The Week in Politics: Why are ministers whipping up security fears?

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In Washington, George Bush and Tony Blair discuss the "war on terror". The battle rages in Iraq, which Mr Blair calls the crucible in which the war against global terrorism will be decided. President Bush appoints as his Attorney General an old Texan pal who believes the Geneva Conventions on the questioning of enemy suspects are "obsolete" in the "new kind of war" against terrorists.

In Washington, George Bush and Tony Blair discuss the "war on terror". The battle rages in Iraq, which Mr Blair calls the crucible in which the war against global terrorism will be decided. President Bush appoints as his Attorney General an old Texan pal who believes the Geneva Conventions on the questioning of enemy suspects are "obsolete" in the "new kind of war" against terrorists.

Meanwhile, the head of MI5 warns the Confederation of British Industry conference that Britain is in danger of becoming "complacent" because the country has not suffered a major terrorist atrocity.

It all happened in the past few days. Watching President Bush and Mr Blair at close quarters at the White House yesterday, I could not help thinking how "security" plays an increasingly dominant role in political life. It was a big issue in the American election and will be in Britain too: add crime, asylum and immigration to the terrorism mix and you have a potent brew.

The Queen's Speech on 23 November will include several Bills with a "safety and security" theme, including a national identity card scheme, a new body to tackle organised crime and another "crackdown" on antisocial behaviour.

The package has been deliberately drawn up to prevent the Tories exploiting crime and security issues, on which they have traditionally been strong, at the election expected next May. Ministers will challenge their Tory opposite numbers to allow the measures to pass before Parliament is prorogued, ready to label them "soft" on crime if they walk into Labour's trap and oppose them.

The politicians deny whipping up people's fears, saying they are merely responding to them. I am not so sure. Why, for example, has the fear of crime risen even though the crime levels have fallen?

One Blair aide insisted: "People do see a link between antisocial behaviour in the area where they live and global terrorism. They feel a general sense of insecurity and we have to take account of it."

This merging of the local and the global is one reason why Mr Blair has had an important rethink in recent days. He has had enough of failing in his efforts to switch the political spotlight from foreign to domestic affairs, from Iraq to public services. So he has decided to stop trying to "move on" in a recognition that international affairs will play a big role between now and May whatever happens in Iraq. A "twin-track" election in which domestic and foreign affairs feature is now inevitable, he believes. The world changed on 11 September 2001 and the politicians are still coming to terms with it.

Are they responding in the right way? I have just caught up with the excellent three-part BBC2 series by the documentary-maker Adam Curtis, The Power of Nightmares. For those who missed it, a brief resume. Mr Curtis accuses politicians of using fear as a substitute for vision. Because their ideas have lost credibility, he argues, they use a phantom enemy to maintain their power over us. With the threat from the Soviet Union gone, the new enemy is al-Qa'ida. Mr Curtis claims that al-Qa'ida is not the well-organised global network that President Bush and Mr Blair portray.

There are not scores of sleeper cells waiting for Osama bin Laden's call. The documentary-maker points out that only 17 of the 660-plus suspected terrorists arrested in the UK have been found guilty, and that they were mostly Irish and Sikh militants. He dismisses warnings about a "dirty bomb", quoting experts who claim it would not kill, and reminds us that no ricin has yet been found.

The series cast doubt on the chilling warnings by the President and the Prime Minister about the terrorist threat. Although it was brilliant viewing and raised serious questions, I don't entirely buy the Curtis thesis. For all the holes he exposed in the politicians' arguments, he did not overcome their inevitable reply: that 9/11, Madrid, Bali and other terrorist acts were no fantasy and that others will surely follow.

In Mr Blair's eyes, he would be failing in his duty if he did not act when he is shown intelligence about a plot to bomb the London Underground or shoot down a plane at Heathrow. He worries about people being locked up in Belmarsh Prison, and almost certainly told President Bush yesterday that he is unhappy that four Britons are still being held at Guantanamo Bay.

But Mr Blair believes that governments must err on the side of caution. In essence, his plea is: "If you saw the intelligence reports that came across my desk, you would understand why we do what we do." In other words:"Trust me".

Sound familiar? Lots of reports crossed Mr Blair's desk about Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction. I am sure he believed them; he did not sit in Downing Street making them up.

But they were cherry-picked by Downing Street to create a much more serious threat than existed.

Today David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, will deny that Labour is trying to "scare" people into voting for it by exploiting "the politics of fear".

Addressing a conference organised by the Labour modernisers' group Progress, he will say that the election campaign will be "based on optimism, not fear." His counter-terrorism measures are designed to "reduce fear" and attacks that would produce a clamour for even more repressive measures, he will say.

Of course, a difficult balance has to be struck and it is good that Mr Blunkett is addressing the criticism. However, it would be easier to give the Government the benefit of the doubt if it had not tried to scare us about weapons in Iraq that did not exist.

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