Leading article: Mr Brown and the big questions of the future

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The Independent Online

This week will be dominated by the Government's attempts to push its ill-fated anti-terrorist legislation a little further towards the statute book. The House of Commons will be debating ID cards, a new law designed to outlaw the "glorification" of terrorism and the question of whether to sanction an extension of control orders restricting the behaviour of terror suspects. This packed schedule has prompted a stentorian intervention from Gordon Brown, still smarting from the rebuke delivered by his Dunfermline neighbours in last week's by-election. In a speech to the Royal United Services Institute today, the Chancellor of the Exchequer will put his considerable weight behind the Government's anti-terror proposals. He will even go one step further by raising the prospect of a future Brown government extending the 28-day detention period for terror suspects - a piece of legislation that resulted in Tony Blair's first Commons defeat.

It is all politics of course. Mr Brown wants to send a signal to the public that as Prime Minister he would be "tough on terror". He also no doubt calculates that this intervention will put pressure on the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, who have adopted an admirably principled line on these issues so far, to drop their resistance to the Government's plans.

Labour Party strategists believe that the Government's belligerent stance on terrorism strikes a chord with the public. This is open to debate. But in any case, this is perhaps the one issue, above all, in which policy should by guided by principle, rather than opinion polls and focus groups. No government, of any political hue, has the right to erode our ancient freedoms without extremely good cause. Surely this is one area where any attempt to gain short-term political advantage over rival parties is inexcusable. Playing politics with terrorism ought to be anathema to our political leaders.

And let us examine, once again, what this is all for. Mr Brown will argue that we need ID cards because terrorists sometimes use multiple identities. This is true. But we look forward to hearing the Chancellor explain how the existence of ID cards in Spain impeded the Madrid train bombers, for example. The truth is that ID cards will do nothing to thwart terrorism, as even those ministers in charge of their implementation have admitted. And surely the jailing last week of Abu Hamza - and before him Abdullah al-Faisal - for incitement to racial hatred shows that this "glorification" law is unnecessary, too. As for a future extension of 28-day detention, why does Mr Brown believe that such draconian proposals coming from him will be any more acceptable than coming from Mr Blair?

This Government's response to the undoubtedly serious threat from terrorism has been inept. Half of the "12 points" hastily unveiled by the Prime Minister in the wake of the July 7 bombings have fallen by the wayside. Attempts to bully Parliament into accepting what remains of this flawed and illiberal programme smack of desperation. Mr Blair would do better to seek a bipartisan approach on such a vital issue.

As for Mr Brown, he should learn the lessons of the Blair administration. Attempts to govern by headline only prove a disappointment to the voters when they fail to deliver. And endless tacking to the right only alienates more natural supporters. The Chancellor would do better to abandon such a shallow approach to politics, forget about trying to burnish his image and concentrate on the increasingly unbalanced state of the economy. Mr Brown says he wants to address the "big questions about the future"; the impression is left, however, that it is the question of prime-ministerial succession that remains uppermost in his mind.