreme, for example, placing everyone under house arrest or inserting a microchip in our bodies that allows the state to monitor our every movement, might well help root out more terrorists from our ranks. Yet, even if it turned out neither method was particularly effective after all, I would like to hope that would not be the only reason for opposing them.

Returning to the post by Owen Jones that inspired this one for a second, the line that I respected most about it read:

It should be said here that I opposed the Iraq war because it was wrong. If I believed something was the right thing to do, but would risk fuelling extremist ideology, I would still think it’s the right thing to do.

A cursory glance at Corbyn’s voting record over the decades suggests he feels the same way — thankfully — as there are very few policies introduced with the aim of keeping people safe that he has ever supported. Several of them, it should be said, such as ID cards and extending pre-charge detention to 90 days, have been opposed by many Conservatives too.

What I needed to hear from him, therefore, was what test did his proposals pass that these other measures had failed for so many years and why did that make his plans better than any other on offer? I've always known of his strong ideological objections to mass surveillance and foreign wars, but that is different from believing that your policy is the best option available.

By skipping over this and instead insisting that he was only interested in doing whatever was necessary to keep us safe, which just happened to be a reversal of our current foreign policy, he ducked out of the debate we should be having now. What concerns me more is my suspicion that he did this to avoid the same scrutiny he has so tirelessly applied to others before him.

That is why I found his speech to be both dishonest and disingenuous, especially coming so soon after the Manchester attack when people like me really are scared and look to our leaders to keep us safe. Indeed, exploiting terrorist attacks to pass laws that Corbyn called draconian was something he himself was fiercely critical of previous governments for doing in the past.

It made me feel like he was trying to dupe me into agreeing that his political agenda and the national interest were one and the same thing. I have to say I did not appreciate that, which is why I was not persuaded, even though I think he had a valid point that has since been completely misconstrued.

In summary…

There are three thoughts I would like you to take away from this post:

  1. If you want to hold someone to account for their views, you should start by responding to what they actually said and not just a version of it that you created in order to smear them. Straw men catch fire very easily.
  2. Fact-checking is essential to testing the credibility of an individual claim, but it has its limits as debating a question means paying as much attention to the things people don’t say as well as the things they do.
  3. When you passionately disagree with someone, it is not enough to simply focus on all the things you think are wrong with their argument. You also need to think about what it would take for them to convince you they are right and then work out exactly where they are falling short and why.

And thank you, Owen, for motivating me to write this in the first place.