Philip Hensher: We shouldn't be terrified into giving up liberties

It might be as well if those in charge of our security could be a little more open with us
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The Independent Online

Nobody doubts that, at present, we have to deal with a direct threat from terrorism. If anyone ever doubted that, the reality of the danger in this country became horribly apparent after 7 July, and there are certainly groups and individuals who would be delighted to continue the campaign.

All the same, it might be as well if those in charge of our security could be a little more open with us. The uneasy and, I hope, false impression remains that at some level, some of them are enjoying themselves a little too much.

At the weekend, Sir Ian Blair told a Metropolitan Police Authority conference that "the level of threat has intensified and continues to intensify ... You may argue on the current legal position or British Government's position, but we are in a different place than before the opening of this century." He went on to say that there had been a 75 per cent increase in counter-terrorism operations since the July bombings, and three conspiracies had been thwarted.

He declined to give details of any of this. People who are alleged to have been involved in the three conspiracies have been deported or are to be brought to trial, when we may discover the details of the threat. He isn't likely, however, to share with us now or at any point in the future specific threats or the nature of information received. We just have to take it on trust, the next time London is closed down, that the police have very good reasons for doing so.

Of course, one can understand that such information has to be kept secure. However, Sir Ian is happy to share some of it with selected politicians. Jenny Jones, for instance, is a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority, leader of the Green Group in the London Assembly, and a former Deputy Mayor. She described the current threat as "chilling". She told delegates: "If you knew what we know, you would really be scared."

Well, I don't doubt the reality of the danger, but this comment has a most unfortunate echo. In Paddy Ashdown's diaries, he reports a conversation with Tony Blair about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. Blair is reported as saying, in November 1997, "I have now seen some of the stuff on this. It really is pretty scary." By now, there can be few people who still believe that to be a responsible or honest thing for Blair to have said about Saddam.

We have been asked in the last couple of years to accept a number of considerable limitations on our ancient liberties. The Government has sought, in effect, to suspend habeas corpus. Free speech has been curtailed, in new offences of "glorifying terrorism" and promoting "religious hatred".

A couple of incidents have frankly alarmed even those who by instinct would support and believe policemen. The shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes; the arrest of a woman for reading out the names of soldiers killed in Iraq at the Cenotaph. There is, too, the terrifying suspicion that the Government now accepts and may even be complicit in the practice of torture to extract evidence.

That is a hell of a lot for people to accept. The Government and its spokesmen are, in effect, asking us to accept that it is necessary to defend our liberties by eroding them. At present, the justification may seem obvious; the terrible atrocity of 7 July. But beyond that, what we have as a comment on the continuing situation is Ms Jenny Jones saying: "If you knew what we know, you would really be scared." It is all rather like the Fat Boy in Pickwick; "I wants to make your flesh creep."

What we would like to hear is what the police have discovered. If we can't be told, we would like to know why we can't be told. What doesn't encourage confidence is being told, "I know, but you can't know; just be afraid." I wonder if that is helpful, or quite enough.

It certainly isn't enough to cover specific actions in response to specific situations. When things go terribly wrong, as in the shooting of Mr de Menezes, then the specific intelligence will be brought out and examined in due course. But the hundred inconveniences which the authorities will cause us remain, in effect, unaccountable.

In February 2003, for instance, David Blunkett, then Home Secretary, ordered the attendance of 450 troops and a number of light tanks at Heathrow airport. We were told at the time that this was in response to a possible al- Qa'ida attack. It was a spectacular gesture, though what use, exactly, tanks were likely to be in any conceivable situation was not clear.

What was the danger? We weren't told, and still don't know. I'm sure it was real, and not, for instance, a useful opportunity to impress the gravity of the situation upon us. But why can't we be told?

Some form of accountability, surely, is necessary. Confidence in the police and in their intelligence took a bad knock after the killing of Mr de Menezes. There is, too, the widespread belief that the Government is capable of exaggerating a situation to justify some fairly brutal legislation.

To regain confidence, a little more frankness would be in order. Not everything can be explained to the public, but we could be told more; and Parliament could take rather more of an interest. We need to believe that actions taken on the basis of threats to security are in proportion to the specific threat. To be honest, that probably requires a little more than the police and their friends doing their Fat Boy routine.