Our leaders are trying to scare us

Blair's strategy is to look strong. Voters are invited to support him because we are weak and need his protection
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The Independent Online

I do like the idea that George Bush's election win has inspired Tony Blair and his advisers to place the "war on terror" at the heart of the next election campaign. No it hasn't! It's just cheered them up a bit about the possibility that the elephant in the sitting room might not be the great disadvantage they all feared it was going to be.

I do like the idea that George Bush's election win has inspired Tony Blair and his advisers to place the "war on terror" at the heart of the next election campaign. No it hasn't! It's just cheered them up a bit about the possibility that the elephant in the sitting room might not be the great disadvantage they all feared it was going to be.

Not even an administration as credulous as Blair's could possibly have imagined that the war was not going to be a crucial issue. The only change since the American election is that Blair now feels he can talk openly and with pride about his great achievement - the destruction of an already crippled Iraq - instead of apologetically and with caution.

And while critics suggest that this change of emphasis offers Blair an opportunity to scaremonger shamelessly, invoking the "politics of fear", the truth is that this is not a cynical choice. Blair believes every word he says about the threat of global terror. The man is not cynical at all. He's just plain wrong.

He's even wrong about the idea that the war won Bush the election. The main reason, surely, why Bush scraped in, was because Kerry was such a lame-duck opponent, busily "flip-flopping" over every issue when instead he could have been empowering Americans by telling them the truth. And with Michael Howard to contend with, Blair is likely to win again for the self-same reason.

But, of course, placing the fact that your opponents are awful at the heart of your campaign is not something that is done openly (or at least advertised openly as a campaigning tool). No. Instead the likes of Blair emphasise their own "strong leadership" as a counterpoint to the weak performance of their hapless challengers.

Blair's strategy is to present himself as strong on everything - from truanting to terror. The intention is for him to appear strong - or more accurately punitive - not just in comparison to other party leaders. The electorate itself is invited to vote for him because we are weak and need his protection.

But what an elaborate illusion this whole ghastly edifice is. The truth is that the Blair administration itself is fearful, with its pervasive fearfulness shaping all of its policy, and justifying itself in turn with an appeal to the darkest of all our own fears.

What is most upsetting is the cartoon-like quality of the most obvious of these fears - the fear of global terror. The idea of al-Qa'ida, with its all-powerful leaders and its axis of evil kingdoms all working together as part of a ruthless planet-wide conspiracy, can easily be seen as an American invention, because it has come straight from the pages of Marvel Comics.

The truth, that the male establishments in various Muslim societies have been separately radicalised, partly by the Palestinian issue, partly by the oil-rich corruption of their own leaders, partly by issues local to their own situations, but mainly by the threat to their own internal cultural ascendancy of the rise of neo-liberal, post-feminist globalisation as exemplified by the dominance of the US, is a lot less frightening and a lot more pathetic.

The idea that entire Western populations should be encouraged by their leaders to see the above as a threat to their daily existence is pathetic too. Yes, Islamic terrorists may want to target Britain. But it is the job of the intelligence services, whichever party is in power, to combat such threats. Either they are doing so extremely well, or there isn't much threat to combat.

Mr Blunkett promises us that we will see in the courts in the coming months that the former is the case. He admits though that those looking for guilty verdicts to reassure them that actual terrorist acts have been averted, may be disappointed. What he is really saying is that certain people have been made an example of, and that with or without evidence, their example must stand.

Such dangerous games with smoke and mirrors are sadly comparable to those which our Government plays out on the domestic front. Again, our leaders deliberately terrorise us, with their keen and constant emphasis on how punitive their policies are and how necessary that punitive attitude is. The idea here is to make us afraid of each other, or at least of the poor and the deprived among us.

Our prisons are full of people whose first or main crime was to be poor and to be desperate. The pity is that there has never been more willingness in Parliament to listen to new, progressive ideas on how to help people to turn their lives round in a more positive way than prison. Indeed, the secret truth is that this administration actually is open to radical ideas about crime and punishment. But, tragically, its leadership is too frightened to stand by the beliefs of its specialists or at least to do so with enough conviction for the argument to be carried.

The most awful thing about all this manufactured fear is that it effectively pushes down the agenda all those matters that we should be fearful about. Blair's recent meeting with Bush, designed to show how seriously the two men take their "special relationship", was instead an illustration of how it is always Bush who calls the tune. Blair's imprecations on the Palestinian situation, on global warming, on fair trade, on a whole raft of issues that Blair must know in his heart come a lot closer to making the planet a less dangerous place than any war could, again went unheard.

Yet all of these issues are intimately connected to the issues that dominate the domestic agenda. All of them - even global warming since it is now the developing world that is expected to do the planet's dirty jobs - are concerned with addressing the needs of the deprived, and with creating a fairer, more efficiently functioning world.

In the past, Mr Blair has sought to present the invasion of Iraq as a manoeuvre that would allow him to maintain influence over President Bush. Instead, it is clear, the influence of Bush over Blair is greater by the day. Again Blair seems afraid - this time of damaging his relationship with Bush. Blair's country has nothing to gain from this, even if Blair has.

And even Blair's gain is a sad one - the confidence to appeal to the fear in the British people that matches his own. Campaigning on a war-on-terror ticket does not mean asking to be judged on what has been achieved. Only the deluded still cling to the idea that the invasion of Iraq was a legitimate strand of the war on terror, which has helped to calm and stabilise the world. Instead it means campaigning on the idea that frightening and terrible things may happen in the future, and the idea that only Blair has vision enough to foresee and face these terrors. A campaign that relies on possible future catastrophe is far more flexible than one that relies on dogged detailing of past successes. It is one, sadly, that is far more amenable to Blair's own feverish imagination and sense of massive importance.

Real courage at this time, though, would involve setting much of the Marvel Comics conspiracy aside, drawing up a list of real priorities for making a safer world, and challenging America until it understands that Islamic terrorism is a ghastly symptom of global instability, rather than its sole and only cause. No one is ready yet though, it seems, to embrace the politics of courage instead of the politics of fear.