Steve Richards: The terrorist threat is real, and it is wrong to question Blair's probity in reacting to it

If you were a Prime Minister hearing about a potential attack, would you choose to play it down?
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The Independent Online

There is a tendency in British politics to turn any issue, however complicated, into one of trust and integrity. The latest example of this is the suggestion that Tony Blair has deceived voters about the nature of the threat posed by terrorists in Britain. Forget about arguments relating to judgements and the nightmarish context in which the judgements are made. Instead let's call Blair a liar.

Precisely the same superficial arguments were applied early last year in a series of pre-election debates on anti-terror laws. I heard and read persistently that Blair was exaggerating the threat in order to impress voters in the light of the looming general election. After the bombings on 7 July the accusations from some newspapers and political opponents were dropped. The bombings were a tragic vindication for those who had warned Britain faced a different and more challenging threat from terrorism. Yet memories fade quickly. There has been no further attack and British politics has returned to its simplistic default position: Blair has carried out another great deception.

Part of the problem with this thesis is that Blair is not alone in his assessment. Lord Carlile, the Liberal Democrat peer in charge of reviewing terrorist legislation, confirms that some of the intelligence is alarming. Indeed, he has gone further than ministers in illustrating the dangers, pointing out earlier this week that 20 militant imams with views similar to Abu Hamza could still be preaching in Britain. In a speech on Monday, the substance of which was largely ignored, Gordon Brown pointed out that several attacks in Britain had been foiled since 7 July. Some Cabinet ministers who are privately critical of Blair on other issues describe the intelligence they have seen as "frightening".

Still, the view is fashionable. The current controversy has been sparked partly by the Spectator's political editor, Peter Oborne. In a new pamphlet he chronicles the hysterical reactions to what proved to be the non-existent ricin plot and equally non-existent plan to bomb Manchester United's ground.

He outlines also how Blair formulated his 12-point plan against terrorism last summer, breaking the embryonic cross party consensus after 7 July. His arguments about Blair's alleged deceptions will be made on TV next week as Channel 4 continues its decline into orthodoxy by developing its cliché-ridden theme that politicians are liars, an assertion that reinforces existing prejudices rather than challenges them.

I got a call from a researcher working on the programme last September and was told it planned to show how the Government had spun the threat posed by terrorists. I asked for the evidence and was told they were only just beginning to work on it. The evidence was sought after the thesis about "spin" had been agreed. In fairness to Oborne, he makes far more illuminating points in his pamphlet. He points out that it was the police and the media that blew out of proportion the non-existent plot to bomb Old Trafford. The Government did not do so.

In other words, ministers, the police and the media all have a tendency to over-react in the current nervy climate. Oborne states rightly that Blair is in denial about the alienating consequences of the war against Iraq and therefore cannot address fully the immediate causes of the threat posed in Britain.

Like many others, I wrote in the summer about the bleak origins of Blair's 12-point plan, rushed through in a panic response to a media campaign. But I do not see in any of this how Blair has deceived us. The police did announce they had foiled a terrorist attack in which the deadly ricin poison was to have been used. In their desperate bid to convince a sceptical public about the threat posed by terrorists, ministers cited the arrests. They were wrong to do so in advance of the court case and were soon admonished by the high court judge, after which they shut up. No elected figure gets away with very much in British politics, that is the mundane and reassuring reality.

But it is not surprising that ministers were anxious to highlight the threat. Ultimately, they are responsible when the terrorists strike. In this new ill-defined situation they are on edge. They cannot take risks or be seen to be complacent. If you were a Prime Minister or Home Secre tary hearing about such a potential attack, and fearing that others were planned, would you choose to play it down?

On other matters Oborne acknowledges the Government did not get involved when the police and parts of the media reported the plans to attack Old Trafford. Similarly, I see no deception in Blair's 12-point plan. I disagree with the way he rushed to unveil it during the summer holidays. Some of it will never be implemented. Like any leader he is influenced by public perceptions and those perceptions will inevitably be shaped by the way the media reports events. But he made his case openly and the proposals have been changed under subsequent scrutiny.

It is a matter of judgement rather than integrity . Blair could have carried on with the so-called cross- party consensus, although it should be pointed out that the opposition parties would not get the blame if there were to be another attack.

He chose not to do so. Again I ask: where is the big deception? Inevitably, all of us are stumbling in semi-darkness. There is bucket loads of intelligence to suggest there will be more attacks in Britain and yet there has not been one since July. Are we over reacting? Perhaps we are.

Is politics being played even in this area? Yes it is. In the semi-darkness all parties make calculations as to how they are being perceived. They always do. Are some of the anti-terrorist proposals superfluous?

They seem to be from the comfort of a columnist's chair, although I note that some informed and objective observers argue that even the apparently tokenistic glorification law will make it easier to charge some of those that provoke dangerously. After the bombings on 7 July the first people we wanted to hear from were Blair and Charles Clarke. We did not turn to judges, opposition politicians, columnists or editors. With those daunting responsibilities, inevitably unsure what will happen next, Blair and Clarke plan their legislative response.

They make their multi-layered calculations in the open and we should judge them critically as they do so. Instead some in the media fuel mistrust in politicians and then argue that there is a crisis because politicians are not trusted. Perhaps there is a connection between the two.

It should be no surprise that voters turn away from politics almost as a matter of perverse pride when they are told persistently and simplistically that political leaders are liars. This misguided assumption is as big a threat to democracy as the terrorists' bombs.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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