Steve Richards: Those responsible for dealing with terror must be given the powers to do so

The pre-election debates on the Government's anti-terror legislation have an eerie, innocent air
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The Independent Online

Once the immediate shock has subsided, there will be many questions. Could more have been done to guard against such an attack? What are the implications for security in London and other big cities in the future? We will seek detailed answers from Blair and Clarke in the coming days.

This seems like a statement of the obvious. Blair and Clarke are ultimately responsible for tackling terrorism in Britain. They are the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary. But this was not a fashionable assertion in the weeks leading up to the election when they sought emergency powers to hold suspected terrorists under house arrest. The main questions posed at the time were: "Why should they have the powers? What's it got to do with them? Why are they taking powers from judges?" It was deeply unfashionable to suggest that elected ministers had a right and a duty to acquire more powers in the face of the threat.

Yesterday, I looked briefly at the all-night pre-election debates in Hansard and the comment pages of the newspapers in relation to the hugely controversial anti-terrorist legislation. The debates and the comment already have an eerie, innocent and outdated air, as if the arguments raged in another era rather than a few weeks ago.

Opponents of the measures argued that this was far too serious a matter for elected politicians. A decision to impose house arrests must be left to the unelected judges, even if that meant a suspect was free fleetingly to commit a crime. Some implied that the freedom to be blown up was more important than any erosion of liberty.

Doubts were also raised about whether Blair and Clarke were telling the truth about the intelligence they were receiving on the threat of a terrorist attack in London. The implication of these doubts was brutally clear. The Prime Minister and the Home Secretary were lying in order to terrify people into supporting measures that made them look tough in advance of a general election. They were playing the "security card". The childish banality of this allegation is exposed by yesterday's attack. Yet at the time, those who suggested that Blair and Clarke would not seek these powers unless they regarded the threat as genuine were dismissed as falling for the latest "spin".

Probably when Blair and Clarke cite intelligence on the threat posed in Britain, they will be treated more seriously from now on. The intelligence on Iraq was shamefully inaccurate. Blair was wrong to parade it with such apparent conviction. But on the whole, it is easier for the intelligence services to build up an accurate picture of the internal threat posed here.

Although Blair is too in awe of the intelligence services, he was in no position to casually dismiss the alarming evidence placed in front of him about the possibility of an attack. A cabinet minister not directly involved in the political battle over the recent anti-terrorist legislation and a decent liberal told me at the time of the soaring rows over house arrests: "I have seen some of this intelligence and I promise you it is frightening." At different times, senior police officers and the London Mayor, Ken Livingstone, warned publicly about the inevitability of an attack.

Part of the longer-term message from yesterday's atrocity is therefore clear. If political leaders are responsible for dealing with the threat posed by terrorism, they must also have the powers to do so.

We should note that as yesterday's events unfolded no judge was called in front of the cameras to comment on the crisis. The law lords who made their sweeping condemnation of the Government at the end of last year for detaining suspects at Belmarsh were nowhere to be seen. The judges have power but no responsibility. The law lords were widely praised for their liberal ruling. They took the plaudits and moved on. The political leaders are always accountable. They cannot move on so easily. Like the pre-election row over house arrests, the law lords' judgment on Belmarsh is also dated as a result of yesterday's atrocities.

This does not mean that vigilant concerns for civil liberties should be swept aside in an authoritarian response as irrational as the arguments advanced by extreme libertarians. The case against ID cards is as strong now as it was two days ago. Probably in the coming weeks, Blair will find a more receptive audience for his arguments in favour, but he has yet to prove that ID cards would have prevented such an attack from taking place. Meanwhile, the doubts about costs and the practicalities of the technologically ambitious scheme will persist.

No senior opponent in the Commons or the Lords should feel cowed by yesterday's attack. There is an even greater need now for a forensic assessment of proposed constraints on the way we live. While ministers have the right to put the case for increased powers, they should not be allowed to rely on blandly emotive arguments about the terrible events of yesterday. Legislation passed on the basis of emotional advocacy is nearly always fatally flawed.

Blair and Livingstone clutch at straws when they insist that the terrorists will not undermine a city's way of life. The terrorists have done so already. It takes a form of madness rather than genius to kill people, bring public transport to a standstill, disrupt businesses, send shares plunging and close down the theatres for the first time since the Second World War. Almost certainly, Blair and Livingstone do not even convince themselves about a city's capacity to stride on.

Two days ago, the Prime Minister and the Mayor were punching the air in jubilation when London won the bid to stage the Olympics. Now they are in despair. For Blair, the extremes of emotion must outstrip those he felt when he got an ecstatic reception for a speech delivered to Congress in Washington in the summer of 2003 only to hear hours later that the body of Dr David Kelly had been discovered in the Oxfordshire woods. Unsurprisingly, the war in Iraq hovers over both episodes, the suicide of Dr Kelly and yesterday's attacks in London. Blair wants to move on from Iraq. He will not be able to do so.

But when he struggles with the threat posed by terrorists in Britain, he should be heard without a noisy and uninformed cynicism. Remember that when the terrorists struck, we turned to the politicians, not the judges, for answers.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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