McTernan – on Politics

Sometimes the most chilling things that you hear are the most
calmly spoken. Recently, I heard Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, former
chairperson of Whitehall’s joint intelligence committee, on Radio
4’s Sunday morning Broadcasting House programme. She and
other experts agreed that the appearance of tanks at Heathrow
Airport was no PR stunt, before proceeding to sum up the meaning of
this visible and symbolic turning point.

She said: “We are quite likely to be in this for a generation. The
war against terror could be just as long as the Cold War.” What
though, you may wonder, does this mean for social services? Quite a
lot, in my view. If Neville-Jones is right, and no one who heard
her would doubt her thoughtfulness, accuracy or sincerity, we face
30 years of something new to most of us – conducting normal life
against the backdrop of a daily threat of the abnormal eruption of

This is not the “Hot War” of the Blitz nor the Cold War of mutually
assured destruction but something closer to the Troubles in
Northern Ireland. Again though, you might wonder what the relevance
is for you as a social care professional.

Three things, I think. First, the role of public servants in
disaster planning is already expanding dramatically. The reality of
the conflict against al-Qaeda is that the role of public servants
in disaster recovery is likely to be tested in at least one of the
West’s major cities. And that could be death and destruction on the
scale of 9/11. If there were to be a dirty bomb or a nerve agent
attack many of the skills we associate with social care will be at
a premium immediately after.

Second, we have some sense from Northern Ireland of the impact on
mental health of growing up and living against a background of
random acts of senseless violence. I cannot believe that, at least
in the short term, there will be no signs of strain in our cities.
Already, I detect among my friends and colleagues in London a grim
fatalism about the inevitability of some “spectacular”. And the
fear seems greatest among parents.

Finally, if there is a continuing war against terrorism, government
will need to find some better and more trusted means of
communicating with its population. It is a savage irony that the
government’s reputation for spin has rebounded on it. As
Neville-Jones put it: “There is a problem about the credibility of
some of the things government is sayingÉ there is a really
vital job of honest, straightforward, timely, relevant
communication with the citizenry”. Again the skills of advocacy,
listening, building trust and communicating which are core to
social care at its best will be needed and they are scarce. Grim
thoughts, but these are grim times.

John McTernan is a political analyst.

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