Why do we let Blair get away with it?

I fear the opposition parties are about to be outwitted over the terror bill by the much cleverer New Labour machine

Yes, the Government and the police and the secret services know things we, the people, may not. They issue sinister hints, though, and talk enigmatically of home-made terrorists waiting to strike at the very heart of our nation as the election approaches.

Charles Clarke and Tony Blair have, in the last fortnight, taken us to the edge of the precipice, talking of real and known dangers to the people they have the responsibility to protect. Police chiefs have added their voices. Last week, at an anti-terrorism conference, Sir David Veness, the Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner, spoke in chilling language of the extremism within the British Isles. Hazel Blears, the Home Office minister, a bit of a Rosa Kleb, is convinced that our own citizens are a greater threat than outsiders.

Such warnings spread through our major cities. We are meant to believe that bombs and biological killer bugs are being cooked up in the kitchens of Kirklees and off London's Edgware Road by swarthy Muslims who hate nightclubs and pop music and the vote. And, the suggestible people we are, Britons are swept along again without asking too many impertinent questions. Even now, after we know how the establishment can dupe a nation.

Remember how they said, with theatrical conviction, that Saddam had WMDs directed at us to go off in 45 minutes? And their immovable assurance that all the opposition to the occupation in Iraq is being orchestrated by al-Qa'ida satellite groups? Claims that helped to prepare the ground and then maintain support for the war in Iraq?

This recent whip-up, too, is a deliberate, careful strategy to get Britons trembling with a sense of unknown, indefinable perils so that we consent to violations of our rights, to a creeping authoritarianism without due care or caution. It is no accident that it is while this panic is being generated that this most dishonourable of governments is pushing through - faster than a French TGV - The Prevention of Terrorism Bill, which gives politicians the right to issue "control orders" on any citizens and residents in Britain if they wish to do so, for real or spurious but untested reasons. Tagging, absolute restrictions on communication and house arrests, be imposed without charge, due process, legal arguments or procedures to ensure justice as we know it.

Of course it has been heartening to witness (at last) some real and ethical opposition to these grotesque plans from both the Tories and the Liberal Democrats. But I fear these parties, at present feeling momentarily effective, are about to be outwitted by the much cleverer New Labour machine. A so-called compromise apparently favoured by Mark Oaten, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, is about to be humbly accepted by Mr Blair and his listening Government.

This is the proposal that within 24 hours of a control order being issued, a High Court judge will have to ratify the action. Over the weekend, briefings have suggested that, after this surrender, there is general agreement on the control order solution. There have even been hints that Liberty, which has been vociferously fighting these measures, is now fully placated and on side - a complete fabrication.

This compromise must, absolutely must, be rejected. It is a dangerous fudge. It does not deliver the most basic requirements of a credible justice system. There is still no due process to question and judge serious punitive decisions, which will now be made, not by one, but two extraordinarily powerful people. We know how politicians will abuse this power - look at Belmarsh and Guantanamo Bay. We also know how narrow-minded, establishment judges can act to preserve the order, however pernicious. Remember Lord Denning with the Guildford Four, Lord Hutton with his whitewash report? Can the Lib Dems be seriously convinced that this saves us from institutional abuse?

Most Britons have convinced themselves that unprecedented, unjust measures are required to control wild Muslims who roam among them. Hundreds of Muslims have been harassed, interrogated, and held in cells for months, yet there have been only a handful of cases and even fewer convictions. As human rights experts point out with ever more urgency, these laws will in time oppress all of us.

Labour MP Barbara Follett eloquently reminded us of her old homeland country - South Africa - where house arrests destroyed lives in the name of law and order. Her first husband, an anti-apartheid activist was a victim first of house arrest then state murder. She came here, promising her children never again.

I completely accept that we have a small minority of highly volatile, hate-filled and clever terrorists - Islamicist Stalinists - and that the security services and police have thwarted serious attacks for which we must thank them. It is probably true that something dramatic is being planned for May. We have a duty to support increased intelligence activities and targeted surveillance, and possibly exceptional activity in the lead up to the election.

The Muslims held in Belmarsh included men most British Muslims detest and dread. We know we are fortunate to be living in Europe, where we can vote, and where even now there are laws that will protect us from the whims of brutish, megalomaniac leaders so common around the Muslim world. But there have to be limits to how many fundamental rights and protections British people are asked to surrender, particularly as for the next few weeks, every move and proposal is driven by political considerations.

What is wrong with the British masses? Why are more people not joining with Muslims and others to preserve their rights, to reinstate their cherished principles? We seem to have become such a flabby democracy, inert, stupid, consumed by reality television and the sheer pettiness of life. We smile and clap when the violator of international law, George Bush, cosies up with our Prime Minister and gets our nation embroiled in foul play. Appalling behaviour by some of our soldiers towards helpless prisoners causes almost no alarm in the wider population. We know that some of the interrogation methods at Abu Ghraib prison were advocated by British officials. We witness the broken, maddened, mostly innocent men who have returned from Guantanamo Bay and turn our eyes away.

Tonight Channel 4 brings into our homes the some of the realities of what is happening in that abode of the damned. For this courageous exposure alone, the channel has paid its dues to society. Inmates - who again have not been properly charged - are regularly tortured in ways you thought vanished with the inquisition. Some of the methods are recreated with volunteers, and they can't bear more than a few hours. We acquiesce, and in doing so we tell our leaders that they are free to do as they wish with our lives too.

That is the tragedy. Brook Atkinson,, the American journalist who lived through the First and Second World Wars, wrote in 1951: "After each war there is a little less democracy to defend." With the insane "war on terror" without end, there may soon be no democracy left at all

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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