Steve Richards: It is not illiberal for the state to curtail free speech in protection of its citizens

It is for the government to decide what is a threat. Who else is in a position to do so?

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A letter in yesterday's Independent poses two challenging questions. In the light of the proposed new anti-terrorist laws, Joss Hands from Anglia University in Cambridge asks: "When do certain kinds of knowledge become terrorism: Is this for the government to decide?"

The answer to the question is obvious, although I suspect not the one the letter writer seeks. Yes, of course it is for the government to decide what constitutes a threat to the country. Who else is in a position to do so? Which other institution could be held to account for the measures implemented as a result of the threat?

The writer poses a second question: "Will reading Che Guevara's Bolivian diary and Noam Chomsky's critiques of Western power become terrorist acts?" Again the answer is obvious. Of course they will not become acts of terrorism. There is not a single measure being considered by the government that would lead to such an oppressive situation.

Perhaps The Independent's letter writer is atypical in his concerns about where the government's apparent authoritarianism will lead. Even so, he represents a line of argument that persists, even after the attacks in London. In essence, the broader claim is that when the state acts to "protect homeland security" the motives are often sinister. Even if the motives are worthy the outcome is unnecessarily tyrannical, as civil liberties are undermined. Before long these arguments move to the apparently irrefutable conclusion: Laws that undermine civil liberties concede ground to the terrorists.

In other equivalent European countries there is less fearfulness about the state intervening to protect its citizens. France has deported ten radical Imams in the past two years. Last week, Germany deported an Imam and over the past few years has banned some of the more extremist Islamist political groups. In the Netherlands and Denmark, measures have been implemented that would be viewed by some in Britain as frighteningly authoritarian.

In all these countries, the measures are taken with support across the political spectrum. In some, governments on the centre-left have implemented the apparently draconian policies.

Of course, there is in Britain a distinctively liberal tradition that must be nurtured and protected as much as possible. For reasons of national self-interest we celebrate the diversity of London and other big cities. We do not "tolerate" the ethnic mix - we know that without it Britain would be incomparably poorer. But a proclamation of diversity does not justify an extreme form of liberalism that views virtually every action taken by the state as a threat.

The paranoid reaction reflects a wider confusion about the role of the state in Britain. It is an ambivalence shared, and in some ways generated by, the political leaders. In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher famously railed against the state. During her period in power the state withdrew to such an extent that it was almost impossible to catch a train or get an operation on the NHS. But her liberal instincts were limited to economic policy. On other matters she was authoritarian.

Perhaps it was her contradictory view of the state that led to some absurd clampdowns. While she was supposedly removing the state from our backs, figures associated with terrorist groups in Northern Ireland were banned from being heard on television interviews. It was also during this era that the government suppressed a tediously unthreatening book by the British spy, Peter Wright. In the 1980s, the state was nowhere be seen when you needed it and yet ubiquitous in a way that managed to be absurdly sinister.

The current government also lacks a coherent view on the role of the state. Ministers prefer to let regulators and Quangos take responsibility unless something goes wrong. When questions are asked, the ministerial instinct is to sack the regulator or acquire more powers. This is one of the themes of the current extraordinary court case involving Railtrack's shareholders and the former Transport Secretary, Stephen Byers, a perfect emblematic text for the darkly comic confusions in post-Thatcher Britain.

The wider neurosis on parts of the centre-left about the private sector stems largely from their insecurities about the ill-defined role of the state. In more robust social democracies, the private sector contributes extensively to the provision of public services without controversy. The lack of fuming suspicion is largely because of the greater confidence in these countries about the precise function of a robust state.

For New Labour, the incoherence extends to the protection of homeland security. It is wrong to assert that Tony Blair is an authoritarian. Mr Blair is authoritarian from time to time, usually after a national crisis. He rushed through anti-terrorist legislation after the Omagh bombing in Northern Ireland and seeks to do so now. But quite a lot of the time Mr Blair has had other matters on his mind.

His response after September 11, for example, focused much more on tackling the imaginary threat posed by Saddam than on implementing security measures in Britain. In this country, Mr Blair has been relatively liberal or insufficiently aware of the threat posed by extremists. Currently, the newspaper columns in the US are filled with expressions of bewilderment that Britain has tolerated the manifestations of extreme Islamic fundamentalism for so long.

It must not be tolerated any longer for the same reasons that we do not accept racist attacks or anti-Semitism. In this context the attacks in London are likely to produce an important twist. The much-despised Religious Hatred Bill was drafted originally to protect British Muslims from a backlash after September 11. The bill was defeated in the Lords and was subsequently revived by the government after the war against Iraq. Once more, the bill was strongly opposed by Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs.

But now the bill might receive much wider support. Suddenly opponents recognise it could be used against some of the Muslim extremists, as well as protecting other Muslims from the latest potentially destabilising backlash. The president of the Liberal Democrats, Simon Hughes, tells me that his party might support a new version of the bill. The Liberal Democrats would be right to do so. Support for civil liberties is part of their distinct appeal and the right to live in a country where expressions of religious hatred are outlawed is a form of freedom in itself.

Like the Race Discrimination Act, the legislation would be rarely deployed. But laws make a statement about the limits of what a country regards as acceptable. It is not always ominously hypocritical when the state asserts its intolerance of other people's more brutal intolerance.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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