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LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - Violent attacks on civilians are designed to sow division. Troublingly, the multiple murders by militants in London’s city centre on Saturday night come at a time when Britain is already deeply fractured along economic, geographic and demographic lines. That shows why Prime Minister Theresa May’s repeated pledge to make Britain “strong and stable” ahead of Thursday’s election resonates, but also why it is so hard to deliver.
The assault near London Bridge, where attackers used a vehicle and knives as weapons, was the third such violent incident in three months. It came less than two weeks after a suicide bomber killed 22 people at a concert in Manchester. Along with seven fatalities and widespread injury came the now-familiar resilience and kindness: Twitter users offered their sofas to those in the area, hotels and restaurants gave out shelter and water.
Those gestures are comforting but they are deceptive, because Britain’s sense of cohesion is under strain. Many in the United Kingdom – and elsewhere in the Western world – already feel that institutions and systems have failed to protect their interests. Global trade, market intermediation of capital flows, and companies’ quest to maximise returns haven’t spread jobs and opportunities equally. Islamic extremism has different causes. But it can seem like another sign of a broken model rather than an exception to a functioning one.
During election campaigns, politicians on all sides are particularly keen to exploit divisions. Britain’s referendum on European Union membership in 2016 revealed – and exploited – deep fissures between young, old, north and south. Those damaging tactics continue. In the aftermath of the Manchester attack, May said her opponents in the Labour party were making an “excuse for terrorism”. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn accused May of cutting police budgets and attempting to protect the public “on the cheap”.
Firmer government is probably inevitable. May has renewed pledges to take further control of areas previously mostly left for companies to police themselves, like internet privacy and censorship of inflammatory online content. That is a shame, because it neither addresses divisions nor has much chance of success. What’s really needed is stronger society, for which May and her Conservative Party have no obvious plan.
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