Future-forming interdisciplinary research

The social futures of communication


A brief conversation with the Rt Hon Charles Clarke, former Home Secretary, following the Paris attacks.


A week after the Paris attacks, Charles Clarke shares his views on the events, drawing important parallels to the situation in Britain.


  • An obvious question perhaps, but I’d like to start by asking what you think the main differences are between the Paris attacks and the London bombings in 2005?


The London bombings were cleverly planned. [These were] attacks on four different places with bombs. There were no guns in that situation at all. The number of people involved in the case of London was far smaller and they were able to keep a very secure situation between the four of them. The second thing is that we had the experience of the Madrid bombings, so we were very worried immediately about the possibility of a second attack. And in fact the second attack came in London on 21 July, a fortnight later; it didn’t succeed at all, but led to the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, which was a big tragedy. We don’t know if there is a follow-up plan in Paris. The third thing is [that]the level of preparation of the emergency services in London was very good. They worked very well together to try and minimize the impact of the attacks. I think that’s true to some extent in Paris, but there is still some uncertainty about what happened and how it happened.


  • One of the things that you mentioned in one of your interviews earlier this year is that whatever strategy is used to fight extremism and terrorists should combine security and community. Security and community are central to the four Ps of CONTEST, prevent, pursue, protect and prepare, do we need to revisit these ‘Ps’ in the light of IS recent attacks?


I certainly think it is worth revisiting the Ps, but not specifically because of the IS attacks. In general there is a lot of discussion about how effective this particular strategy has been, in particular, for example, in relation to schools and universities. I think it is worth looking again at the strategy, not from a critical point of view particularly, but just to see how valuable it is. There are two or three main areas here. First, in the case of France, there’s been a long but quite different history of the relationship between the minorities and the communities as compared to Britain. The whole approach is what some call assimilation or integration, which is different in style from what has been done here in Britain. Secondly, the relationship between education and religion is important. Linda Woodhead and I have written a pamphlet on this [A New Settlement: Religion and Belief in Schools, 2015]. I think it is important to see how we can ensure that children who go through school are much better educated about what religions there are, and what their beliefs are and what they’re not. I think more work needs to be done on that in Britain. It is difficult to do that in France because the education system is very separated from religious questions, almost constitutionally, and it is difficult to see how a similar approach would operate [there]. Thirdly is the question of the use of intelligence, which is absolutely the key thing about policing and the security that is involved in these kinds of attacks. It is obvious that there are some serious intelligence lessons that need to be learned from the Paris attacks. Britain has been learning from such situations for quite a long time. The controversy is, of course, how one deals with intelligence questions, surveillance and so on. But going back to your central question, should we be re-evaluating? Absolutely, we should, but not simply because of the IS attacks, but because of the general situation that we [now]have.


  • Following from your answer, about the differences between Britain and France and the points that you make about education, it seems to me that another important dimension is immigration and the securitization of borders, especially in the context of the Schengen area and the sharing of intelligence across national borders…


I’ve written about this to some length in the pamphlet ‘The EU and migration: A call for action’ (Centre for European Reform, 2011). Fundamentally, I think that we need to give more responsibilities when dealing with migration to the EU level. I also argue that the UK should join Schengen. Issues should focus on the external border and what can be done in that context. I think that is something worth thinking about in Britain but also in France. From the reporting of the Paris attacks, it is clear that the French-Belgian relationship has not been good in intelligence and policing terms.


  • Going back to the question about communities and one of the Ps, namely, protecting, in this case, the vast non-extremist Muslim population from stigmatization in the aftermath of the attacks, what role do you think politicians can play in that process? And, related to that, what role can academics play in the same process, if any?


All of this is about legislation to protect people within the minority communities, particularly Muslims. Outlawing hate crimes against Muslims [is an example], which we did in the UK. Also, demonstrating the wide variety of different ways in which the Muslim communities are part of our whole society and not a separate thing. These things are very important and I think there is a great deal that can be done in that way. You have to establish the fact that Muslims are full citizens of the country of which they are part and work on that basis. It is also important to address a number of issues such as in employment law and discrimination law, . As far as academics are concerned, it is really a question of analyzing the areas in which there are issues and problems in the communities, so that we can see what can be done and analyze what the situation is. That is the contribution that academics are very able to make.


  • Thinking about the global dimension of the IS’s attacks – as reported in the last two months and including places like Ankara, Beirut, Baghdad, Paris, and Kogalymavia’s plane from Egypt to St Petersburg – it raises the question of borders and an international strategy, which takes us into the direction of a strategy for global security. I have two questions here, first, is the realization about security and how important international borders are really new? And secondly, how do we contribute to the shaping of that global agenda from academia, but also from the context of policymaking?


I don’t think this is completely new; there is a whole set of issues that have gone on for some time. What is true is that IS gives a whole new urgency to the situation. What you’re really putting your finger on is, I think, a very big problem, namely, the weakness of international government following the big changes that took place in about 1948 and 1951 when a number of international organizations were established. What we are seeing is problems that are international in character, including the IS attacks, but also other ones like the economic recession in 2008. These are big international challenges that international government institutions are not at the moment capable of solving and so what happens is that in the case of those institutions that are not succeeding there is a reaction against them, and people turn against them. My answer to that is that trying to believe that we can create and make our own societies safe, behind our own borders is a complete illusion. We have to develop more effective international government institutions. That means we need a more effective European Union in all these areas. But it also means, more widely than that, trying to make progress on the big challenges such as what is happening in Syria [where]you have to work with Russia, with Iran and to try and find solutions in that context. For a long time we haven’t been working in that way at all. UN institutions have been very ineffective in doing that. If you are talking about the core problems, whether it is policy, or political tension and conflict, the international community [is not]working to that end very effectively.


For a more detailed treatment of the need for a more effective international government, see Charles Clarke’s interview discussing Terrorism and Counter-terrorism after 7/7 and his lecture on “How best can we meet the international and economic security challenges of our time?”


  • One last question relating to our work at the Institute for Social Futures. In the context of global security and counter-terrorism and given both the urgency of the Paris attacks and the climate of fear and uncertainty they’ve created, how do you think the notion of social futures might help us to counter some of that and, further, create an environment where citizens feel safe?


At the end of the day, the core point here is that you can’t do everything. Governments, for example, can’t do anything unless they’re working with the population which they represent. So the question is how people react. When you take a decision on: Where in the spectrum between liberty and security, for example, you operate this can only be done with the people One example is surveillance. So the question is not what position we believe in, but [instead]is a question of how people respond to it, how they feel about it. The obvious point is the closer the relationship between people and the government in difficult times then the more it is possible to achieve measures which are successful. Or, to put it the other way around, the more there is alienation between what government is doing and what people see then the less effective those government policies will be. The social element is to try and ensure that everybody is working together on this question rather than working in contest with each other.


  • It seems that the issue of communication is key to all of this…


Yes, it is absolutely central. It is the way that things can be misunderstood, which is very much about communication. If you take something like the Paris attacks: That was obviously almost the most dramatic form of communication to just about every citizen of Britain. This is the situation; we have to look at what we do in this most dramatic way, and so it’s all forms of communication. I don’t mean communication just in terms of PR, important in its own way, but I’m talking about the issues of communication in a much more substantial way: The way that people’s views are formed about the challenges that society faces needs to be developed.

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