There was no such thing as a prime minister's set. If there had, it would, no doubt, have refrained from specifying the incumbent's party, for fear of causing offence. But if there had been such a toy, it might have been the favourite plaything of the young Tony Blair, not least because politics, in the ideological sense of that word, was not involved. For there is nothing that he likes better than playing prime ministers, now getting into a helicopter, now getting out of one.
At one minute he is exulting, with some justification, at the success of London's Olympic bid: in view of the fate of the Dome, the new Wembley Stadium and the Paddington hospital which the authorities have simply given up building, a triumph of hope over experience if ever there was one. At the next minute he is telling us that the terrorists will never weaken our national resolve. As the former coach to the Australian rugby team once put it: at one minute you're cock of the walk, at the next a feather duster.
And yet, this is not quite true of our Prime Minister. He is always capable of turning adversity to advantage, as he did on Thursday, at any rate for the time being. But what resolve precisely was it that was not to be weakened? Ah, that was more difficult to say. What was certain was that we were not to be bullied or pushed around. The entire press, not to mention the whole House of Commons, then joined in.
Indeed, the acting Speaker, Ms Sylvia Heal, warned the members that they should watch what they said during such a period of national crisis. That was reminiscent of the attitude taken from the chair by that ghastly creep George Thomas during the Falklands War, when he took it as his duty to support Margaret Thatcher's government and accordingly to avoid calling those MPs who had their doubts about the policy pursued.
It is doubtful whether Ms Heal's minatory message was necessary. The House would have behaved in the same supine way if she had said nothing at all. The House is always at its worst when it is supposed to be at its best; and vice versa. Even Sir Menzies Campbell, who has a good and consistent record on Iraq, contented himself with platitudes. Only Mr George Galloway had the effrontery to suggest that what had happened on London's Underground might possibly have been connected with the policies being pursued by Mr Blair's government in the Middle East.
To the papers, the expression of such a view at such a moment was in the worst possible taste. London could take it. Well, no doubt the emergency services were excellent and the police were magnificent. True, Mr Charles Clarke told us to carry on normally on Friday; whereas the police advised us to stay at home. But such conflicts can hardly be avoided altogether in the prevailing circumstances. The point was that we were incredibly resilient, just as we had been in the Blitz.
This old line is, and always has been, part of the propaganda of those set in authority over us. The evidence is quite different. The population of the East End thought they were being called upon to bear an unfair burden, as the rich were not. They were frightened of the bombs, going so far as to crowd into the Underground stations that were used as shelters when they were in no imminent danger. They were even more terrified of the flying bombs, and with very good reason, for the bombs could strike without warning. So let us have a moratorium on the Spirit of the Blitz.
There were two bright spots, both illuminated by television journalists. On the BBC's News 24 Mr Jeremy Paxman asked Mr Clarke, in his mildest and least aggressive manner, whether last week's outrages might not have occurred if the UK had refrained from attacking Iraq. Mr Clarke replied, in an affronted way, that the events of 11 September 2001 had happened before Iraq was attacked by anybody and that, in relation to the bombs in Madrid in 2004, Spain had hardly been involved at all in the war.
This last was not true, as Mr Clarke must have known quite well. Spain had troops in Iraq; the attacks occurred in the middle of the Spanish election; as a consequence of the change of government brought about at that election, those troops were withdrawn. This caused a bout of high-minded indignation in the Murdoch press on account of Spain's alleged "surrender to terrorism". But elsewhere there was less excitement.
Mr Paxman's interview with Mr Clarke was not repeated on Newsnight later on in the evening, even though other products of his day's labours were duly shown. What we also saw was the winning Ms Martha Kearney talking to Mr Jack Straw. The Foreign Secretary echoed what the Home Secretary had said earlier, to the effect that the Twin Towers had been attacked long before Iraq had been invaded. The bombs in the Underground and on the bus were a continuation of the assaults by the aircraft in New York. Therefore, the attacks on London had nothing to do with the invasion of Iraq. This is clearly going to be the government line which, we may be sure, will be peddled energetically in the next few months, with ready purchasers to be found in the national press.
In fact the line has already been laid down by the Prime Minister. Almost certainly the criminals who placed Thursday's bombs are not believers in the separation of Church and State or in the desirability of free speech. It would be very surprising if they were. But then, belief in the principles of the Enlightenment is not as strong in this country as it was, say, 50 years ago. It does not follow that the terrorists wish forcibly to transform this society into something even closer to their own ideal theocratic State. They are concerned with what they see as more immediate injustices, in Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq and other unhappy lands: something that Mr Blair is as reluctant to acknowledge as Mr George Bush is.Reuse content