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Andreas Whittam Smith

Avoidance of blame is key to Blair's anti-terror strategy

Ministers will be able to say that a terrorist attack was successful because its plans were rejected

Reactions to the proposals by the Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, that British citizens suspected of terrorism should be subject to house arrest without trial have been unusually interesting. Personally, I am unclear at the moment whether I am watching clever and subtle manoeuvring by Mr Clarke or British political traditions asserting themselves come what may.

Here is one way of looking at recent events. I start from what the Prime Minister, Mr Blair, said in response to a question from Mr Howard, the Opposition leader, in the House of Commons last week. Mr Blair remarked: "What we are desperate to do is to avoid a situation where, at a later stage, people turn round and say - if only you had been as vigilant as you should have been, we could have averted a terrorist attack." Deeply embedded in the British political system is the priority given to the avoidance of blame, particularly during what is probably an election year.

This means, if my first hypothesis is correct, that, in relation to national security, government ministers are quite capable of proposing measures that they well know to be deeply illiberal and repugnant in the hope - paradoxical as this may seem - that they will be criticised on all sides. Then they would be able to say in event of a successful terrorist attack that they hadn't been able do what they knew to be right because of the hostile reception that their plans had received.

Thus Mr Clarke was careful in his presentation to the House of Commons two weeks ago to say that what he was proposing would represent the greatest increase in the power of the state in relation to individual freedoms for 300 years. He emphasised this point a number of times as if he were authorising even Labour members to be on their guard here. Perhaps the Home Secretary should have said precisely 365 years, just in case MPs failed to cast their minds back as far as the English Civil War, the execution of the King, the arrival of Cromwell, the Restoration and the Glorious Revolution.

At all events, if my analysis is broadly correct, Mr Clarke's presentation of his proposals had the effect he desired. Labour backbenchers became restive, the Tories and Liberal Democrats were up in arms. It wasn't long before the former Labour cabinet minister Frank Dobson announced that he could not possibly support such restrictions. Likewise, the Government's legal officers quickly warned that Mr Clarke's plans could be vulnerable to challenge in the courts.

Meanwhile, the Home Secretary suddenly freed unconditionally an alleged extremist, a foreign national, who had been held without trial for more than three years. Whether or not new evidence had turned up which exonerated the prisoner known as "C", Mr Clarke's action conveyed the impression either that the security situation wasn't as grave as previously believed or that the Home Secretary's decision- making - any home secretary's - was haphazard. Opponents of Mr Clarke's measures felt vindicated.

Allowing my imagination to run away with me, I would say that the ground had now been prepared, the path had been marked out and Michael Howard took the course the Home Secretary all along hoped he would take. He announced that the Conservatives will oppose government plans to confine terrorist suspects to house arrest. And he proposed an alternative policy based on holding suspects in prison pending trial, prison sentences for convicted terrorists, and the use of phone-tap evidence in court cases.

Many will find Mr Howard's proposals a very considerable improvement. I am delighted by them. They exemplify the best traditions of Britain's constitutional arrangements. In the most influential book on the British constitution ever written, Professor Dicey stated that the rule of law meant that individuals ought not to be subjected to the actions of officials wielding wide discretionary powers. "Wherever there is a discretion, there is room for arbitrariness." That is as true today as it was in 1885 when Dicey's work was first published.

What happened next was, on the face of it, very surprising. For Mr Blair accepted an invitation from Mr Howard to meet and discuss the Conservative proposals. Warning of the difficulties in balancing the need to protect the public from terrorism and safeguard civil liberties, Mr Blair told the Commons: "I am happy to hold discussions to see if we can find a common way forward." This will be the first time that the Prime Minister and the present Leader of the Opposition have met in this way.

I hope Mr Blair and Mr Clarke will accept Mr Howard's solution. That would be a satisfactory outcome to a difficult situation. Mr Blair would avoid blame if something went wrong, and civil liberties would be preserved. What I still don't know, however, is whether I have been watching a rather cunning approach to the desired answer by government ministers or a particular political culture preserving its best traditions. Or perhaps the usual explanation is best - it's all a muddle and we still have no idea of the outcome.