Just how scared is Mr Clarke?

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When people are motivated by fear, whether in politics or private life, they often behave badly. With hindsight, the haste with which David Blunkett responded to the terrorist attacks on the US in 2001 is astounding: on 15 October that year, not even five weeks after the destruction of the World Trade Center, he announced his intention of taking new powers to detain foreign terror suspects without charge or trial. The Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act was rushed through Parliament and received royal assent two months later, on 14 December. Five days later, the then home secretary signed detention certificates for eight suspected terrorists.

Four years later, the Law Lords have struck a devastating blow against this disgraceful piece of legislation. The judgment they delivered on Thursday would have been a resigning matter, in my view, had Blunkett not already fallen on his sword the day before. The language in which the Lords delivered their eight-to-one verdict was startling, declaring Blunkett's legislation a greater threat to freedom than international terrorism and comparing it to the "nightmares" of Stalin's Russia. In the circumstances, Tony Blair's tribute less than 24 hours earlier to his departing home secretary looked like further evidence of the Prime Minister's increasingly shaky judgement.

But the big question, as a new Home Secretary contemplates the fate of 11 Muslims who are still imprisoned without trial in high-security jails and Broadmoor hospital, is this: just how scared is Charles Clarke? His predecessor seems to have been so terrified by the prospect of a 9/11-style attack on Britain that he opted out of Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights to introduce a form of internment for foreigners, a step considered necessary by no other European government. For a Labour home secretary to take such action is breathtaking, implying that he was aware of an imminent terrorist attack - but if that were the case, why wasn't the evidence presented in a criminal court?

Instead, Blunkett simply locked up suspects indefinitely, causing mental breakdowns in four cases, according to their representatives; one man was released in March after the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, upheld a ruling that his 16-month detention was based on "wholly unreliable" evidence. With one exception, the British public is not allowed to know their names or what they are supposed to have done; the abuses they have been subjected to may not be as bad as those at Guantanamo Bay, but the Law Lords made it clear last week that their treatment is disproportionate to the threat to this country from international terrorism. And the reason why the British Government took this drastic step provides, I think, an insight into a larger problem with New Labour.

The generation of Labour politicians who entered government in 1997 had been shaped by years of opposition and election defeats. They have always behaved as though their grip on power is tenuous, and only months after Blair's second election victory, they saw the havoc that a group of ruthless terrorists could wreak on a modern city. The prospect of the press turning on the Government if a similar atrocity took place here seems to have mesmerised them, and Blunkett duly came up with reactionary legislation that played well with The Sun and the Daily Mail. Tellingly, both papers held back from pillorying him in recent weeks until the revelations about his personal life became too lurid to resist.

Clarke is by all accounts a man of more liberal instincts than his predecessor - so his old boss Neil Kinnock says - but his in-tray bulges with Blunkett's pet projects, including a Bill to introduce ID cards and another to outlaw incitement to religious hatred. Clarke has said he will fight to keep the terror suspects locked up, demonstrating that while Blunkett has gone, he remains the template for New Labour home secretaries. These guys scare the hell out of me, but that's nothing compared to the Cabinet's fears of a suicide attack on London, the wrath of Muslim voters and hostile headlines in the Daily Mail.