Gone To Paris


Time for a croissant break

My wife and I are taking our traditional autumn trip to Paris this weekend, so updates on the blog and Twitter will be sparse (I’ve been instructed to brag that we refined Hoopers like to holiday in Santorini in the summer and visit Paris in the autumn, but “wintering in south Texas” doesn’t have quite the same cosmopolitan ring to it… Besides, I’m not quite sure that a two-year repetition of Santorini and Paris counts as a family tradition).

Many thanks to everyone for reading, commenting and sharing my articles. Your stories, anecdotes, theories, correctives, diatribes and occasional insults are all very much appreciated, and hopefully simultaneously make this a more interesting blog and me a better writer.

Good news this week for this blog’s more big-J journalism activities – a story I broke here on Semi-Partisan Politics about Labour peer Baroness Ruth Henig exploiting the memory of the Paris Bataclan attacks to drum up more business for her private security firm was picked up yesterday by the mighty Guido Fawkes blog.

Read Guido’s story here. My original reporting and editorial here.

While the behaviour I uncovered is sadly more common than it should be within Parliament, hopefully the media spotlight will shame Baroness Henig into resolving her unpardonable personal conflict of interest, one way or another. Another reason I’m happy to be visiting Paris will be to show friendship and solidarity with the people of France, for whom I have always had great affection.

As always, the subscriptions and personal donations you make to the blog are very much appreciated indeed, and really do help to keep me writing. If you get value from reading this blog, please do consider making a small contribution here:



Many thanks to all those of you who have kindly and generously donated in the past, or who currently make a regular contribution. I couldn’t do it without you.

Normal business will resume on Sunday evening.

Thanks as always for your readership and support.

À bientôt.


Postscript: As well as some much anticipated ballet (George Balanchine) and opera (Samson et Dalila, Saint-Saens) we have a dinner reservation at Yam’Tcha, a well regarded and trendy Franco-Chinois fusion restaurant. But the question is, who will be most harmed by my flagrant act of cultural appropriation – the French or the Chinese?


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The Daily Toast: Don’t Exploit The Paris Attacks To Increase Surveillance

Surveillance State - Britain - UK - Paris Attacks

Demands for more government surveillance in response to the Paris terror attacks are crass, opportunistic and pointless

It’s very rare for this blog to agree with a Guardian editorial, but the newspaper’s stance on the proper response to the latest terrorist atrocity in Paris contains a lot of sense*.

For a start, there is none of the Western self-flagellation that grips too much of the Corbynite Left, and the absence of this equivocation is refreshing in itself (but then ever since their decision to back Yvette Cooper over Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership election, the Guardian’s left wing idealism has seemed more affected than deeply held).

And on the need to avoid using the Paris attacks as permission to ratchet up the surveillance state, the Guardian is absolutely correct:

In Britain, there will be some who see Theresa May’s new investigatory powers bill in a more urgent light after Paris. But unless and until the evidence shows that bulk surveillance would have made a difference in that dreadful scenario, the argument remains where it was. And our starting point is still that mass surveillance of all of us is neither necessary nor effective.

When the intelligence agencies are looking for a needle in a haystack, they shouldn’t be adding more hay. When they need to spy on an individual or group, they should seek – and they will usually get – the legal warrant to do so. And, in case it needs repeating, European societies do not defend their values when they turn on their Muslim fellow citizens – on the contrary, they violate those values.

This is exactly right, and a welcome counternote to the blind panic currently spilling from the keyboards of other commentators such as Dan Hodges. While one can understand individuals – particularly those actually caught up in the attacks – being led by emotion and willingly sacrificing everything for the false promise of greater security, those people who make public policy or influence public opinion should be more careful with their thoughts and words.

As the Guardian rightly points out, it is for the intelligence services (and their willing cheerleaders in the media) to conclusively prove that harvesting more bulk data would have prevented the Paris attacks from happening. If they really want to shift the status quo and treat every citizen as guilty until proving innocent by keeping a record of their communications, they must prove that the lack of this data is what allowed the eight attackers to slip through the net. And they can prove no such thing, because even if some of their communications were swept up in bulk collection along with everyone else’s, they cannot prove – or even plausibly claim – that they would have known to look for that data in the giant haystack of data.

The problem with our current national security state is not that it lacks sufficient powers over us, but that we lack sufficient power over it. Citing “national security concerns” now seems to be enough to win the argument for more surveillance on its own, and the intelligence services have grown both lazy and entitled, expecting governments to grant their every request even when they fail to construct a convincing case for them. Just as President Eisenhower presciently warned of the military-industrial complex, so we must be wary of the national security state – which has now become so big that it has taken on a life of its own, with priorities and ambitions that go beyond their original, limited remit.

This would be bad enough if it worked, but the awkward truth is that we will never achieve the perfectly secure state. Realising this, we must understand that responding to every new barbaric terrorist attack by ratcheting up the same surveillance state which failed to prevent it represents a colossal failure of imagination on our part. Glenn Greenwald likes to make the comparison with road safety – we do not insist on draconian new road safety legislation such as a 20mph speed limit every time we see a road fatality, because we accept that a degree of risk comes with the freedom to drive.

As this blog commented after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, warning of the dangers of government overreaction:

The harms that would be inflicted in order to achieve absolute safety are the very same harms that David Cameron intends to inflict upon Britain in his panicked, servile submission to the demands of the national security and intelligence chiefs. The only way to achieve absolute safety is through absolute surveillance – and zero privacy. Stepping out onto a London street totally certain in the knowledge that you will come to no harm would require us to become North Korea.

Ultimately, the only way to make us safer is to reduce the number of people living among us or dwelling overseas who wish to rain death and destruction upon us. That does not – repeat, does not – mean appeasing them, admitting that they have a point, or accepting the legitimacy of their sick and evil ideology. But it does mean accepting some fundamental truths that we prefer to overlook in our righteous fury, as I pointed out after Charlie Hebdo.

Those who think that the way to prevent the next attack is by granting government yet more power to spy on our actions and regulate what we say would apparently be content to live in a society where a small, nihilistic minority hate us and wish us harm, but whose attempts to kill us are always thwarted by an omnipotent security and intelligence apparatus. I do not wish to live in such a state, and nor do I think that such a scenario should be our highest aspiration. We can do better than that.

In the shocked aftermath of these reprehensible terrorist attacks in Paris, some would have the authorities start to construct their very own North Korea right here in England’s green and pleasant land. They are motivated by an understandable fear, but our country will not be best served by acting on their gut instinct. Even when the advocates of the surveillance state mean well, we must oppose them.

* That’s not to say that the Guardian gets everything right. Determined to push their pro-EU agenda at all times, the article keeps banging on about “European values” as though our common revulsion at the killing and maiming of innocent people in Paris somehow means that the national cultures of Britain, France, Portugal, Greece and Poland are more or less identical, and ripe for further political integration. This much is nonsense, but does not detract from the overall thrust of the piece.

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Paris Terror Attacks: The World Turns On Its Dark Side

Paris Terror Attacks - Eiffel Tower Dark - 2

Our hearts break for Paris and the French people. For the sake of the victims and their families, our response to these latest terror attacks must be more than the standard denial and clichéd mistakes

Since awful showpiece terrorist attacks like those that tore through the heart of Paris last night are becoming a regular occurrence, it is worth reminding ourselves of the standard political response in their aftermath. It goes something like this:

Day 0: Expressions of shock, sorrow, anger and solidarity

Day +1: Insistence that now is a time for mourning, not asking difficult questions about how or why the atrocities were committed

Day +1, later: The first difficult questions are asked, particularly of the government and security services

Day +2: The intelligence services dust off their wishlist of draconian new powers, and strongly suggest that if only they already had these powers, the attack could have been avoided

Day +2, later: Some brave soul pokes their head above the parapet and tries to start a discussion about the link between unlimited multiculturalism and homegrown extremism, to near universal c0ndemnation

Day +3: The official narrative is established – “we will defeat this terror by giving our intelligence services the tools they need, and making radical or hateful speech illegal”

And so, within a week, the status quo reasserts itself. More civil liberties infringements, more free speech crackdowns, more government surveillance – and then more terror attacks, weeks or months later.

The status quo is not working. As this blog noted shortly after the Charlie Hebdo attacks:

Attempting to start a meaningful conversation about the root causes of Islamist terrorism is, apparently, highly unseemly and inappropriate so soon after an attack. And yet those who make this claim never explain why talking about the root causes of Islamist terrorism in its immediate aftermath is opportunistic and wrong, while conveniently it happens to be the perfect time for governments to demand sweeping, draconian new powers. And that is exactly what we now see.

One thing should now be absolutely clear, though apparently it needs constant restating: There can never be enough surveillance, never enough restrictions on movement, never enough laws banning hate speech to prevent a small number of determined, radicalised citizens – and likely non-citizens who have taken advantage of Europe’s loose borders – from going on the rampage and causing the kind of bloody mayhem that we now see, again, in Paris.

With the exception of the Stade de France, these were soft targets. It is simply not possible to protect every restaurant, every corner bistro or every theatre from a jihadist army of two who turn up in a car, spray innocent people with bullets and speed off to their next target. Concrete road blocks, razor wire, metal detectors and CCTV are of no use against these nimble threats.

So whatever else is said in the aftermath of these latest Paris attacks, let no one pretend that more government surveillance and more draconian crackdowns on free speech – either that of the Islamists or the Islamophobes – are the right answer. At best, these policies – favoured by the French and British governments – are a sticking plaster on an open wound, addressing the symptom but not the problem.

And that problem is the same as it was on 7 January, when Islamist gunmen stormed the offices of Charlie Hebdo, massacring journalists and shoppers at a Parisian kosher supermarket. The problem is that there are people living among us – a very small, but determinedly growing number, either citizens or recent migrants – who may hold the same passports as us and walk the same streets as us, but who feel no connection with us.

Those who propose nothing but even more security would apparently be content to live in a society where a small, segregated minority still hate us, but are thwarted in their attempts to kill us by omnipotent security services. They would be happy to live in a divided, ghettoised, multicultural dystopia, so long as the terror plots are always successfully thwarted.

Those of us who believe in the western and enlightenment values of freedom and individual liberty should not be satisfied with this goal – which is unattainable anyway, since perfect security can never be achieved. We should want a society which is open and welcoming to those who wish to come and contribute, but not credulously undiscriminating in accepting everyone. We should want a society where people feel bonds of kinship and affection which transcend racial and religious boundaries, where a healthy sense of patriotism ensures that there are common shared values which unite us all. But when patriotism and a robust defence of western values is seen as gauche, unseemly and culturally insensitive, there is no way to transmit these essential values to those who most need to receive them.

No government action taken by France in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks could likely have prevented these new attacks on Friday 13 November – simply not enough time has elapsed for any bold new government policies to have taken effect. But appallingly, neither have any bold new government policies been proposed, let alone implemented. France still struggles with the existence of economically deprived, socially isolated immigrant communities who feel no allegiance to the country where they live – people who often feel more Muslim than French. Weak to nonexistent border enforcement makes it impossible to properly who control who comes and goes.

Meanwhile, the West – and Europe in particular – is in the midst of its own identity crisis, increasingly uncomfortable defending the principles of liberal democracy, free speech and tolerance. Many would rather bury their heads in the sand and deny the existence of the problem than insist that everyone abide by certain values and standards of behaviour. Too often, a warped strain of Islam has been allowed to run side-by-side with Western culture in a dual, effectively segregated society. And the growing Western culture of victimhood only adds fuel to the jihadist fire.

As Frank Furedi wrote on the tenth anniversary of the 7/7 London bombings:

The redefinition of terrorism as an ideological competitor is linked to the decline in the self-belief of the West. Even before the events of 11 September 2001, never mind 7 July 2005, there was more than a hint of defensiveness about the ability of Western values to prevail over those of their hostile opponents. One conservative American observer gave voice to this sentiment, and concluded that ‘protecting Western culture from foreign assault requires domestic revival’. A decade before 9/11 he warned that ‘the 21st century could once again find Islam at the gates of Vienna, as immigrants or terrorists if not armies’. Today there is little evidence of a domestic revival. Indeed, Western governments are sensitive about their very limited capacity for inspiring their own publics. The problem of engaging the public and gaining its support is one of the most striking features of the post-9/11 political landscape.

[..] There are signs that, in the decade since 7/7, some sections of the British establishment have woken up to the fact that what drives homegrown jihadism is the failure of society to clarify its values and way of life. The constant calls from Cameron and others to teach British values in schools represents an indirect recognition of the absence of such values from young people’s lives. But the values that inspire must be lived; they can’t be recycled through a shopping list of good intentions. Until there is a more courageous attempt to address this problem, tragedies like the London bombings of a decade ago will always be a possibility. The real threat is not the poisonous ideology of Islamic State, but Western society’s failure to live out and stand up for the principles of liberal democracy.

As it is in Britain, so it is in France. Neither country has done enough to tackle the sense of alienation or the crisis of British / French values which make radicalisation possible.

Tim Stanley touches on these points in his moving tribute to Paris in the Telegraph following yesterday’s terror attacks:

The brutality of this attack shows that we are not dealing with an enemy that can be negotiated with, only confronted and beaten. Perhaps that confrontation will be existential. Are we doing enough to integrate everyone, enough to fight poverty, enough to eradicate prejudice? Are we confident enough about our own values to teach and promote them? Are our security measures appropriate? Do we all have to come to terms with living with permanent anti-terror measures (I hope not). And what will our society look like as a consequence of this conflict? Less free, perhaps?

Are we doing enough to integrate everyone? I don’t think that any French or British politician could say that enough is being done. Worse still, it isn’t even a top priority at the moment.

Are we confident enough about our own values? Clearly not – in many cases, we have so little confidence in our own values that we fail to insist that others (recent immigrants and segregated communities) abide by the enlightenment values which have served us so well. In fact, sometimes we make an ostentatious virtue of parading our tolerance of thoroughly anti-enlightenment values, in warped service to “multiculturalism”.

Are our security measures appropriate? Our intelligence services will walk a tightrope here, insisting that they do everything they can to keep us safe, while making clear that if we do not grant them additional powers, any future blood spilled will be on our hands.

But Tim Stanley’s final question is the most pertinent: Do we all have to come to terms with living with permanent anti-terror measures?

That question is best answered with another question: What concrete actions are we taking that might feasibly lead to the rolling back of the semi-permanent anti-terror measures and powers which are now a depressingly familiar part of life? What one single thing are we doing that might mean we need less security and less surveillance a decade from now?

The regrettable answer is that we are doing virtually nothing. The world continues to turn on its dark side, and we can reasonably look forward to a future of more random terror, more sombre presidential addresses and the familiar sight of militarised police SWAT teams crawling over our major cities. This is the new normal, and nothing we are presently doing is going to change that fact.

It is now Day +1. This time, can we break with rotten, failed convention and actually talk about root causes?

Paris Terror Attacks - One World Trade Center - New York

Top Image: Eiffel Tower, darkened after the 13 November attacks: Auskar Surbakti Twitter feed

Bottom Image: One World Trade Center, New York, lit in French colours: Jon Swaine Twitter feed

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