Nothing perhaps indicates how endangered the concept of the nation state is, nor how unfashionable patriotism has become than the confused muddle that we have gotten ourselves into about the issue of those who travel to Syria and other areas of the Middle East and Africa to fight for ISIS.
Question Time this week provided a good microcosm of this problem. The first question of the evening enquired to what extent the security services should bear responsibility for a family travelling to Syria to join ISIS. The answer should be obvious to anyone that values any measure of freedom of movement without interference from the state. The security services have absolutely no role in stopping citizens from leaving this country, and any such system firstly would be impractical, secondly deeply illiberal. People are free to leave this country at any time they please; indeed the home office will even let you renounce your citizenship of this country provided you can muster the few hundred pounds for those pesky administration expenses. In short the state should not lift a finger to stop citizens from leaving the country to fight for ISIS, however it must use the full legal powers already at its disposal to be as punitive as possible if these people seek to return. More on that in a bit.
There also seems much faux soul searching, talk of “questions we must ask ourselves”, endless stress on the role of “education” in stopping the allure of ISIS, self-flagellation at our foreign policy being responsible for hundreds taking the trip to the Middle East. This is a total nonsense. The idea that anyone in this country can be naïve about what ISIS and their creed of fundamentalists believe and stand for is beyond parody, if the beheadings of volunteer aid workers and the burning alive in a cage of a pilot doesn’t stir a natural reflex to defend the fruits of western democracy and our freedoms, then simply nothing will. If such repugnant disregard for human decency and life doesn’t stop British citizens from abandoning their allegiance to the British State, then some seminars at school in PSHE lessons sandwiched along those wonderfully successful seminars on the dangers of chlamydia and teenage pregnancy really won’t cut the mustard. Britain has many faults, it isn’t perfect, and never will be, but in relation to the rest of the planet it stands out as remarkably tolerant, open and free. If those concepts repulse you then there are plenty of places you are free to travel and pledge allegiance to – North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia or indeed the areas controlled by ISIS, if people choose to do that, then the justification lies with the traveller, not the host country which is demonstrably a freer, safer place to live.
Finally the confusion then extends to the responses we should pursue in regards to those who return from fighting for ISIS. Can we strip them of their nationality? Is that fair? Is making people stateless actually illegal? Do we need new rafts of legislation? Whilst this is dripping roast to those practising international human rights law, it seems a totally needless debate – the issue is our failure to call things by their proper names. If I leave Britain and pledge allegiance to a hostile power then I have committed treason, and I am a traitor. One might argue that you can be an honourable traitor, and yes one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, but the legal position is a simple and ancient one. I have committed treason, and I am a traitor. Britain does not require any new legislation, it does not require falling foul of international law, it simply requires the use of a law that has been on the books for nearly 700 years – The Treason Act 1351 – The policy is a simple one, if any of these people return they need to be tried for treason and if found guilty sentenced to the maximum tariff. The state has no right to interfere with citizens leaving the realm, it has every right to stop and imprison traitors returning.