When does security turn to paranoia?

So what, finally? So what that a middle-aged man in a wrinkled pyjama suit and bat hood climbed a wall at Buckingham Palace? After a while he got cold and came down again. Then he was arrested. Later he was released without charge as he did not appear to have broken any obvious laws.

Nobody was hurt, nobody died, nothing was damaged. The Queen and her gang weren't even there - they were about as far away as it is possible to get and still be in Britain, shooting anything that moves on the Balmoral estate.

And yet the nation seemed to go into an instant paroxysm of fear and panic. The home secretary was called to account to parliament for a ''breach of security'', calls were made for security to be stepped up.

Rolling 24-hour TV news services devoted hour upon hour of real-time portentous solemnity to this ridiculous incident. New developments included news that the government may introduce laws against this kind of thing. The Queen apparently wants steps taken. The head of royal protection, Peter Loughborough, may lose his job.

Surely some mistake? This is Britain. Remember ”Don’t Panic Captain Manwaring”? Worse still, this was London, the city that prided itself on phlegmatically getting through the Blitz, when 42,000 civilians were killed in less than a year and the palace itself suffered a direct hit.

How would that generation feel to see their descendants quivering like jelly at the epicentre of Hurricane Ivan because a protester in possession of nothing more alarming than a pair of fake bat ears and a banner stood on a ledge for five hours?

There is plenty of security surrounding the royal family already. They are hedged about with armed men and devices. The occasional person may get through – the gatecrasher at Prince William’s party, the backpacker who set up his tent in the grounds of Buckingham palace – but that is probably inevitable.

The royal family cannot live like Howard Hughes. To the extent that they have a function it is symbolically to represent the nation. To give them their due, they are not particularly pusillanimous. Since 9/11, they have chosen to walk down the Mall in processions eschewing the protection of bullet-proof limousines. They travel from time to time in open carriages and undertake public engagements that are announced in advance. When they
do these things there is an element of risk. But what good would they be as a symbol of Britain holed up in an underground panic room?

Closer to home, the denizens of our fantastic new parliament building are facing similar questions about just how tight security should be. The new building is much more secure than their old home. There are guards and locked security doors throughout. The ”intelligent” building also apparently logs the position of passholders within its walls. It is also, famously and expensively, bomb-proof.

But there is a point at which security morphs into paranoia. Scotland’s parliament should not be run like an exclusive club. It belongs to the people and, like the rest of us, parliamentarians have to accept a certain element of risk being part of their daily lives.

It is no longer necessarily the case that the powerful are at greater risk than the powerless. In fact, the converse may be true. The currency of terrorism is outrage and the logic of terrorism is to produce the maximum outrage. Therefore, these self-styled warriors prefer not to engage with enemy combatants, but instead seek out the most helpless, the most powerless targets they can find. So the terrorists who attacked the school in Beslan refused to accept adults in place of their child hostages.

All of the recent attacks – the offices and civilian planes, then the Bali nightclub, then the Madrid trains, the Moscow theatre and then the school – have involved an element of surprise and, crucially, targets who could in no way be held responsible for what the
terrorists claimed to be angry about.

So in a way it is already too much that the MSPs can take refuge in a bomb-proof workplace protected by security guards; that they can eat and drink behind its walls; that they can in some cases travel by ministerial limo and have the benefit of home security.

Our stations are not bomb-proof. Our theatres are not. Our schools are not. The MSPs need to guard against giving out the message that they are not prepared to take the same risks as the rest of us.

They are not more important. On a recent visit to Washington, I queued up to see round Capitol Hill. Our tour guide’s husband had been in the Pentagon when it was attacked and she came to work every day aware of the possibility of attack but feeling that the defence of democracy involved maintaining public access to power. As a foreign national, on production of ID, which I think was my Edinburgh bus pass, I was given tickets to the
open public galleries of the senate and congress. There was no glass screen.

The Americans have learned from bitter experience not to confuse their politicians with their democracy. Several assasinated presidents have shown that the system is bigger than its individual representatives.

No-one is indispensable.

The Scottish Herald
September 15th 2004