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How Will the Paris Attacks Affect the British Government's Policies?

Conservatives are already pushing to fast-track a bill that Edward Snowden has called "the most intrusive and least accountable surveillance regime in the West."

by Philip Kleinfeld
Nov 18 2015, 5:35pm

The vigil for Paris in Trafalgar Square, London. Photo by Chris Bethell

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Yesterday afternoon, after arriving back from the G20 Summit in Turkey, David Cameron addressed the House of Commons in the aftermath of last Friday's attacks in Paris. With five days having passed since the attacks left 129 dead and 350 injured, the political response in the UK is now fully underway.

With Conservatives looking to pursue their own domestic agenda and the threat level currently set at "severe"—the security services claim to have foiled seven terror plots in the past year—the attacks in Paris could have far-reaching implications for life in the UK. To understand how the British state might respond in the weeks and months to come we took a look at three different areas of policy: counter-terrorism, the surveillance state, and the war in Syria.

COUNTER-EXTREMIST CRACK DOWN

The armed guards at Wembley last night were a visible sign of the effect the Paris attacks are already having in Britain. After chairing a Cobra meeting on Sunday night, Theresa May told the House of Commons on Monday afternoon that a number of steps had already been taken in the wake of the attacks. Over the weekend personnel from the Special Reconnaissance Regiment joined armed, undercover police officers on patrols across the West End. Security at airports and major events has been increased.

On top of that, extra funding for GHCQ, MI5, and MI6 to hire 1,900 new operatives is being planned in what the Telegraph called the "biggest expansion of the security services since the 7/7 terror attacks in London."

A review of exactly what happened in Paris on Friday is also set to take place—as it did after Charlie Hebdo and other major atrocities like 9/11 and 7/7—to see what lessons can be drawn. One possible outcome of this according to Arun Kundnani, an expert in counter-terrorism policy and the author of The Muslims Are Coming! Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror , is increased militarization: "Whenever you get one of these events there is an attempt to mobilize a new level of aggression in counter-terrorism policy," he told me.

"This is not the first time we've been in this kind of situation. It happened with 9/11 and it happened with 7/7. One of the things you might see emerging is an attempt to say that what happened in Paris illustrates that we need to have a greater military presence within British cities. It's possible that the government will push for armed military personnel to be deployed on British streets were an event like Paris to unfold. There's some sort of logic as to why that might be necessary in certain circumstances but I think the danger of harm is greater than the advantages of it. We would be crossing a line of militarizing our civilian life in a whole new way."

The attacks might also influence the government's counter-radicalization program—which has already been criticized for criminalizing and pathologizing Muslims. "I think we'll also see a much greater climate of suspicion that will drive increasing numbers of people through this existing system," Kundnani said. "The number of people being referred through the 'Prevent' [anti-extremism] program is likely to continue increasing and the threshold someone needs to cross before they are considered a risk is always somewhat subjective and is going to shift now. All of this is going to increase the sense of alienation and drive people into a more polarized position in British society."

In October the government published yet another round of even more authoritarian counter-extremism proposals. Following the previous piece of legislation it seeks to create a number of new powers for those deemed extremists including a hunt for them in the public sector, an "extremist analysis unit" and "extremism banning orders." Before the Paris attacks we could have expected these new policies to be directed at Muslim communities more intensely than anywhere else. Today that feels even more certain.

THE SURVEILLANCE STATE

It was in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre earlier this year that David Cameron promised to reintroduce the "snooper's charter" and extend the government's surveillance powers should he win the forthcoming general election in May. It was hardly surprising then, that after Friday's attacks people's thoughts quickly turned to the Investigatory Powers Bill, a surveillance plan published earlier this month and anticipated to pass into law by the end of 2016.

Now however, senior conservative ministers are pushing for it to be passed through parliament much sooner. Speaking on Radio 4, David Cameron said the government "should look at the timetable" and in an article for the Mail on Sunday the former terrorism legislation reviewer Lord Carlile said the law should be "expedited."

Even without the possibility of it being fast-tracked the draft has caused a lot of controversy. Edward Snowden, the former intelligence analyst who blew the whistle on illegal government surveillance programs— described it as "the most intrusive and least accountable surveillance regime in the West." Among the measures it could introduce are laws forcing internet companies to store information about which websites their users have visited for a year and rules that force companies with encrypted messaging systems to disable them at the government's request. So what is the danger of it being fast-tracked and what are the risks?

Paul Bernal, a lecturer at the University of East Anglia's Law School specializing in internet privacy told me that both are significant: "It would mean the problems with the bill won't get proper scrutiny—both the civil liberties problems and also the technical, technological problems. It's really important in a bill like this to get those things right. If they don't go through the proper scrutiny the law will be vulnerable to being struck down."

Whether or not the bill is fast-tracked it's easy to see the Paris attacks being used as a major part of the government's justification as it seeks to pass the legislation through parliament.

"It's historical that whenever there is any act of terrorism we bring in more draconian laws," Bernal said. "Whether they have any effect is another matter. The US Patriot Act is probably the most dramatic example. It was passed incredibly fast and had huge implications that were not taken into account."


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INTERVENTION IN SYRIA?

Since the attacks in Paris, the discussion over military intervention in Syria has returned once again. Speaking on Radio 4's Today program yesterday morning David Cameron said that so long as IS ignores the border between Iraq and Syria the UK should not restrict its aerial campaigns to Iraq.

This has been his view for some time. While the UK has been involved in a bombing campaign against IS in Iraq since September 2014, Cameron has wanted to join the coalition in Syria, too. The problem for him is a lack of appetite for war in a parliament scarred by past failures. In 2013 parliament rejected a vote to launch airstrikes against Assad and plans to seek approval to fight IS were shelved in early November with Cameron not wanting to face another humiliation.

Is this likely to change? At the G20 summit, Cameron admitted that he still doesn't have the backing of Parliament. But the pressure on the UK to maintain its international reputation by "doing something" is clearly growing and Cameron appears to think the case for military intervention has been considerably strengthened after Friday. "I've always said there's a strong case for us to do so, our allies are asking us to do this and the case for doing so has only grown stronger after the Paris attacks," he said in a statement to the Commons yesterday.

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