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Bruce Anderson

Bruce Anderson: A crisis of law, liberty and order

Visitors from Pakistan need to be closely, though courteously, regulated

There is a danger that we will be distracted by trivia. While it is outrageous that Gordon Brown's Downing St has become a sewage farm at least the Blairites spun with style – this should not be allowed to obscure far graver developments. Over the past few days, it has become apparent that we are facing a crisis, of law, liberty and order. There has been an intellectual breakdown, abetting a failure of leadership. As a result, we have increased our vulnerability, in a dangerous world.

Even so, there should be praise where it is due. Over the past few years, the security services have performed magnificently. We know about the foiled plots which led to prosecutions. But a great deal goes on in the terrorist undergrowth, which never receives publicity. This country is fortunate that when we need outstanding public servants to deal with terrorism, the secret services are providing them. Yet their qualities are no excuse for adding to their difficulties.

In coping with external threats, Britain starts with an advantage which has served us so well over the centuries. We are an island. Now, however, we have a government which seems to have decided that our island status is unfair to our enemies, who must he helped to fight us on a more equal footing. Pakistan is one of the most troubled regions on earth. There are many brave Pakistanis who take risks that should fill us with awe in order to stand with the West against terrorism. Thus far, alas, their courage has not won its due reward in successes. Despite their efforts, Pakistan is still ideally designed to give asylum to those who hate the West and who bend all their energies to find a way of striking at us.

So it should only require five minutes' thought and a modicum of common sense to conclude that visitors from Pakistan need to be closely, though courteously, regulated. But five minutes is a long time, and we have a government which regards common sense as politically incorrect. Over the past four years, 42,000 Pakistani students have been admitted to Britain. That is an absurdly high number. It would be equally absurd to claim that these are 42,000 potential terrorists, though they will include quite a few thousand potential illegal immigrants. But in allowing such a large number of "students" to come here, we are forfeiting the protection which we could receive from geography, reinforced by a tough-minded immigration policy.

There would be a price. In less hazardous times, it would be desirable to allow a lot of foreigners to study here, as long as the facilities existed and the students were bona fide. One would hope that the youngsters returned home with fond memories of the UK, which should bring dividends in future diplomatic and trading links. But we live in hazardous times. The first priority has to be counter-terrorism. That means more vetting and fewer students. Let us hope that the day will come when the controls can be relaxed; let us not delude ourselves as to the imminence of that event.

In a fallen world, it will never be possible to reconcile the exigencies of order and the claims of liberty. Those who are temperamentally on the side of order must remember that we seek an ordered society so that we can enjoy our liberties in safety. Those who are all for rights and freedoms should acknowledge that with the exception of the right to life, no right is more important than the right to order, and that in its absence, no rights could be enjoyed securely, including the right to life. The debate will continue, without ever providing policy-makers with the luxury of a clear conclusion.

But some issues can be resolved. It is difficult to police large demonstrations, especially when many protestors are set on violence. That said, nothing justifies the collective punishment of innocent adults. Yet in recent years, the Metropolitan Police decided to do just that, by preventing law-abiding citizens who found themselves in the vicinity of a demonstration from going about their business. Through no fault of their own, such persons could be "kettled": penned up for several hours, however late they were for a meeting, however much they were bursting for a pee.

This is outrageous. If kettling the innocent is not already an imprisonable offence, it must become one. Every rational person should sympathise with the Met's problems, but every wise copper ought to recognise that there is a near-crisis of public confidence in the policing of London. The new Commissioner was appointed to provide leadership, raise standards, improve morale and restore confidence. He does not have long. The treatment of Mr Tomlinson will have made him aware of the problems he faces, for it was far worse than the Menezes affair, where the policemen involved had reason to think that they were dealing with a terrorist. But there is one common feature. In both cases, the police's initial statements were wholly misleading; in the Tomlinson case, deliberately so. It is a bad business when we cannot trust a police spokesman's word.

Nor is pedestrian kettling the only problem on the streets. Last Tuesday, a few thousand Tamils decided to block the roads around Parliament. This caused chaos, which was presumably the intention. While one can understand the Tamils' feelings, their very intensity has blinded them to two crucial considerations. First, about one in a hundred thousand of the British public is aware of events in Sri Lanka and traffic jams will neither alter that nor arouse sympathy for the Tamils' case. Second, that the taxpayers of London have the right to use their streets without being kettled in their cars. The Tamils ought to be allowed to make their point in ways which do not disrupt London life. What is wrong with handing out literature and offering briefings to passers-by who have time for a chat? On Tuesday, the police should have freed the streets. Instead, they shirked their duty.

It does not help that they have the worst possible Home Secretary. Even under a Prime Minister who exalted Damian McBride, you simply cannot have a Home Secretary who is ridiculed and despised. At least McPoison had the decency to resign.