Malcolm Bruce MP writes…Dealing with British citizens who fight for Islamic State

According to Benjamin Franklin’s over-used phrase, those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty or safety.

However compelling this pithy quote is, it masks the fact that you can increase both liberty and safety at the same time. This isn’t an easy task. I don’t think that anyone doubts the extraordinary pressure that Nick Clegg and other Lib Dems in government have come under when they deal with the Tories. But I certainly think that we have managed to do both.

Thanks to the Lib Dems, this is the first government for generations to increase our civil liberties – introducing a Freedoms Bill, scrapping ID cards, reducing detention without trial, ending fingerprinting in schools and improving oversight of the intelligence agencies.

It’s also a government that has seen crime fall by ten per cent since 2010. We’ve contributed to a huge reduction in the number of young people entering the criminal justice system. We’ve streamlined anti-social behaviour powers, focused on preventing crimes, and made the police more responsive to the needs of victims.

That’s why I’m cautiously optimistic about the forthcoming legislation to deal with the threat of people returning from Iraq and Syria. We don’t know the exact details of this legislation yet, and I know Parliament will want to properly scrutinise any new Bill, but at first glance it looks that it is a proportionate and sensible attempt to fill gaps in the armoury of the police and security services.

Some might want to avoid having to focus on legislation of this importance so close to an election. But this is a new and emerging problem which we can’t ignore. Many British citizens have gone out to Syria motivated by humanitarian suffering. Sadly, however, we know that some individuals have travelled abroad to fight for extremist and radical organisations, like the so-called Islamic State.

This raises the challenging question of how we protect the British public when and if those people try to return. Temporary passport seizures, aimed at preventing young people rushing abroad to fight in the conflict, sounds sensible. Similarly, the details about temporary exclusion orders look much more reasonable than some have feared. We will have to examine the details, but it makes sense to find a way of safely managing the return of suspected foreign fighters to the UK.

David Cameron talked about the possibility of making people stateless, and I’m glad that this appears to have been dropped. Similarly, formalising the way that airlines provide information on their passengers to government is long overdue.

It doesn’t take long to think back to the knee-jerk way in which Labour rolled out anti-terror legislation. Labour were and remain utterly authoritarian. They didn’t think twice about creating the most punitive measures possible, with total disregard for basic liberties.

Let’s be honest, pushing back against both the Tories and Labour is an uphill struggle. We still haven’t seen all the details of the forthcoming legislation, but I’m quietly confident that it will deal with the specific threats to British citizens, but also protect our fundamental rights and liberties.


* Malcolm Bruce was the Liberal Democrat MP for Gordon until 2015 and was Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats from 2014-15. He led the Scottish Party from 1988-92 and is now a member of the House of Lords.

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  • Richard Dean 14th Nov '14 - 7:09pm

    The Guardian carries a report that British citizens suspected of fighting for IS will be refused entry for 2 years unless they agree to house arrest, trial, police monitoring, or “de-radicalization”. This seems to me to way too extreme:

    > it amounts to punishment before trial
    > the decision is apparently to be taken by police rather than judges or the Home Secretary
    > it prevents the healing process, even exacerbates the wounds
    > it flies in the face of human rights which Britain has been keen to get others to adopt for half a century
    > it pushes the problem onto foreign governments, since it is they who will be required to host the suspects
    > it’s likely to radicalise more people domestically, and create a new group of disaffected citizens abroad

    British citizens have the right to expect something a whole lot better than this from their government, and that includes citizens who have fallen off the sanity wagon and gone to fight for the hell-on-earth that is ISIL. If Britain refuses to uphold British values, what value are they?

  • It is bizarre to be patting yourself on the back for your devotion to civil liberties while supporting yet another piece of draconian “anti-terror” legislation.

  • paul barker 14th Nov '14 - 7:59pm

    I dont see the point of stopping people returning for 2 Years, surely we want to keep an eye on them if we have some evidence they have been Fighting ? How could we enforce it anyway; whats to stop other countries from putting suspects on a plane to the UK ? Its a stupid idea that misses the point completely.

  • Not with you on this if they wanted to fight and kill more draconian the better murder Is murder even if you hide behind a religious war

    Nimby you want this keep them in your area please

  • The immediate reaction is to stop them coming back etc. and let the fear rule.

    However, after listening to an interview this evening I thing actually what we should be doing is encouraging these people to return, but make themselves known so that they can receive support (and be debriefed etc.), obviously keep an eye out for those who ‘disappear’ as these are the one’s who may have a different agenda to simply coming home…

    I think for many the problem is one of being between identities – neither being at home in their parents homeland or truly being comfortable to call themselves British/English, yet are obviously more attracted to their heritage culture. I look to my past and what my parents and grandparents went through and know it is because of their decisions I think of myself as English. Hence I think we probably need to encourage these people to think of themselves being more English/British than outsiders; particularly as they are UK passport holders.

  • What is the point of having a party with “liberal” in its name if it behaves like this?

  • Exiled Scot 15th Nov '14 - 1:58am


    Twenty five years ago British citizens volunteered to go abroad to fight in someone else’s war. They were rewarded for their efforts no doubt in heaven and they slept with many women who may or may not have been virgins. They were called mercenaries and the UK made films about them and indeed the Prime Minister of the day’s son helped fund their activities.

    I can’t see much difference between the activities of Mark Thatcher’s mates and misguded teenage jihadists. If we cut the misguided teenage jihadists and by default their families off from the UK mainstream then we’ll simply reinforce the view that the UK doesn’t understand modern muslim communities.

    But the idea that the any Westminster politician can think strategically or vote for anything other than the London dominated reactionary agenda has been tested to destruction by majority Labour and Conservative governments and now sadly, the coalition. Which we were promised was going to reestablish personal liberty.

    Instead we’ve gone along with useless reactionism led by the basket case home office. Liberal Democrats should be attacking these proposals not welcoming them.

  • “the idea that the any Westminster politician can think strategically or vote for anything other than the London dominated reactionary agenda”

    Whereas the SNP would do what on this issue precisely? Usher jihadists back into Scotland with a few stern words and a warning not to be so naughty in future?

  • I guess everybody has forgotten the proud record of people who went from the UK to fight for democracy against Franco and his Nazi supporters.

    It is as if George Orwell never wrote anything and this inconvenient chapter of our history has been air-brushed out of our collective memory.

    Malcolm Bruce writes — “…we know that some individuals have travelled abroad to fight for extremist and radical organisations..”
    Has he forgotten that Orwell, who had reql sympathies with the Barcelona Anarchists actually fought in the POUM ?
    Both would clearly be what Malcolm would describe as “extremist and radical organisations”.

    In Orwell’s own words —
    “if you had asked me what I was fighting for I would have answered Common Decency”…..
    “I had accepted the News Chronicle-New Statesman version of the war as the defence of civilisation against a maniacal outbreak by an army of Colonel Blimps in the pay of Hitler.”….
    “I knew I was serving in something called the POUM (I had only joined the POUM Militia rather than any other group because I happened to arrive in Barcelona with ILP papers)”

    It is not at all difficult to imagine what Orwell’s response would have been if on his return from fighting in Spain he had been greeted by the sort of Government legislation that is being proposed for people returning from Syria.

    Orwell’s ‘Homage to Catalonia’ ought to be required reading for Malcolm Bruce or anyone who like him says that they are — “…..quietly confident that it will deal with the specific threats to British citizens, but also protect our fundamental rights and liberties.”.

    Malcolm Bruce is sounding more than a little complacent about our civil liberties and also the impact of what will be seen (possibly correctly) as anti-Islamic legislation.

  • 18B
    “(1) If the Secretary of State has reasonable cause to believe any person to be of hostile origin or associations or to have been recently concerned in acts prejudicial to the public safety or the defence of the realm or in the preparation or instigation of such acts and that by reason thereof it is necessary to exercise control over him, he may make an order against that person directing that he be detained.”

    In the Commons a group of Labour and Liberal MPs attempted to have Code B annulled on 31 October 1939, but were persuaded to withdraw their motion in favour of consultation that produced slightly amended wording.
    About 1,000 pro-nazis were detained in 1940.

  • Tony Dawson 15th Nov '14 - 1:30pm

    David Cameron wanted us in the UK to bomb the forces of the Assad regime. Did he know, at the time, that this action would be aiding the forces of ‘Islamic State’?

    Perhaps we should forbid him from coming back to Britain from Australia? Or at least subject him to a two year rehabilitation regime.

  • Malcolm Todd 15th Nov '14 - 11:43pm

    What Chris said.

    This party really is becoming quite pointless.

  • Paul
    The so called Islamic State is a bit weird.It is not Islamic and it is not a state. It clearly considers itself to be at war.The defence of democratic states requires some measures to destroy this extremism. Whether this proposed legislation will do that remains in doubt. Internment didn’t stop the violence in Northern Ireland.

  • The award for Genuinely Kindest Face In Politics 2014 has to go to Sir Malcolm Bruce.

  • Matthew Huntbach 17th Nov '14 - 1:40pm

    John Tilley

    “I had accepted the News Chronicle-New Statesman version of the war as the defence of civilisation against a maniacal outbreak by an army of Colonel Blimps in the pay of Hitler.”….

    There were appalling atrocities committed by BOTH sides in the Spanish civil war. Equally emotive appeals were used to get people to go out and fight on the Nationalist side. People going out to fight “in defence of civilization and the Catholic Church against maniacal mass murdering supporters of Leninist dictatorship” may not have thought of it in terms of defending and being involved in the support of Nazism, or may have written of suggestions that it was that as just typical propaganda.

    This shows why liberalism is so vital. How easy it is to slip down the path of supposing that casual deaths and violence are just a necessary aspect of defending whatever it is that we think is vital.The capacity for self-doubt and willingness to look at both sides of an issue are an essential part of what I would look for in anyone pushing a cause. That is an aspect of what I would call “authentic liberalism”.

  • Matthew Huntbach 17th Nov '14 - 1:51pm


    I think for many the problem is one of being between identities – neither being at home in their parents homeland or truly being comfortable to call themselves British/English, yet are obviously more attracted to their heritage culture.

    The willingness of many HERE to go along with the line that the Iraq invasion was some sort of “attack on Islam”, and all the deaths in Iraq after it solely due to Tony Blair and George Bush are part of it. How many times have we read HERE in Liberal Democrat Voice statements which suggest that every death in Iraq was caused by Tony Blair, as if he was doing it out of some sort of delight in killing Muslims,? That may not have been what people using those sort of words meant, but, sorry, words which COULD have been interpreted that way have been used here, with no mention at all of the reality of a vicious civil war taking place where both sides were motivated in part by their own interpretations of Islam, mixed with a good deal of petty tribalism. To us, it may just have been a rather hyped-up way of attacking Blair and New Labour, but did we think through the consequences of some of what we were saying? It seems there are some naive types who took the word of those who said these sort of things, and from this really were convinced that going out and joining one of those sides was a noble fight for Islam against its foes.

  • Matthew Huntbach 17th Nov '14 - 1:55pm

    It also seems to me to be clear, however, that there are some who are attracted to this BECAUSE of the violence. That is, they like those aspects of Islam which can be given a violent interpretation. The latest stuff coming out from ISIS shows that – as if all there is to Islam is this delight in killing and inflicting pain and misery.

    Muslims here need to be asking how is it that their religion has reached the point where some see it in that way? What can THEY do to stop that?

  • Matthew, I don’t disagree with what you say; although I’m not sure what in my comment triggered your response, other than to observe that we (in the UK) do need to look to our actions and ask whether our over the top response and simplistic labelling has played a part in building the various headline grabbing jihadist groups – in this respect I support France’s efforts in using the name Daesh rather than Islamic State.

  • Matthew Huntbach 18th Nov '14 - 1:26pm

    Roland, to take this further I would need to start saying some things about religion, which it is hard to say without the danger of misinterpretation. Most people here have not much idea of how religion works, and what it is to have a religious background, so might find it hard to follow what I would like to say, which is based on my own experiences in Christianity. In particular how easy it is for simplistic supposedly “fundamentalist” groups, who are actually just picking out bits which suit their political ideology, to take advantage of youngsters whose background is a more mainstream denomination which has become a bit to mechanical in its thinking and practice, and complacent about passing on what it is about to the next generation.

    If people here are misinterpreting Islam so badly as to really think Daesh (I’d use that name if it was more widely used) are the most sincere followers of it, then, sorry, but yes I DO blame Muslim culture here for allowing that to happen. Suppose a bunch of young Catholics had gone out and set up a “Catholic State”, which they promoted largely by videos of “heretics” being burnt at the stake, with wording which suggests this burning at the stake was the thing they most enjoyed doing and thought Catholicism was all about, along with a bit of child abuse because “well, that’s what Catholics do, isn’t it?”. I don’t think the line “Oh that’s not what Catholicism is about, and Catholics have been subjected to a lot of oppression, so we can’t put any blame on Catholics in general for what that group is doing” would hold.

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