Steve Richards: Liberals should welcome attempts by the state to protect us from terrorism

The confusions over what it is to be liberal have been unusually intense since the bombings
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The Independent Online

The bombings in London on 7 July last year raised a familiar question in a more urgent form: what is it to be a liberal in a society facing a terrorist threat?

Perhaps inevitably, the debate has been framed by two extremes. Some argue that over the last year the state has moved in with its hob-nailed boots, using the bombings as an excuse to erode liberties. At the other end, others move dangerously close to portraying Muslim communities as a sinister force and wonder almost whether the state can return us to an era where they did not exist.

The debate is made more complex by the confusion about what it means to be a liberal, the most flexible adjective in British politics. Some on the right usually equate liberalism with any move that reduces the role of the state. In contrast most on the centre-left regard the state as a liberating force. It is why Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters put the case for an active or enabling state while regarding themselves as liberal. It is why also David Cameron has got in some difficulties about speaking of liberating people from the tyranny of long-working hours. Only the state could be such a benevolent liberator and yet Mr Cameron supports a smaller state.

The confusions over what it is to be liberal have been unusually intense since the bombings a year ago. Some on the left, who normally want the state to do more in the provision of public services, view ministerial attempts to protect us from terrorism with raging hostility. Others on the right, who despise the state in most respects, sought extreme intervention in this case.

There was also a much wider contradiction. Within minutes of the explosions, the media and it seems much of the country wanted to hear from the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary. What were they doing about the immediate crisis? Had they done enough to protect us? No one rushed to interview a judge. The elected politicians were responsible for public safety and we sought to hold them to account.

Yet within weeks of the bombings, when we started to feel safer, a different set of questions was posed. What are the politicians doing getting involved in this? Why don't they leave this to the judges? Very quickly we moved from the widespread, almost automatic assumption on 7 July that the state had a duty to protect us, to one in which the state became the threat, a sinister force.

There are several reasons for the scepticism, some of them understandable and justified. The Government's response was flawed for familiar reasons. At first Tony Blair rose to the daunting challenge. He was restrained and dignified, while the Home Secretary at the time, Charles Clarke, sought a political consensus over how the Government should respond and looked as if he might get one. But after a hysterical campaign by The Sun newspaper Mr Blair responded weakly by announcing, as if from nowhere, a populist 10-point plan of action and declaring crudely that the rules of the game had changed.

In my view it is self-evident that the rules have changed, but a sudden announcement on the eve of a summer holiday, with the Home Secretary already out of the country, was hardly the way to hail a fundamental, arguably revolutionary shift in the criminal justice system.

The Muslim Labour MP, Sadiq Khan, made some powerful points in his Fabian lecture this week about the failure of the Government to follow through its early attempts to engage with local communities. From the very beginning Mr Khan feared that the first Downing Street summit of Muslim leaders held in the immediate aftermath of the bombs was largely a public relations exercise. I spoke to him the day after it had taken place and he was depressed by its superficiality and suspicious of its political purpose. The more insightful Labour MPs point out now that the Muslim community must be listened to and not preached at. They fear that Downing Street does not recognise the subtlety of this particular mission.

And yet the reaction of Mr Blair's wilder critics has also been over the top. Conspiracy theorists who believe that 7 July was an excuse for the Government to constrain liberties must answer a simple question: why would the Government act in this way? Life is no easier for ministers and in some ways is harder. No one can argue that Mr Blair has had a more comfortable ride over the past 12 months and is more politically secure than he was then. Britain is no more supine as a country to govern.

Quite a lot of the subsequent measures have also acquired a mythology that bears little relation to reality. It is not true for example that protests are no longer allowed outside Parliament. As a precaution the police must be informed in advance, which seems sensible at a time when there are groups that would welcome the chance to blow up half the Cabinet. A similar rule was in place in the recent past and nobody complained then of a terrible infringement of liberties.

Again a simple point must be made. There were endless demonstrations outside Parliament when Labour was 20 points ahead in the polls. Labour is behind at a time when the Government has introduced some security measures. There is no connection between such measures and an easier political life.

Those who warn of the continuing acute dangers include Ken Livingstone, Sir Ian Blair, the most liberal officer to have risen to the top of the Metropolitan Police, and progressive ministers with no axe to grind. John Denham, the chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, who has been critical of the Government's response, told me yesterday that we face the prospect of living with more 7 Julys for at least 30 years.

At a recent meeting of senior ministers, intelligence officers and the police, the participants agonised over how to convey the threat. As they were analysing the frightening intelligence, one suggested half-jokingly that their meeting should be filmed and sent to every home in the country. I doubt if it would make much difference.

The year since 7 July opened with calls for ministers to act and protests when they did so. It ends with ministers feeling an acute frustration about the limited way they can protect us, while some voters recoil with fear and anger at what they regard as a tyrannical state.

For those of us who are not excessively neurotic about the state in most of its manifestations, the conflicting reactions are easily resolved. Elected ministers have a right and duty to seek to protect us. If we do not like what they are doing we can hold them to account and ultimately vote them out of office.

A year on from 7 July we liberals must look to the state to liberate us as far as possible from the threat of terrorism.