Three major terror attacks in as many months have brought a renewed focus on extremism in the United Kingdom, as the country grieves for the dozens killed and authorities search for answers. And as the U.K. heads into a general election this week, the attacks have added vitriol to the debate over how the British government should best address national security.
At least seven people were killed when three men careened a van into pedestrians on London Bridge and stabbed people in the nearby Borough Market on Saturday night. Police shot and killed the assailants soon after the attack began. Following the violence, authorities arrested a dozen people in East London and carried out controlled explosions during a raid at a flat.
A Renewed Focus On Terror
Although Britons have publicly embraced a message of unity following the killings and politicians have vowed that the country would not be cowed by terror, there is alarm in the U.K. over the rate and scale of attacks in recent months. The incidents prompted Prime Minister Theresa May on Sunday to promise an overhaul of Britain’s counterterrorism strategy and possibly pursue new laws targeting extremism.
She declared in a speech that “enough is enough,” and vowed to introduce a four-point plan to address the threat of terrorism. Among the relatively vague policy prescriptions, she called for the targeting of “safe spaces” for Islamist extremism both online and in Britain. May also raised the idea of lengthening sentences for terrorism-related offenses, including minor infractions.
“While we have made significant progress in recent years, there is ― to be frank ― far too much tolerance of extremism in our country,” May said.
Britain has suffered several terror attacks since the 2005 bombings that killed 52 people in London. But subsequent attacks had failed to inflict mass casualties until this year, and the U.K. had avoided the type of large-scale terror attacks that struck cities such as Paris, Nice and Brussels in recent years.
A car attack and stabbing in March at Westminster Bridge that killed five people marked a shift in attacks on British soil. Then a suicide bombing at an Ariana Grande concert last month killed 22 people in Manchester. The attack on Saturday night, along with weeks of arrests, raids and heightened terror alert levels, have all brought renewed questions as to the state of extremism in Britain.
A lot is still unclear about what happened Saturday. The so-called Islamic State militant group on Sunday claimed responsibility for the killings, as it did after both the Westminster Bridge attack and Manchester bombing. But it’s still not certain to what degree the group was actually involved in the attack or its planning.
Days Away From The Election
Also uncertain is what effect the latest violence will have on Britain’s election. Most polling in the lead-up to Thursday’s vote has shown May’s Conservative Party set to maintain its parliamentary majority or possibly pick up seats. But polls have narrowed recently, and a YouGov survey from last week stirred debate after its controversial polling method produced a prediction that the Conservatives could fall short of a majority government.
In general, it is difficult to assess what the impact of terror will be on an election. Analysts who have studied how attacks shift voter opinions have found that incumbents generally benefit from a rally-around-the-flag effect in the wake of a terror incident, but there are several variables in that rule: It matters how large the attack was, how the incumbent responded to it and how many attacks the country has suffered.
An attack in Paris days before the first round of the French election failed to change voters’ opinions, which experts attributed to the absence of an incumbent in the race and the small scale of the incident. But May has been in power for nearly a year, and the death toll in recent attacks is much higher ― opening up the possibility that these incidents might play a larger factor in how Britons vote.
The Labour Party, Liberal Democrats and Conservatives all suspended their campaigns temporarily in the wake of the attack, but the moratorium effectively ended on Sunday when Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn gave a speech criticizing May. In his address, Corbyn accused the prime minister of failing to give law enforcement the resources they need and endangering citizens through spending cuts.
“You cannot protect the public on the cheap. The police and security services must get the resources they need, not 20,000 police cuts,” he said.
Corbyn followed up his attack on May’s counterterrorism acumen on Monday, calling for the prime minister to resign over reductions in the police force. He is likely to keep up the pressure on May’s security record ahead of Thursday’s vote, as the Labour Party is frantically trying to drum up support to prevent a Conservative-majority government.
In a race that began as a foregone conclusion of a Conservative landslide, the repeated terror attacks in Britain have added an unexpected dimension to the election. As candidates ramp up their campaigns in the final days, how Britain deals with extremism and security looks set to become an even more prominent issue in the vote.
This piece has been updated following the release of the suspects names by authorities.