Tony Blair has shown he is a threat to our constitution

A deceitful PM with a massive majority. That is the danger that became vivid with the terror Bill

Share
Related Topics

What a week! The system just about worked. I never wanted to find out whether there was anything to prevent a government with a large majority in the House of Commons from taking away our freedoms. In the absence of a written constitution, I feared there wasn't.

Admittedly we hadn't reached the nightmare situation described by Philip Roth in his latest novel, The Plot Against America. In it, Mr Roth has Roosevelt losing the 1940 presidential election to the aviation hero and anti-Semite Charles Lindbergh. As President, "Lyndy" stays closely in touch with grass-roots America. He pilots himself in a single-seater plane to great meetings across the country and remains immensely popular even though his government signs a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany and Congress, now controlled by his supporters, legislates in a manner inspired more by Mussolini than by the Founding Fathers. President Lindbergh is a thinly disguised version of George W Bush, and Mr Roth's message is that when such populists attain power, traditional restraints fail to impede them.

Instead of the fictional President Lindbergh, we have the actual Tony Blair. The reason why Mr Blair is a serious threat to our long-established constitutional arrangements is that he has no discernible interest in civil liberties. The Prime Minister's entire political philosophy is summed up in one of his favourite phrases: what works. Thus, in describing his aims last week, Mr Blair said: "I have simply been trying to do one thing. And that is to give our police and those who look after the safety and security of our country, our citizens, our families, the powers they need to protect us from those who threaten us with terrorism." What works. No mention of the Prime Ministerial duty of balancing the proper concerns of the security services with the freedom of the individual citizen.

In the event, his Prevention of Terror Bill was substantially amended and made subject to early review. Praise be. Characteristically, however, the Prime Minister couldn't prevent himself from misleading MPs. He informed them that to accept the amendment on the so-called sunset clause "would be contrary to the strong advice given to us by our security services and our police". A few hours later, Lord Falconer, the Lord Chancellor, told the House of Lords that MI5 had not told the Government that the country would be at risk if there were a sunset clause.

Nor are constitutional conventions something that interests Mr Blair. He does not allow substantive discussion of policy in Cabinet. Mr Blair only spends time in the House of Commons when it is strictly necessary. When he announced a key concession during the debate on the Prevention of Terrorism Bill on Friday, he did so on television rather than directly to the House of Commons. Menzies Campbell, the senior Liberal Democrat MP, asked how in these circumstances MPs could properly fulfil their responsibilities. This is the point. Mr Blair doesn't want MPs properly to fulfil their responsibilities.

A deceitful Prime Minister with a massive majority whose only interest is in "what works". This is the threat to the British way of behaving constitutionally. This is the danger that became vivid with publication of a Prevention of Terrorism Bill that would have allowed the Home Secretary of the day to subject British citizens to indefinite house arrest without trial or even knowing why their freedom was being removed. However, in the event, the Prime Minister was opposed.

What is the explanation of this miracle? In the first place, a significant if small number of Labour MPs remained unconvinced. Indeed, in one division the Government would have lost had the opposition parties mustered their full strength. Second, Mr Howard's Tories overcame their fears that opposing the Bill would enable Labour to accuse them of being soft on terrorism. This was always implausible. People know that Labour has a large majority and can expect to get its legislation through without too much trouble. When it doesn't, the electorate is likely to conclude that there must be something seriously wrong with what the Government is proposing rather than that the opposition parties are playing "silly games", as Mr Blair would have it. Mr Howard, too, spoke consistently well. His TV soundbites clearly conveyed a simple step argument for opposing the Bill.

Third, the House of Lords, like the Tory Opposition, was unabashed. Essentially what happened last week was that the seriousness of the threat to traditional liberties called forth the full forces of opposition in an unusually coherent way. Newspapers were pretty well united in their opposition to the Bill. Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition awoke from its long slumber. The House of Lords behaved with a vigour unexpected from such an aged membership. Only the streets were quiet. Our unwritten, informal, always-in-flux constitutional arrangements just about held. Thank Goodness.

React Now

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

Recruitment Genius: IT Software Developer / Programmer

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: IT Software Developer / Program...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executives

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As one of Europe's leading prov...

Sheridan Maine: Accounts Assistant

£30,000 Annual: Sheridan Maine: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for a perso...

Sheridan Maine: Accounts Payable Clerk

£21,000 - £24,000 Annual: Sheridan Maine: Are you looking for a new opportunit...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

I might be an MP, but that doesn't stop me fighting the patriarchy with my breasts

Björt Ólafsdóttir
 

Daily catch-up: opening round in the election contest of the YouTube videos

John Rentoul
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor