Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Why do Home Secretaries turn into such monsters?

This power grab is made possible because the people are frightened
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The Independent Online

After the defeat in the Lords over 42 days, my anxiety is that Jacqui Smith will push through other draconian laws to prove she is undefeated by namby-pamby, bleeding-heart softies. She already tried to push secret inquests under the command of a special appointee (not an independent coroner), keeping out family members and lawyers. That Stalinist idea went the way of 42 days.

But it ain't over. ID cards are coming; Smith's "emergency bill" is worse than anything passed to contain IRA violence. Her proposed national database will hold information on all Britons and residents including their mobile phone calls, texts and internet communication.

Simpletons believe this is only intended to control bad Muslims. Let them remember how fast Gordon Brown used the anti-terrorist legislation against Iceland after the collapse of banks in that country, and that today perfectly legitimate protests are almost impossible in Parliament Square, a right our nationals wrested for themselves through centuries. Smith has even done a Sarah Palin, accusing opponents in parliament of taking national security "lightly".

Methinks there is a ghostly vampire in our Home Office. It swishes in when a freshly appointed Home Secretary arrives bringing milk-and-honey ideals and sincere public service promises. The fiend sinks its teeth into the incumbent and the smiles on the minister freeze. First comes terror, then all too soon the new boss becomes an agent of horror.

Jacqui Smith is the latest in a long line of the hard-bitten. As Simon Jenkins asked last week: "Is Jacqui Smith a pocket dictator? Is there no drop of liberalism in her veins, no concept of personal freedom, no fear of the repressive state? Or is she just another Home Secretary?" Yes, No, No, No and Yes have to be the answers to these questions. And a woman too, the first ever.

While male political hacks can't keep their eyes off her cleavage, many female commentators wonder what happened to her heart. Now all Home Secretaries and their junior ministers turn hard. Some, like Michael Howard, start off that way and get more cold-blooded in office. His nemesis Ann Widdecombe said that Howard had "something of the night" about him. So did she, once she entered the Home Office.

The exceptions were the uniquely humane and liberal Roy Jenkins and possibly jolly Willy Whitelaw, who retained some decent values. Look at the others – in particular the New Labour bunch – and you get the shivers. Jack Straw was a good man and he did good things for a while. He believed in more effective legislation to ensure equality for those discriminated against, and delivered. He set up the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, brought in the Human Rights Act, changed the culture of the Home Office.

I was in an advisory group invited by Straw to improve legislation. At long last we had someone fair and just in charge of this difficult department. Then, he became a reactionary, outdoing Howard on immigration and asylum.

David Blunkett wanted to be a liberal – to grant amnesty to economic migrants, reform the police, better protect gay Britons and victims of violence. But it took him no time to become a lock-'em-up bully. John Reid was a thug when he got the job and merely got more scarily thuggish. Charles Clarke, who now appears so reasonable and thoughtful, wanted 90 days – 90! – without trial, restrictions on free assembly, and control orders, sometimes necessary, but not when used indiscriminately.

This power grab is made possible because the people are frightened. Home Secretaries, the police and security services all use fear to make us compliant so we surrender what we should not. As the Director of Public Prosecutions Sir Ken Macdonald says: "Freedom's back is broken by the relentless pressure of a security state."

But hark now. Smith appears to be finding remnants of honour within herself. She has ordered the Attorney General to look into the allegations of torture made by an inmate in Guantanamo Bay. Binyam Mohammed, a British resident, claims he was tortured by an M15 officer as well as by US, Arab, Afghan and Pakistani interrogators. Charges against the prisoner have been dropped by the Americans but they will not free him – some suspect because they do not want to release the evidence of sanctioned brutality used to get information.

David Miliband wants to collude with the US to keep these secrets; Smith cannot. Astonishing. I am still not sure it isn't a wishful dream. Dracula's sting is not fatal after all. Does this mean that Smith will no longer champion illiberal, draconian laws to contain the citizenry? Let's hope so – and pray for the recovering authoritarian.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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