If there was a terrorist attack on Britain, who would get the blame?

For all the pre-election posturing, I can understand why ministers are now seeking sweeping powers
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The Independent Online

Who would we turn to for an explanation in the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack in Britain? The answer is obvious. First we would demand answers from the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary. Pretty soon after that we would get the verdict of the Leader of the Opposition, who would also call for a detailed ministerial explanation. We would not be seeking urgent answers from judges or members of the House of Lords.

Who would we turn to for an explanation in the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack in Britain? The answer is obvious. First we would demand answers from the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary. Pretty soon after that we would get the verdict of the Leader of the Opposition, who would also call for a detailed ministerial explanation. We would not be seeking urgent answers from judges or members of the House of Lords.

I therefore have some sympathy with Tony Blair and Charles Clarke as they blunder around trying to find a legitimate way of preventing terrorists from wreaking deadly havoc. If there were an attack it is quite possible they would get the blame.

There is a confused political culture in post-Thatcherite Britain. It is one that demands elected politicians keep their distance on a range of issues until something goes wrong. At which point we ask why they did not do more in the first place. To take another recent example, right-wing newspapers used to scream for ministers to keep out of the running of the railways and hailed the privatisation as a great step forward. Yet when there was a serious train accident in Hatfield, the same newspapers blamed the powerless Government for the catastrophic state of the railways.

I sense the same dynamic is in place over the threat posed by terrorists. For now the Law Lords are deified over their robust onslaught against the Government's apparently reckless authoritarianism. It was their verdict last December that sweepingly dismissed the Government's original plans for dealing with supposed terrorists. Very quickly after that judgement, an unholy alliance formed between newspapers like this one with a long record of defending civil liberties and others that had shown no interest in such matters but saw the verdict as a chance to give the Government a kicking.

It was the same alliance that formed over the Hutton inquiry, anti-war newspapers combined inadvertently with those that hated the Government to rubbish every dot and comma of the judgment.

Writing legal judgments and cheering them in newspaper editorials is a relatively straightforward business, the exercise of power without responsibility. Being a minister responsible for national security is incomparably more nightmarish. So much so that I suspect if the Conservatives were in power now they would be inclined to adopt the approach taken by the Government. I find it hard to imagine Michael Howard as a Prime Minister informing the security services that his liberal instincts meant that he was taking an alternative approach to the one they were urgently pressing on him.

On the surface, sympathy with a government, any government, grappling with the new and unpredictable threat, is wholly unfashionable. There is a huge political row erupting over the apparently authoritarian instincts of Mr Blair and Mr Clarke. Yet the noise of the row is deceptive. The main areas of contention have little to do with the principle that the Government has a duty to do all that is necessary to protect national security.

In yesterday's Commons debate, the early anger expressed on both sides was directed at the lack of parliamentary time for scrutiny. MPs had good cause to be angry. This is a government that gets into a neurotic frenzy over the media, but is often indifferent to the mood in Parliament. It should have given MPs more time to debate the proposals.

In terms of the substance of the matter, the divisions are not as intense as they seem. Until late yesterday afternoon, Mr Clarke had insisted he needed the power to act first in relation to house arrests partly on the grounds of speed. But judges can act speedily, at least as speedily as Mr Clarke. When a politician seeks an urgent injunction against the publication of a newspaper report, a judge seems capable of ruling within a second or two. Yet over the even more highly charged issue of house arrests, Mr Blair and Mr Clarke seemed to be implying that the entire judiciary would be incommunicado when the politicians required an emergency ruling.

Over this pivotal issue I detect partly a cock-up, some crude electioneering and parliamentary tactical game-playing. Drafting proposals from the Home Office is always a draining business, with Downing Street taking a hyperactive interest. In this particular case the proposals were put together in even more of a rush than usual. Mr Clarke is an inexperienced Home Secretary. Probably there was not a great deal of internal discussion about precisely when a judge should give a ruling. But when this became an issue of contention, the Government decided to resist change until the last possible moment in the hope that the concession would be enough to reassure the House of Lords.

I would not be surprised if the Government took a robust, uncompromising stand for as long as possible for another reason too. In a pre-election period it wants to be seen as tough on terrorism, the perception mattering as much as the substance. Mr Blair never proclaims his boldness without checking with the focus groups first. Polls suggest his approach to terrorism is popular. Mr Blair is being disingenuous when he insists that the Government is merely responding to the Law Lords' judgement and that this has nothing to do with the election. He ignores the fact that its response happens to coincide with the pre-election campaign.

I do not condone any of this. Mr Blair's approach to policy making is deeply flawed. He has never been a departmental cabinet minister. He interferes too much in the policies of some departments (the Home Office and Department of Education being the main two) while not allowing the full Cabinet to interfere enough. He pays too much attention to the media and not enough to Parliament.

But none of these concerns amount to a forensic assault on Mr Blair's right to take unprecedented measures in order to deal with what he regards genuinely as a threat to national security. There is no evidence to suggest that he is acting in this way because of some hidden agenda to destroy civil liberties. At every stage in this process Blair and Clarke are being challenged and held to account.

Last night in the Commons Mr Clarke was hardly able to utter a sentence without facing further probing questions from MPs, many of them lawyers. This is how it should be. Mr Clarke must explain in advance of an attack, as he would have to do so if an attack took place.

For all the pre-election posturing, the focus groups, the excessive worship of the unreliable security services, I understand why ministers seek sweeping powers. This is not a left/right issue or even a divide between liberals and authoritarians, as the Liberal Democrats have demonstrated by being broadly understanding of the dilemmas the Government faces. If we hold elected politicians responsible for national security, we cannot get too hysterical when they seek the powers to carry out those responsibilities.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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