Leading article: A needless resort to right-wing populism

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At a time when the main parties in Britain are engaged in a bidding war over terrorism, each trying to outdo the other in issuing wild-sounding promises to counter the alleged threat, it is depressing that Gordon Brown should have weighed in, as he did at the weekend, from the right-wing, populist corner of the ring.

Mr Brown has been a highly successful chancellor, and has demonstrated a capacity for new thinking on such subjects as the poor and Africa. That makes his latest remarks all the more regrettable. The lightest word of a prime minister-in-waiting is heavy. By making terrorism the key note of a high-profile interview, he must have known he was feeding not so much legitimate public concern as a growing paranoia about the likelihood of terrorists wrecking our way of life.

It is hard not to conclude that there was not a cynical and calculating element to the performance, and that the macho tone was intended to counter lingering fears - or hopes - that he might tack towards the left when, or if, he leads the Government.

But playing to the gallery and flirting with the right on the subject of counter-terrorism is unwise and unnecessary. Of course, the presence of numbers of disaffected and, in some cases, dangerous radical Islamists causes enormous concern. Few people now seriously maintain that muffling a frank discussion on the place of religion, including Islam, in a democratic society can do any good. There should be more debate about how, as a society, we can strike a balance between the right to liberty and the demands of faith, and about the hazy borders between free speech and incitement to hatred. At a time when old formulas about multiculturalism are starting to look a little threadbare, questions about citizenship and inclusion need revisiting.

But this is a field in which one must tread carefully, and there wasn't much evidence of the imagination or subtlety one might have hoped for in the Chancellor's remarks. Instead, there were familiar hints of authoritarianism and control-freakery - qualities that the Chancellor's critics have often ascribed to him.

It is especially unfortunate that he should have lent such forthright backing to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner's call for the period of detention without charge to be extended to 90 days. Parliament rightly buried that proposal last November when it agreed to extend the period to 28 days, but now Mr Brown has brought the 90-day plan back from the dead, as it were. We should resist the unproven claims of Sir Ian Blair that such a significant erosion of civil liberties would effectively reduce the terrorist threat.

Equally worrying is Mr Brown's pledge to "look again" at the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, after the acquittal of the leader of the British National Party, Nick Griffin, for inciting hatred. Obviously, "looking again" means tightening it up. If so, this would also mark a step in the wrong direction, for the way to counter the BNP propaganda is through a mature debate and not the more frequent use of these legal sledgehammers. The Religious Hatred Bill was never much more than a crude sop to Muslim opinion, outraged by the Iraq war in any case. Passed for the worst reasons and representing an undesirable curb on free speech, it will not be made better by Mr Brown's gift of extra teeth.

Mr Brown needs to be careful in the months leading up to his coronation. He has already garnered the reputation of a man with an overdeveloped instinct to regulate and control, and who is rather better at silencing discussion than opening it up. His latest interventions on terrorism and free speech have done nothing to disabuse those concerns.