The present Prime Minister also learned a lot from the annual ritual over the renewal of the supposedly temporary provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act. They had been brought in hastily by the patron saint of modern liberalism, Roy Jenkins, as a response to the IRA pub bombing campaign, and were used by the Tories after 1979 to portray Labour as soft on crime. Until Blair put an end to it by persuading his MPs to abstain, it had become a charade almost as ceremonial as Black Rod banging on the door of the Commons Chamber to summon MPs to the Queen's Speech. But at least the original legislation was intended as a practical and necessary response to a new situation.
New Labour has taken a more modern approach to the use of legislation for symbolic purposes, as was pointed out recently by one of its brightest minds, Geoff Mulgan, who was head of the Prime Minister's policy unit and then strategy unit until last year. From his position at the heart of the machine, he was uniquely well placed to observe some of the big ways in which the Blair government differed from its predecessors.
Some innovations have been so successful they are barely acknowledged, such as the creation of whole new divisions of public servants - classroom assistants and community support officers. Many are more contentious, such as the use of targets to push change through the system, although Mulgan's assessment is more balanced than that of many of the Government's reflex critics, and he points out that this government also uses pilot schemes more intensively than any before.
The use of symbolic legislation is usually seen in a negative light, but Mulgan begins to sketch out the positive case. Yesterday's announcement by the Home Secretary was a case in point. Charles Clarke made a statement on the rules on the behaviour - or, in the neologism adopted by New Labour, behaviours - that should render people "not able to be in this country". For those not familiar with the hidden wiring of modern journalism, the Home Office, like other government departments, adds at the end of its press releases a list of "Notes to Editors". These often do a lot of journalists' work for them by setting out some of the factual background. Note 3 on yesterday's press release said: "The list published today does not give the Home Secretary new powers."
So why was the Home Secretary interrupting a slow August news day with what sounded like a quasi-legislative pronouncement, that would lead to deportations "very quickly - in the next few days"?
The pejorative interpretation is that he wants to look as if he is doing something. It does not matter how tangential the authoritarian press campaign against "preachers of hate" may be to the real causes of the 7 July bombings, New Labour is weak, driven by cheap headlines.
Indeed, it is easy to point out the flaws in some of Clarke's reasoning. If these people are so dangerous, and if one of the prime means of promoting the ideology of jihadist suicide terrorism is the internet (as yesterday's statement acknowledged), then sending the ideologues abroad to run websites from Beirut or Pakistan or Sweden does not make us safer. In fact, it makes us less safe because it will be harder for our intelligence services to keep tabs on them.
Equally, it is easy to point out how off-target many of the popular responses to the bombings and attempted bombings are. The 7 July bombers were not cut off from British society because they couldn't speak the language - they went to school here. Nor were the four bombers radicalised in mosques, or by any of the well-known imams frequently used as blood-chillers by the sensationalist press. They seem to have been groomed by the eldest, Mohammad Sidique Khan, in gyms - gyms for which, paradoxically, he received grants from Leeds city council to help integrate Asian youth into the wider community. As Ejaz Hussein, one of the older generation who came to Beeston from Pakistan, said, pointing to his head: "Al-Qa'ida is inside."
A lot of the legislative and quasi-legislative activity, of both the Government and the competing oppositions, risks appearing to be a form of displacement behaviour. It is focused on keeping undesirables out and deporting those already here, when the real threat is already in our midst, home grown and sustained by an ideological virus that spreads freely through global communications networks.
And yet - Blair and Clarke's symbolic response may be part of the answer to a form of terrorism that comes from "inside". There is a role for symbolism in legislation. For a long time New Labour has been struggling towards the idea of responsibilities to match the rights of citizenship. It makes sense to require a grasp of basic English of British citizens. It makes sense that the right to asylum is forfeited if a refugee urges violence against this country. Both measures are difficult to legislate for, and difficult to police, but they have a symbolic value that goes beyond strict enforceability.
The reason the rights and responsibilities theme matters is because there are so many people in Britain, Muslims and non-Muslims, who are prepared to make excuses for terrorism. The 7 July bombers may have been isolated organisationally - like the 9/11 hijackers in America they do not appear to have been directed by a "mastermind" - but they enjoyed soft gradations of support within the British population. These ranged from the apparent copycat attempts of 21 July to the underbelly of apologists and half-apologists among some Muslims and some sections of the political left. Those sources of ideological succour need to be challenged and exposed, and a stronger sense of the responsibilities of British citizenship might help.
The predictable liberal response to yesterday's announcement will be to accuse Charles Clarke of allowing the right-wing tabloids to decide who next to have thrown out of the country. Yet for once the authoritarian press - in its pursuit of mullahs and left-wing politicians who say the unacceptable - is performing a public service. The views of those who seek to promote or defend jihadist terrorism should be reported and challenged. And the Home Secretary is right to use symbolic legislation to drive home the point that the right of free speech should be balanced by the responsibilities of citizenship.
The writer is chief political commentator for 'The Independent on Sunday'Reuse content