Henry Porter: from war to police state

Out of Afghanistan, into a police state | Henry Porter | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk

Kim Howells had an article published in the Guardian today, in which he recommends that British forces are pulled out of Afghanistan and that the money saved by that should be ploughed into the police, border controls and security forces:

If we accept that al-Qaida continues to pose a deadly threat to the UK, and if we know that it is capable of changing the locations of its bases and modifying its attack plans, we must accept that we have a duty to question the wisdom of prioritising, in terms of government spending on counter-terrorism, the deployment of our forces to Afghanistan. It is time to ask whether the fight against those who are intent on murdering British citizens might better be served by diverting into the work of the UK Border Agency and our police and intelligence services much of the additional finance and resources swallowed up by the costs of maintaining British forces in Afghanistan.

Of course, do we accept that al-Qa’ida still poses such a threat? Keep in mind that there has not been a successful attack since 2005 and that we have not heard of a major terrorist conspiracy being thwarted for some time now.

Such a shift in focus would have the benefit of exposing far fewer British servicemen and women to the deadly threats of Taliban snipers and roadside bombs, but would also have momentous implications for UK foreign and defence policy. We would need to reinvent ourselves diplomatically and militarily. Treaties and international agreements would have to be renegotiated. In particular, relationships with our Nato partners, especially with the Americans – our most trusted and valued allies – would alter fundamentally.

Life inside the UK would have to change. There would be more intrusive surveillance in certain communities, more police officers on the streets, more border officials at harbours and airports, more inspectors of vehicles and vessels entering the country, and a re-examination of arrangements that facilitate the “free movement” of people and products across our frontiers with the rest of the EU.

Some of these changes will generate great opposition, but many of them will be welcomed. If media reports are true, the British public is becoming increasingly hostile to the notion that any of our service personnel should be killed or wounded in support of difficult outcomes and flawed regimes in faraway countries.

Of course, they will “generate great opposition” among the people they will affect (innocent people caught up in a security dragnet because they share similar names with suspected terrorists, or harassed by security forces or border agents emboldened by government rhetoric echoed in the popular press), but will be welcomed by those they are supposedly designed to protect, or allow to feel protected (white, middle class people in Middle England, the least likely of people to be affected by terrorism in any case; don’t forget that the 2005 bombers stopped in Middle England — Luton — only to argue about the cost of parking or something similar) and by bigots who read even lower-rent rags.

As for our free movement to the rest of the EU, the fact is that we still don’t have the free movement that the rest of the EU has. To get from France to Belgium, you just drive straight across - there have been no passport controls for decades. I have simply walked across the German-Dutch border, and that was in 1991 or 1992 (from Aachen to Vaals). You can’t do that in the UK to any country besides Ireland, and Labour have been talking about scrapping even that. That will matter to an awful lot of British citizens with Irish family connections, like me.

Henry Porter sums up his attitude as coming from an old communist who has ditched his commitment to social justice, but not his commitment to state control:

His deduction that Britain must retreat and retrench, ignoring all obligations to Nato and the international treaties we have signed, is characteristic of someone who veered from outright communism to a point in the 90s where he could say that the word “socialism” could be “humanely phased out”. He has the classic New Labour profile and like fellow migrants from the far left – Straw, Reid, Blunkett and Clarke – he has retained a love of state intrusion and is, as they all are, an enthusiast for ID cards. There is a part of Howells that remains firmly rooted in the beliefs that ruled east Germany until 20 years ago. Actually, what he advocates in this proposed withdrawal from the world is more akin to a British version of Albania, a locked-down police state with stringent border controls and unwavering state control.

I have two personal points to add. One is that we should withdraw from both of the Bush wars because we shouldn’t be there, and never should have been. There was never any question that our action was going to result in a stable, democratic government, as the recent farce of an election demonstrates; it was meant to get rid of Bin Laden and make sure that his gang could not use Afghanistan as a safe haven. The gang has been disrupted, but the history of Afghanistan demonstrates that they will never be loyal to a foreign master, Muslim or otherwise. We did not go in to deal with any threat to British security; we went in because of a rush to “do something” after 9/11. History, however, shows that attempts to conquer Afghanistan are doomed to fail, because it is an inhospitable part of the world settled by people who can and will fight, and will fight as if they have all the time in the world to do it.

Besides, British participation in these wars motivates a fair proportion of whatever support for al-Qa’ida exists among British Muslims, which may well mean that the need for increased surveillance of British Muslims (which is clearly what he means by “certain communities”) decreases. If British politicians had thought more about the British national interest from the start, rather than about cowering from a raging American bull after 9/11, the July 2005 bombings might never have happened. The problem is that, when confronted by power, Howells and his New Labour colleagues and masters proved to be so spineless, one wonders how they moved their arms and legs.

Second, we easily forget that the price of freedom is not eternal vigilance, it is risk. This means risk from our own behaviour and other people’s. If we have the health and safety industry industry looking over our shoulders all the time, perhaps fewer people would get injured, but life would end up being a whole lot less interesting, and probably more expensive, for everyone. We’ve all heard that this country or that has no crime and you can walk the streets without fear or leave your front door open, but people conveniently forget that these countries, like Syria, Saudi Arabia and Singapore, have secret police forces and people disappear. Crime happens in police stations, not on the streets, and the people who commit them are much less accountable. Less terrorism from groups opposed to the state (of course, Syria and Saudi Arabia have experienced terrorism) but more, along with more intrusion and propaganda, from the state itself.

Of course, we’ve already been told that the surveillance is most likely to affect “certain communities”, not the general population, but if those communities have enough of it, we are likely to see riots or worse.

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