Steve Richards: Ministers must remain rational and ignore these silly rows and outbreaks of hysteria

This crisis has nothing to do with a minister's holiday or the need for the Government to be seen to act
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Sensible? In which case, what is the explanation for the raging controversy over whether the Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, should take his planned holiday? Mr Clarke was due to head off for a break at the weekend, but postponed his departure after criticism in the media and from some political opponents. There were further questions when he left belatedly, as if the terrorists would sigh with relief at his brief absence: "Clarke's on holiday. We can do what we want now."

Britain is neither less nor more safe now that Mr Clarke is finally on a beach. Yet if Mr Clarke had cancelled his holiday altogether, he would have been permanently exhausted without obvious gain.

The row suggests a narrow mindset, as if the new threat is more potent now than it will be in a few weeks' time. Yet the Home Secretary could have stayed behind for two weeks now only for something awful to occur later in August or September when he finally went away. Sadly, the same considerations will probably apply to August and September of next year and the one after. On one level we all realise this, but in the current barely suppressed hysteria the Home Secretary felt compelled to ostentatiously revise his holiday arrangements.

Only slightly less silly are the calls for Parliament to be recalled. Hardly anyone takes any interest in the Commons when it is sitting. Now that it is not doing so, there are expressions of alarm. What would the MPs do other than pass some hastily composed anti-terrorist laws? Some of those calling for MPs to end their summer break also point out that legislation should not be rushed. Yet if MPs have no legislation to consider, they would presumably do no more than debate vacuously.

These are minor outbreaks of hysteria. They have no lasting significance other than for Mr Clarke and his holiday plans. Other irrational responses are more damaging. One of them is the vilification of a few extreme Muslim clerics. Nervy ministers leap to attention as some newspapers highlight and, in some cases, exaggerate the threat posed by a few high-profile Muslims. Quickly, they explore options for deporting the trouble- makers and for stopping others from coming into the country.

Part of the proposed package of anti-terrorist legislation includes the outlawing of "incitement to terrorism", a vaguely defined proposal that could cause more problems than those it seeks to address. The roots of this crisis are much deeper and more sinister than its public façade. If a few deranged preachers were seeking to cause mayhem, they would not speak out so publicly. Their provocations are, in the current context, a relatively minor menace. The real dangers are hidden away.

As the unlikely figure of Cherie Blair suggested in a speech earlier in the week, the Government must resist bringing forward legislation that impedes liberties without necessarily making us safer. Ms Blair was speaking in Malaysia. Perhaps it is easier at present to speak more rationally on the other side of the world.

This column does not take the view that civil liberties are so important that we should retain the freedom to be blown up. Nor does it oppose the right of elected ministers to bring forward legislation they regard as necessary. Ultimately, they are responsible for our security and must be held to account when there are lapses. But the ministers must be challenged and scrutinised over what they propose to do. Even in less gloomy times, this is a government that feels a need to seem busier than it really is. Now there is talk of adding more proposals to the anti-terrorist legislation that had been planned before the bombs. The police and the intelligence services make their requests for more powers. Mr Blair's instinct is to give them what they want. Yet the legislators must make us more secure while avoiding the inflammatory consequences of ill thought-through proposals.

Bad laws will be counter-productive. When the stakes are so high, the opposition parties have even more duty to scrutinise. Instead, as The Independent's editorial pointed out yesterday, political leaders hail a new consensus on anti-terrorist legislation. They are nearly silent while the Prime Minister's wife dares to speak out.

Political leaders must unite to condemn terrorism, but there is no need for the consensus to create a distorting unity. In their pre-election opposition to anti-terrorist legislation, other parties displayed complacency about the threat posed by terrorists. The new consensus generates a different type of complacency in which important issues are not properly aired. This applies to the implications of the war against Iraq. The Government's irrational insistence that Iraq has not made Britain more of a target is, of course, the product of reasoned calculation.

Ministers cannot admit that a war aimed apparently at making Britain more secure has had the opposite impact. Tony Blair seeks to have it both ways by acknowledging Iraq is a factor, but only as an additional excuse for the terrorists who would have targeted London anyway. Politically, the defiance is unavoidable but makes for a less constructive dialogue with sensible Muslim leaders who regard Iraq as more than a contrived excuse for terrorism.

The solution to the crisis has nothing to do with Charles Clarke's holiday plans, Parliament's summer break, the need for the Government to be seen to act and its insistence that Iraq is disconnected from Britain's new vulnerability. Instead, we are dependent on the work of intelligence agencies and the police as they seek to track down the terrorists.

In the longer term, ministers must focus most of all on alarming polls that suggest around 7 per cent of young Muslims in Britain believe further attacks are justified. One minister told me yesterday that local networks established by Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland encouraged younger nationalists to seek political solutions rather than violence in the early 1990s. Where are the equivalent political networks for these Muslims? What are the parties doing at a local level to encourage engagement? It is fashionable these days to view politicians with disdain, but the alternative to politics at a local as well as a national level is the resolution of disputes through violence. The young Muslims must be pointed towards political paths.

A bomb goes off causing death, chaos and generating instant headlines around the world. The rational response is long, hard, unglamorous and makes no immediate headlines, but it is the only one that will work.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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