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

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Web Analyst – Permanent – West Sussex – Up to £43k

£35000 - £43000 Per Annum plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

Principal Arboricultural Consultant

£35000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Principal Arboricu...

Trainee Digital Forensic Analyst

£17000 - £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Trainee Digital Fo...

Legal Recruitment Consultant

Highly Competitive Salary + Commission: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL BASED - DEALING ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

What's the most meaningful response we could have to the murder of James Foley?

Archie Bland
The back page of today's i  

i Editor's Letter: Your response to our new back page of sports

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

But could his predictions of war do the same?
Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

Young at hort

Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

Beyond a joke

Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

A wild night out

Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

Besiktas vs Arsenal

Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment