Category Archives: France

Don’t arm Britain’s police in the name of terror

After a terror atrocity, it usually takes at least a few days for rational thought to creep back into political discourse. Sometimes it can be much longer than that.

It was for this reason that I waited a little while before commenting on the horrific incident in Westminster on Wednesday afternoon. I wanted to distance myself from some of the hysteria that I feel unhelpfully attaches itself to events of this kind, especially on social media.

One of the most common post-attack and counter-terrorism suggestions from the public and members of the intelligentsia has been to arm all British police officers.

This is a policy that has been advocated for years, it doesn’t just come from the screams of statists after March 22nd. As the UK’s terror threat has heightened (somehow, a terror threat can be measured), so too have the calls for arming all officers intensified.

The trouble is that the proposal is a gimmick and not a silver bullet, is opposed by most British police officers and radically transforms the nature of the relationship between police and the public.

In 1829, Sir Robert Peel, who introduced the Metropolitan Police as Home Secretary, wrote his ‘9 principles of law enforcement’. Principle number seven will interest readers:

“The police at all times should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police are the only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the intent of the community welfare.”

Officers are citizens in uniform, not a militia that, in effect, provides the state with a monopoly of force. Policing must be carried out at the consent of the public, which it is, and not at the barrel of a gun.

I think that to arm all of Britain’s police officers is a fundamental betrayal of their purpose and the values that Robert Peel had in mind when he introduced them 187 years ago (which included a period of mass public armament, lasting until 1920).

It is no surprise to me that in a recent Metropolitan Police Federation poll[1], most officers opposed the compulsory arming of all British police officers, similar to the system that currently operates in Northern Ireland.

Of the near 11,000 police officers polled, only 26% said that they believed all Metropolitan police officers ought to be routinely armed on duty, though most reported that there should be more authorized firearms officers on the streets.

Given the trials and tribulations that follow police shootings, it is not hard to see why the majority oppose forced armament. Months of stress and lengthy investigations will take their toll on any police officer.

Difficult, too, must media coverage be to deal with. Often, a person knowingly and deliberately shot by a police officer is painted as a sympathetic figure after such an incident. Those who remember the London riots of 2011 will be fully aware of this.

Police officers do not want to have to shoot people. That is the job of soldiers or specialised units with years of training and experience. Investigations on officers who do use their firearms, no matter the circumstances, will come under incessant questioning.

This poses a huge problem for forces that increasingly have to deal with policemen and women (rightly) taking time off to ease any psychological issues that they may be having. Having relatives in the job, I have seen the physical and mental impact policing can have on those who do it.

The reality is that some officers will be far too trigger-happy and others unable to deal with the guilt and burden of having to end another person’s life. We love and idolise our police officers during times of crisis and terror, but seldom do we think about them when normality resumes.

Robert Peel visualised police officers as being men and women whom we can approach at any time, place our trust in, feel comforted by, equal to and yet at the same time revere as both a source of reasonable authority and a rallying point for the frightened and vulnerable.

Like the officers surveyed, I oppose the obligatory arming of all British police officers, and indeed oppose additional armed units, whether in busy, metropolitan areas or not. We have plenty of authorised firearms officers in Britain already.

The problem created by continually expanding upon armed units is that police forces will inevitably be sucking resources away from ordinary policing. That is to say that the more money, time and manpower diverted to armed officers, the less there will be for patrolling constables and the public will feel abandoned by a force already accused of withdrawing from the streets.

As any daily commuter into London now knows (and I reference London because it is both fertile soil for these sorts of atrocities and the jurisdiction for the officers who took part in the Met’s poll), armed officers roam the capital’s busiest regions on a daily basis.

Major train stations are crawling with them, as are landmarks and buildings of significance. Even suburban shopping centres, such as Bluewater and Lakeside, and town high streets have seen a notable increase in armed police presence in recent months.

As I walk around these sorts of places, I feel a distinct unease. This is not just thanks to the sight of assault rifles, which are designed to frighten others into obedience and drill holes in human flesh, killing mercilessly.

It is also because the very visual of watching your local neighbourhood patrolled in such a sinister manner is a telling sign that we are gradually becoming a less free society.

Take a quick look outside of Britain, and focus on what is happening in mainland Europe. France, Germany and Turkey, current experiencing problems far worse than our own, all have very heavy armed police presences.

I might argue that increasing the visibility of armed officers has perhaps encouraged terrorists. It has sent out the signal that people are afraid and need protecting, and that by engaging in these dreadful acts of violence, terrorist actions are influencing public policy, leaving a legacy of their own and appealing to the vanity of other potential attackers.

Admittedly, there are structural differences between Britain and other European countries in response to terror. Strict gun laws and the English Channel make gun smuggling and possession much more difficult for criminals in the UK.

And so I think the current Islamist threat, which I believe exists but is not anywhere near as pertinent as is often suggested by politicians who will never let a good crisis go to waste, is not comparable to problems faced in, for instance, Northern Ireland prior to police being routinely armed.

For one, and unlike problems caused by the IRA, the Islamist threat can be largely countered online, through bans and monitoring, and secondly, the nature of the radical Islamic threat is changing rapidly. I also think that Islamism is more discreet and covert than the IRA-sponsored threat faced by the UK some time ago.

But when attacks do happen, increasingly we see that vehicles are the designated weapon of choice. Cars and lorries are not easily stopped by even the most highly skilled of armed police officers.

So the latest wave of support for Britain’s unarmed police to carry anything more than tasers, which I believe (as the incident at Leytonstone tube station showed) are effective enough tools for modern police, strikes me as yet another encroachment on our liberties.

Western governments are renowned for offering us the fig leaf of security in exchange for our most prized personal freedoms. I am shocked they haven’t already started hiring the many thousands of instructors (which we don’t have and can’t afford) that will be needed in order to arm all of Britain’s police.

And as I write, I am reminded by an infamous Benjamin Franklin quote, as relevant as it has ever been.

 

 

 Notes

[1] http://metfed.org.uk/news?id=7185

 


Three steps British people must take before we address the NHS’ problems

My personal NHS experiences haven’t been so bad. Thankfully, either through conscious effort or sheer genetic luck, I haven’t had any serious medical concerns over the years, with a little bit of physiotherapy and a brief period of mental health treatment the only real blotches on my medical history. Each time I’ve had to use a clinic, GP surgery or hospital, procedure has been reasonably smooth and staff helpful and reassuring.

For the most part, those who work in our health service do a tremendous job. They work long hours, often far beyond what they are contracted to, and really do make a difference in people’s lives. I sometimes think that, given the NHS’ blatant inefficiencies, it is the efforts of staff alone that help to maintain strong public opinion of the organisation. Even when visiting my local surgery I get a pretty clear picture of the sheer magnitude of demand placed on the health service. I daren’t imagine what hospital winters are like.

Notice first and foremost that I make a distinction between the NHS and its staff. This is done so deliberately, not because I love one and hate the other, but because it makes debating the future of the service a little easier. We have, in the UK, a very real connection to a treasured institution, so any critique can often be dismissed as personal attack or Right-wing irrationality. Getting over this sacred cow treatment and attitude towards healthcare would be the national equivalent of an alcoholic admitting that he is so.

Dr Kristian Niemetz noted in a lengthy overview of the health service for the IEA on December 4th, 2015: “The NHS’ status as a sacrosanct institution promotes ‘groupthink’ and undermines the ability to detect and correct instances of failure, and adapt to changing circumstances.”[1] He is undoubtedly correct. The first step towards injecting the UK’s NHS debate comes from admitting that even something we love so dearly has its problems, and that the sacred cow treatment it receives is damaging and unjustified.

An intriguing report published by the BBC on the problems facing the National Health Service can be read in full here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-38887694

It is unsurprising to me that our society has such an ingrained attachment towards the main entity in the healthcare sector. Most people alive in Britain today were born on the NHS, have been treated by the NHS and will die on the NHS. But what is bewildering is why, given this affection, we let politicians to this day use it as a political football. Healthcare, after all, is on its own terms a private affair. The NHS was set up in a silent, broken country still reeling from the effects of the Second World War. The idea (however inherently flawed) was that people would have access to care based not on ability to pay, but on clinical need.

So herein lays the second step towards providing the NHS debate with some much needed clarity: we must recognise that the society in which our health service was so proudly set up no longer exists. The country is very different now from the post-war era. Free movement of people has increased overall demand as well as introduced new, complex problems to an already over-burdened service. Health tourism, frequently earmarked by doctors as a major structural and financial problem, is one such issue. It is good that we look after those who need help, regardless of where they are from, but compassion can all too easily fall victim to corruption and exploitation.

The NHS is a public service, and thus is set up for public use. If public dynamics change, such as increases in how long we are living or how rapidly the population is growing, then pubic services must adapt in order to reflect those changes. A stale setup will not suffice in an age where British citizens are used as a cash cow (even those on low incomes pay hundreds in National Insurance) for a service that many now feel does not meet their needs. Public satisfaction is noticeably declining.[2]

A third change in social attitude that must prelude any reasonable proposals to address healthcare in Britain relates to the United States. In the UK, too often we conflate private, market-based healthcare with the widely-condemned American system. This, for two reasons, is an unhelpful conflation that only manages to worsen unwarranted support for maintaining nationalised healthcare.

Firstly, the notion that American healthcare is private is largely a flawed one. The World Bank notes that state spending on healthcare by 2014 had reached just over 17% as a proportion of GDP.[3] Back in July, the U.S government announced that they expected total state healthcare expenditure to rise to $10,365 per head.[4] There is clearly something to be said for the claim that the private sector is at fault for very real faults in American healthcare.

Secondly, using the United States as a projection for market and insurance-based models in the UK ignores the very tangible successes with similar systems in Europe. A BowGroup (respected Conservative think tank and research body) report summarised starkly:

“UK Healthcare continues to be much worse than in Europe. 323 lives are lost per day because we are not matching the best European standards in the three main killers – heart disease, respiratory disease and cancer. That’s 117,743 per year. 85 lives per day (or 30,965 per year) are being lost because we are not even matching EU average standards. Looking at trends over time, there has been no significant improvement over the last 7 years. Another good measure of the quality of healthcare is the survival rate once a disease has been diagnosed. On this measure, the UK is bottom of the league table of Western European countries for cancer survival rates. In fact, you have more chance of surviving lung cancer in Poland, Estonia or Slovakia than you do in the UK. In France, patients are twice as likely to survive lung cancer as they are in the UK. Significantly more money has recently been put into the NHS in the last seven years. But standards are still much lower than in Europe and activity (e.g. number of operations) has not increased. Money alone has not worked.”[5]

It is possibly due to the bureaucratic, centrally organised nature of the NHS that funding is not necessarily put to good use. Left-wing commentators and publications will, from time to time, refer to budgetary cuts as the source of these problems[6], but as studies frequently show, Britain’s successes in dealing with severe illnesses – of which cancer has emerged as a particular problem – have stagnated, likely due to the inevitability of longer waiting times in state-monopolised healthcare systems and irrespective of funding levels.

Europe has quietly managed to avoid the problems that we face by seeing and treating healthcare for what it actually is: a private concern, better organised efficiently than in a way that is necessarily universally liked. So the NHS zealots, which are also found on the Right in surprising numbers, would do well to concentrate on provision on the continent, and stop using America’s woes as a barometer for eternal market failure.

So, ditch the sacred cow treatment, acknowledge the many social changes that have taken place between now and the 1940s, and consider European templates before screeching about U.S healthcare. Only then, if we are to have a rational discussion, can we talk about what to do with the NHS.


Sources:

[1] https://iea.org.uk/publications/research/diagnosis-overrated-an-analysis-of-the-structural-flaws-in-the-nhs

[2] https://www.kingsfund.org.uk/sites/files/kf/BSA-public-satisfaction-NHS-Kings-Fund-2015.pdf

[3] http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SH.XPD.TOTL.ZS

[4] http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/new-peak-us-health-care-spending-10345-per-person/

[5] https://www.bowgroup.org/sites/bowgroup.uat.pleasetest.co.uk/files/The%252085%2520A%2520Day%2520Who%2520Need%2520Not%2520Die%2520-%2520January%25202005.pdf

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/jan/20/nhs-funding-falling-behind-european-neighbours-kings-fund-research

 


Russia, Iran, Syria and a whole load of hypocrisy

Some rather unsurprising developments caught my eye yesterday afternoon concerning the ongoing Syrian civil war and, in particular, the not-so-secret involvement of both Russia and Iran. Perhaps September 25th will have to go down as international hypocrisy day, as the two regional powers faced intense accusations from three western powers concerning what they called ‘war crimes’ in Syria. Three news articles in particular may interest readers at this blog:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-37468080 (accusation number 1, from an American diplomat at the UN)

http://www.itv.com/news/2016-09-25/russia-hits-back-at-boris-johnsons-syria-war-crime-slur/ (accusation number 2, this time from the United Kingdom’s new foreign secretary Al Johnson)

http://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/Iran-and-Russia-in-danger-of-becoming-war-crimes-accomplices-468663 (and finally a small contribution from French foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault)

I must stress right away that I do not deny and have not denied the links between Iranian and Russian action in Syria and the intensifying civil war. Iran’s funding of terrorism in Syria; the tail country of the so-called ‘Shia crescent’ has been a continued and deliberate ploy to further destabilise a now ravaged and desperate nation. Russia’s bombing campaigns are hardly secret, and it would seem that agreed ceasefires with the United States (which are crucial to the fostering of any kind of productive or peaceful settlement) have gone largely ignored in the Kremlin.

I am personally convinced that the Russians and Iranians are sensing that the Syrian military are growing in confidence. Israeli commentator Yossi Melman recently attributed the shooting down of two Israeli aircraft in the Quneitra region on the part of Assad’s government to this renewed confidence. It is not hard to imagine that, given recent successes in Damascus against both non-aligned rebels and Islamic State, Assad’s forces are beginning to feel a sense of control once more.

The Syrian military are coming off the heels of a slightly more successful summer. Notable gains were made in Aleppo, and three strategic locations were wrestled from the al-Nusra front (Syria’s Al-Qaeda affiliate) in the western province of Hama. From the perspective of Russian and Iranian foreign policy and their diplomats, this would therefore seem a bad time to adhere to any proposed plans for a ceasefire. While momentum appears to be going the way of the Russian and Iranian-backed regime, why stop now?

You can see why western powers are frustrated. It is particularly amusing to see the ‘war crimes’ line thrown out in an attempt to demonise two countries following an entirely reasonable strategic goal (though the way it has without doubt been followed has been counter-productive to peace). War crimes have become a thing in the Middle East not in recent years, but in fact many years prior to the Arab Spring. But again, the question of hypocrisy comes ringing back to me.

The United States, Britain, France and Saudi Arabia do not, contrary to their claims, have any principled objections to war crimes in Syria. If they did, then why, as Patrick Cockburn notes in his fantastically concise book ‘The rise of Islamic State’, would they have sought to play such an active role in laying down the fertile soil out of which ISIS would grow. More recently, in fact, United States-led airstrikes killed 28 civilians in a ruthless attack on al-Ghandour, a small town in the northwestern countryside of Manbij.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights – responsible for accounting for the suffering of non-combatants in the ongoing Syrian crisis – recently noted of the 28 innocents (allegedly including both women and children): “They were killed when the warplanes of the international coalition committed a massacre in the town of al-Ghandour, and the death toll is expected to rise because there are some people in critical situation.”

These points are made over and over again, but they are important. The Syrian civil war has long been a proxy for major powers to flex their military muscles in an attempt to further their own interests. How sad it is that so many young children have to pay the price for this never ending stupidity. Also stupid was the insinuation that Iran would support a ceasefire in Syria, even temporary, between the United States and Russia.

In the case of Syria, the strategic goals of Russia and the United States are in direct contravention to one another. Since Iran’s vision for Syria requires its tactical alliance with Russia to be maintained for the foreseeable future, it would appear that any longstanding ceasefire between the two major powers could threaten the political interests of Tehran in the Syrian conflict. President Rouhani said in an interview recently that to ground all planes would “benefit the terrorists 100%” as IS would be able to continue with their ‘savage killings’.

Both Iran and Russia remain adamant that Syria is stronger, at least in the short term, with Assad in power. A strong argument can be made to support this. Former CIA analyst and respected foreign policy commentator Graham Fuller has explained in the past that many Syrians (including large Sunni and minority communities) now accept that preserving Assad’s power could well be preferable to despotic alternatives. In Iraq, Sunni communities saw ISIS as a lesser of two evils, the same is not true in Syria. For Russia, it is about preserving and extending its geo-strategic influence in the region. For Iran, it is about protecting Shia communities and combating Sunni terrorism – funded and supported, in large part, by the very countries ‘seeking to establish’ a ceasefire in Syria.

The devastating effects of the Syrian civil war remain only a bloody backdrop to a posturing deadlock between major world powers. It’s about time they were pushed to the foreground.

 


How not to respond to a terror attack

How sad it was to see the people of France once again fall victim to Islamic terrorism late last night. As innocent bystanders celebrated Bastille Day in the beautiful city of Nice, one drug-fueled fundamentalist decided he would use a lorry to massacre almost 100 unsuspecting citizens. I want to send my sympathies and well-wishes to the families and friends of those affected, however meaningless and insignificant they may be.

What a shame also that westerners are beginning to feel desensitised to increasingly common, though equally-horrendous attacks. It has been a truly testing eighteen months for France; a country which (along with Belgium) really seems to be struggling in the fight against radical Islam. The heartbreaking fact is that this doesn’t look like a war that will end any time soon. My fear is that we will see a lot more bloodshed and violence in the months and years to come.

Vigils, candles and hashtags are pleasant gestures, but nothing more than this. They do not constitute progression in terms of public or foreign policy, they do not tackle the core of Islamic fundamentalism, and they do not bring back those killed in acts of vile, merciless terrorism. I suspect some will be comforted by kind displays of solidarity, but most are now left wondering why they are having to occur so frequently.

We can pray for the French if we wish to, but realistically, how helpful has praying proven to be? We can express publicly our love or hatred of Islam, but how useful is this in achieving anything other than divide and intolerance? We can suggest solutions to aiding the war on terror, but Twitter doesn’t seem an appropriate platform for these solutions to be adhered to. In effect, social media has become a tool by which outrage is magnified, tensions are exploited and disunity is encouraged in the wake of despicable incidents of violence and terrorism. For this reason, I try my best to avoid being sucked into emotional cyber spasms.

In the good old days (alas, a time I was not around to see), we used to get on with life immediately after terrorism. Perhaps this was because the war generation found themselves used to bombings and devastation, or perhaps it was down to that famous British stiff upper lip (which seems to have disappeared, I might add). Nowadays, we rant and rave and sign emotionally-charged petitions calling for bans, border closures and infringements to be placed upon cherished freedoms. We need to calm down.

Only those unfortunate enough to have lost a loved one in an act of hatred have a mandate to be emotional. Since social media has brought us all closer together and made life much more interactive, we seem to take the burden of mourning upon ourselves as a means of enhancing our own social desirability. Bizarrely, it is often those closest to an attack that remain the most rational and objective in the wake of its effects, and those furthest away who resort to the kind of bigotry and fear-mongering that terrorists have come to reap the rewards of.

This does not mean Islam, or indeed sects of the Islamic community cannot be held responsible. Islamism continues to thrive in a range of European, African and Asian societies. Intensifying anti-Muslim sentiment hasn’t worked, using terror attacks to justify bombing raids hasn’t worked and simply ignoring the ongoing presence of Islamic fundamentalism clearly isn’t working either. The question is whether or not western societies can respond by upholding the values they champion; of liberty and the rule of law. The question is whether the peoples of Europe can muster the tolerance and encourage the diversity that has brought great benefits to the continent.

Preserving liberty in the face of adversity can be extraordinarily difficult, but wholly worthwhile. It is for this reason that I cannot support the deportation of domestic Muslims in France or indeed my own country, and it is for this reason that I cannot support thoughtless bans on Islamic immigration. Liberty is too precious to be discarded in such a manner. Benjamin Franklin was absolutely right when he said that those who will sacrifice liberty for security will in the end enjoy neither.

An interesting article has cropped up in the Daily Mail, for anybody interested, that has described the attacker as an ISIS fanatic who ‘took drugs and flouted every rule of Islam’. This doesn’t surprise me. Most attacks of this nature, both Muslim and non-Muslim tend to be perpetrated by deranged, drug-obsessed lunatics. I am pleased that a major publication has highlighted the link between drug taking and violence. You can read the article for yourself here: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3691019/Several-people-injured-truck-crashes-crowd-Bastille-Day-celebrations-Nice.html

Motives aside, though, I don’t claim to have the silver bullet on this. It is obvious to me that French Muslims are not as integrated as they are in other parts of the world, like Britain. It is also obvious to me that continuing to allow the influence of Saudi Arabia and fundamentalist-supporting regimes to creep into French society is dangerous. France’s ‘state of emergency’ seems set to continue for the foreseeable future. But there is an interesting prospect on the horizon.

French presidential elections take place late next year, and I’m now almost certain that Marine Le Pen is set to take office, swinging France vigorously to the Right. I don’t like Le Pen, but if such attacks are to continue in her country, then support for her presidential bid is likely only to strengthen. I’m not particularly well versed when it comes to French politics, so forgive me, but it seems to me to be plausible to suggest that Francois Hollande’s legacy will be stained by France’s apparent buckling to Islamic extremism.

We will see how the French people respond to the fight against Islamic terror as the months and years progress, and I wish the country well in its battle, but it is time for a different approach. Those of us unaffected by last night’s events in Nice may also want to consider the way we behave in light of horrendous acts of violence. After all, sickening terrorists aren’t worthy of dictating public policy. Keep the healing French in your minds, folks. It is they who matter today.