Steve Richards: The long and the short of the medium-term solution

'At the very least the "war" will become a second Northern Ireland, always humming in the background'
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The Independent Online

A senior Labour MP with strong links to Downing Street recently had a conversation with a respected academic on international affairs. The academic took him through the stages of the "war on terrorism". "In the short term", the distinguished expert suggested, "the objective must be containment. Only after containment can we move on to more ambitious medium term objectives."

The Labour MP nodded thoughtfully. "How long is the short term?" he asked. The academic said: "About 20 years."

This timescale may be an exaggeration, or may turn out to be one, although I doubt it. At least 20 years were spent "containing" the terrorist threat in Northern Ireland before anything recognisably like a second phase began. Quite possibly we will be moving back to the first phase there before very long. If Northern Ireland is anything to go by, 20 years may prove to be an underestimate.

In spite of the proclamations about the "long haul", the air strikes and the frantic diplomacy inadvertently suggest a more immediately dramatic denouement. So do the preposterously boastful declarations. The statement that "we now have air supremacy over Afghanistan" is the equivalent of Alex Ferguson proclaiming a victory over Enfield Town.

There will be no dramatic denouement, even if Osama bin Laden is captured. The leader caught, dead or alive, will be an inspiration to other terrorists or embryonic terrorists in different parts of the world.

If the long haul really means decades, this has profound implications on domestic policy in Britain. Since 11 September, Mr Blair has given little thought to his domestic agenda. He tends to be a single-issue Prime Minister, although the single issue changes from time to time.

His past record suggests his intense immersion in the international conflict will not last for much longer, although he has yet to face anything else that has been as nightmarishly complex as this. In as far as he is facing it, that is. It is easy to forget in Britain that this is largely President Bush's "war". As far as Mr Bin Laden is concerned, we are probably doing enough to make us a potential target, but despite that he has not thought this poor old island worth a mention in his recent videos. As for President Bush, he was as effusive in his thanks to Chancellor Schröder as he was to Mr Blair.

Yet the conflict will overshadow the entire second term, even if Mr Blair's engagement ceases to be as intense in the coming years as it has been in recent weeks. At the very least the "war" will become a second Northern Ireland, always humming in the background, occasionally erupting frighteningly.

In which case, what of the rest of Mr Blair's "historic" second term? Unlike most administrations, the fate of this one depends on prime ministerial attention and energy. With the exception of Gordon Brown, ministers dare not breathe without the permission of Downing Street. If Mr Blair is spending much of his time on a plane flying to an Arab state or heading for Moscow before flying on to Pakistan, the rest of his government will suffer from a terrible paralysis.

Oddly, the scale of the domestic challenge has been brought home over the last few weeks, rather than "buried", as the hapless Jo Moore had hoped. Since the attacks on the US, Railtrack has collapsed. Plans to build a national athletics stadium have been abandoned. The first patient has been sent to Germany for treatment because our creaking hospitals are full. The flooding has begun again, with local authorities unsure whether they will be able to cope. Last year, one of them ran out of sandbags after the first few hours. There is little sign that they are better prepared this year. In different ways, these various catastrophes relate to people's daily lives. They cannot be "spun" away, even with Mr bin Laden on the loose.

One challenge is linked directly to the "war". In the event of a civil emergency in London, who is in charge of co-ordinating a response? Unlike his equivalent in New York, the Mayor of London has no real power to co-ordinate a rescue operation. The powers used to rest in the Home Office, but have now apparently moved to the Cabinet Office. A recent inquiry by The World at One did not get them very far, beyond reaching the conclusion that, like everything else in Britain, it is probably Mr Blair who will be in charge of co-ordinating the response. If Mr Blair is out of the country, his deputy, John Prescott, will preside, no doubt with the same focused aplomb as he dealt with the railways.

All of these crises, or potential crises, have a common link. The causes are partly structural, relating to too much power being held at the centre. The remedies are complicated and risky. The mayor of a major capital city needs real power. Local authorities will only become competent when they can attract competent councillors. For that to happen, they need more power. The cock-up over Picketts Lock is a complicated story but is partly about an insecure Culture Secretary, Chris Smith, taking decisions that he thought would please Downing Street, and again without the involvement of a robust local leader.

Paradoxically, this agenda can only be energised when Mr Blair is focused on it. It needs the undivided attention of the Great Centraliser himself.

We know this from the experience of Labour's first term, which started to go badly wrong in 1999 – the 12 months that were meant to be Labour's year of delivery. It became the year in which an already timid Government lost its way and never fully recovered. Instead it stumbled from the mayoral debacle to the Dome crisis and then to a flu epidemic for which it was not well prepared.

The main reason for the lack of direction was Mr Blair's itinerary in the Balkans and in Belfast. At one point in the summer of 1999 he spent an entire week holed up in a room in Belfast talking to Gerry Adams and David Trimble. He emerged so dazed and confused he announced the Government would ban fox-hunting days afterwards, a measure he never had any intention of implementing.

Mr Blair has two options if his second term is to have a hope of being "historic" on the domestic front. He could allow Jack Straw and Geoff Hoon to do more on the international front – at the moment they seem like his junior ministers, and goodness knows what their junior ministers must feel like. Alternatively, he could give his domestic ministers more room to breathe – if they are capable of doing so, which I doubt. They are not used to breathing unaided.

There is some urgency here. The revolution in our political culture is only the first phase of improving public services. This is the short-term objective before we can move on to the medium term. I estimate it will take 20 years.