BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Wednesday, 19 March 2008, 19:39 GMT
We're safe - relatively speaking
By Mark Easton
Home editor, BBC News

"Great insecurities," warned the prime minister, mean "we need to mobilise all the resources available to us."

Police outside Glasgow Airport, July 2007
The number of terror attacks in the UK have declined recently

Gordon Brown listed the threats and risks: war, terrorism, climate change, disease and poverty.

"Be afraid. Very afraid".

Well, he didn't quite say the last bit, but nor did he spell out the message buried in paragraph 3.1 of the strategy.

"In many ways" the document states, "we are more secure than at most times in our history."

One is tempted to ask on which occasions were we more secure than today.

The chances of premature death have never been lower. We have never been richer. We have never been healthier. Our life expectancy never greater.

In listing the dangers to national security, the strategy kicks off with terrorism.

It is "a serious and sustained threat" the document states. And yet in terms of our recent history, its impact has, thank goodness, been minimal.

Compare last year with 25 years before.

An influenza pandemic could kill between 50,000 to 750,000 people

In 1972 the UK saw 10,631 terrorist shootings and 1,853 bombings; 470 people were killed by terrorism.

In 2007, there were 47 shootings and 20 bombings - all in Northern Ireland and three people were killed by paramilitaries.

There were precisely no shootings, bombings or deaths associated with al-Qaeda.

It was the same story the year before.

Indeed, with the exception of the 52 people killed during the appalling attacks of 7 July 2005, no-one in Britain has been killed by al-Qaeda affiliates since 9/11.

This is not to belittle the threat from international terrorism.

As the document states, police and the security agencies are contending with around 30 plots involving 200 groups and 2,000 individuals at any one time.

These are people who want to undermine our way of life.

Influenza 'highest risk'

But we do need a bit of context and the authors of the strategy itself agree that, despite its place at the head of the list, terrorism is not the greatest threat to our way of life.

"We assess that the highest risk is an influenza-type pandemic", they warn, estimating that it could cause fatalities in the UK in the range of 50,000 to 750,000.

The second highest risk is coastal flooding which could result in "the need to evacuate and shelter hundreds of thousands of people".

The promised publication of the currently secret National Risk Register should help explain how government assesses the risks we face and devotes resources as a consequence.

When I asked officials at the Cabinet Office how they calculated it, I was told it was based on a formula described as "impact time probability".

Rough weather
Flooding was also listed as a bigger risk than terrorism to our security

What is "impact"? Lives lost? Or money lost? In part, came the reply, it is "what spooks people".

Gallons of civil service tea and thousands of biscuits have been consumed during the seven months of Whitehall discussion on just these kind of questions.

We now have, for the first time, a definition of what we mean by "national security".

It is "protecting the United Kingdom and its interests, enabling its people to go about their daily lives freely and with confidence, in a more secure, stable, just and prosperous world".

Notable omissions

This is a big fat definition which poses more questions than answers about what should be in the strategy.

There are some notable omissions: nothing about social cohesion and the risks of civil disorder in increasingly diverse and fragmented communities; nothing about the impact of what the strategists call "good honest crime" as opposed to the exotic trans-national organised crime; nothing about the huge health and economic costs of alcohol and tobacco.

It could be argued that "enabling people to go about their daily lives freely and with confidence" is much more about the damage caused by drink than the threats of al-Qaeda.

In 2006, alcohol killed 8,758 people and cost the country an estimated 20bn. Tobacco killed 114,000 people. Road deaths numbered 3,150.

By way of comparison, since 2001 the annual death rate from international terrorism in the UK averages out as eight.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific