Dominic Lawson: The triumph of strategy over decency

One of the ruling principles of New Labour is never to be outflanked on security issues
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The Independent Online

It is now a commonplace to say that Gordon Brown's reputation as a grand political strategist is in tatters, that he has been exposed as just another politician blind to the big picture, rendered directionless by short-term considerations. This is most unjust.

Consider, for example, tomorrow's Commons vote on an extension to 42 days in the length of time a terrorist suspect can be held before being charged. This is not a vote that the Prime Minister was obliged to hold. There is, despite the increasingly desperate claims of its advocates, no obvious or pressing need for such a dramatic annexation of the liberty of the subject. It is – partly for that reason – proving deeply divisive within the Labour Party.

In recent days we have learned that even the Director of Public Prosecutions and MI5 can see no need for such an increase over the existing pre-charge detention limit of 28 days (itself a doubling of the 14 days allowed for by the 2003 Criminal Justice Act – and before that it was seven days). The only respected voice in the field to have backed the Government is the former head of Scotland Yard's counter-terrorist command, Peter Clarke.

Yet when Mr Clarke declared that "to ask how many terrorists I had been obliged to let go through lack of time" is "the wrong question", one immediately understood the weakness of the Government's case; the same could be said of Mr Clarke's observation that "the fact that we have been able to convict more than 60 terrorists in the last year or so is irrelevant". Whatever else that is, it is not irrelevant.

Still Mr Brown persists in this policy, at great potential hazard to his reputation within the Labour Party – and therefore his chances of leading it into the next election. We can, of course, simply take his word for it that he is putting the security of the British people first, and leave it at that. Yet there is more to it than that – which is where Gordon Brown the great strategist comes in.

One of the ruling principles – if it can be so described – governing New Labour is the determination never to be outflanked on the right on any issue involving national security or law and order. Both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown had observed that – not least among what used to be called the working classes – the Conservatives had a perennial opinion poll lead on these issues, and were simply trusted more than Labour. They were obsessively determined to break this Tory domination of the issue of security. Indeed, Blair's almost hysterical concern when Michael Howard became leader of the Conservative party was a measure of this obsession. For similar reasons, I do not think Gordon Brown will be biting what is left of his fingernails over the fact that this newspaper, or The Guardian, is vehemently opposed to the extension of pre-charge detention; he will, however, be delighted (though, obviously, not surprised) that his advocacy has earned the undying admiration of The Sun.

This is by no means the first time the Labour Party has been driven almost to distraction by Gordon Brown's strategic singlemindedness over the issue of "security" – in its widest sense. In fact, some argue that it cost him the chance of the Labour leadership when John Smith died in 1994. As Shadow Chancellor, Gordon Brown was grimly determined to erase all public concerns that Labour was the party which would debauch the national currency – a damaging legacy which went back to Harold Wilson's devaluation of 1967. So he aligned himself with the Conservatives' increasingly unpopular adherence to an unsustainable and highly deflationary sterling parity within the Exchange Rate Mechanism.

Even as the whole edifice began to collapse, Brown refused to listen to those on the left of the Labour party who urged an opposition policy of devaluation. He was unforgiving to any who even suggested breaking with the Conservatives over the fetishisation of the exchange rate – and was not forgiven by many in the Labour Party when their demands were vindicated by events.

Nevertheless, Brown's underlying strategy was triumphant, even at the cost of popularity within his own party: the victims of the policy would blame only the Government of the day, and he retained his national reputation – then – as an unyielding proponent of fiscal rectitude.

Across the Atlantic, and much more recently, there has been a dramatic illustration of the internecine risks to a notionally left-of-centre politician in refusing to be outflanked by the right over "security". There can be little doubt that one of the main reasons why Hillary Clinton lost the Democrat nomination to Barack Obama was that he had opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2002 while she had supported it.

Mrs Clinton so voted without troubling to read the complete classified version of the National Intelligence Estimate on Saddam's WMD programme – despite having been urged to do so by the Democrat chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who had read it and seen the equivocations which were not apparent in the executive summary.

It became clear that Mrs Clinton, already determined on a run for the White House, would do nothing which might allow Republicans to paint her as "weak on security". Unfortunately for team Clinton – which, after all, invented the "triangulation" policies subsequently adopted by new Labour – events made a fool of their familiar strategy.

David Cameron, by the way, is attempting a similar strategy, but from the opposite political direction. He has decided that the Conservatives must never be allowed to be seen as the party of merely middle-class concerns. The refusal of the Labour Government to allow "co-treatment" within the NHS – so that anyone who takes private "top-up" drugs for cancer is subsequently and statutorily denied all free treatment for their disease – is an apparent open goal for the Conservatives.

It would be very easy for Cameron to turn his fire on one of Labour's few remaining ideologically-motivated policies, which penalises most cruelly those who are willing and able to pay for a modicum of private medical treatment. Yet he refuses to come to the defence of such people – beyond the deliberately non-committal suggestion that he is "tempted". This is because Cameron the grand strategist will never do anything which could paint the Conservatives as the party of the reasonably well-off, of the "few" but not the "many".

At one level, this shows an admirable unwillingness to be swayed off a chosen course; but it is less admirable – as with Gordon Brown's determination on 42-day pre-charge detention – when such a strategy takes precedence over principles of decency which presumably inspired these men to enter politics in the first place.

A coherent strategy is an essential attribute, certainly better than the lack of it; but if the grand strategy is mere political positioning, with no higher aim than the requirement of winning a general election, then it is ultimately a hollow thing – and sounds like it.