Leading article: No excuses please, Mr Home Secretary

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The Independent Online

Pity the Home Secretary. There is always the same trajectory. In comes the new man, to the accompaniment (if he is a Labour home secretary) of grainy news footage of a younger, thinner, hairier figure, waving a CND placard or protesting against apartheid.

Come the assumption of high office, and the change of heart is dramatic. Perhaps it is the regular meetings with the police chiefs, or the read-overs of focus groups' reports on how crime is the number one issue among "ordinary" voters. Perhaps, more recently, it is a niggling fear that the white working class is slipping away, angry and alienated by a new concentration on ethnic minorities and a liberal obsession with relativising crime.

Whatever the cause, the effect in our view is often bad policies - knee-jerk crowd pleasers that have a whiff of insincerity about them, as if their primary purpose was to give the Government a free ride from criticism while the public digests the latest muscular pledge to "get tough" on criminals, illegal immigrants, feral youths, drunks, the underclass, squeegee merchants, liberal judges, juries that don't convict people, and so on.

The list is almost endless, and so is the number of "initiatives" designed to show that something somewhere is being done about any of them, although, in reality, some "solutions" are so transparently unworkable as to be laughed off the stage at once, while others die a lingering death following their debuts on television news screens. Remember the plan to have teenage miscreants frogmarched to cash machines where they would be given on-the-spot fines? Alongside such tragicomic attempts to show New Labour is not a prisoner of Hampstead liberals and assorted luvvies have come more damaging initiatives, some made not in response to a perceived need to reconnect with angry white working-class voters but to show Britain is just as tough as George Bush's America in the war on terrorism.

This has produced perhaps the worst excesses, with important civil liberties being rolled back, curtailed or otherwise emptied of their former force. We have had the attempt to massively extend the period in which alleged terrorists can be held and questioned from 14 to 90 days (we are now on 28 days), drives to deport foreign suspects to countries with a record of torture, a failure to stand up for British residents detained in Guantanamo Bay, bans on spontaneous demonstrations within a kilometre of Parliament, the advent of ID cards and, most recently, an act banning a poorly defined new offence known as "glorifying terrorism".

Bad laws, moreover, have bred more bad laws. Alongside the the crude attempt by the Government to kit itself out with various blunt instruments in its struggle with home-grown "Islamists" have come back-handers - payoffs to mullahs, in effect. One was the recent ban on "inciting religious hatred", which, as some of our most respected comic actors pointed out, potentially criminalised what were harmless sketches.

The wisest counsels in history have usually pleaded for the passage of only a few laws, long in gestation. Charles Clarke and his predecessors have done the opposite, stacking hastily drafted law upon law and so progressively diminishing the impact of each of them. It is indicative of a mindset that can not be bothered to think through any of our society's ailments but which instinctively reaches for a quick "ban" or "curb", as long as it makes the headlines. This newspaper makes no apology for having condemned this tendency. Given the feeble state of the Opposition during most of the Government's lifetime, it has been a positive duty. Much harm has been inflicted on Britain's civil liberties under the guise of suppressing crime and terrorism. If it annoys Mr Clarke to draw public attention to this, so be it.

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