Leading article: The cynical manipulation of fear and security


For the second time in a week, the Government dragooned enough of its MPs into the "aye" lobby to reverse key amendments introduced to security legislation by the House of Lords. On Monday, the Commons voted in favour of registering all holders of biometric ID cards on a national computer, even before the cards become compulsory. Yesterday, MPs reinstated the clause in the Terrorism Bill that would make "glorification of terrorism" a specific criminal offence.

These might seem mere points of detail; they were, after all, minor elements in much broader Bills. But their significance - in substance and symbolism - was enormous. The comfortable Government majorities offered political cheer to the Prime Minister, who had feared substantial backbench revolts, but none at all to those of us who regarded these clauses as potential assaults on cherished civil liberties.

Yesterday's vote was especially dangerous in its implications. If it eventually makes its way on to the statute book, "glorification of terrorism" will be one of those offences that gives the whole body of terrorism law a bad name. What does "glorification" mean? Against whom will it be used and what will it take to secure a conviction? The recent successful prosecution of the radical preacher Abu Hamza proved that existing law is adequate to deal with most threats that exist.

Before yesterday's debate, ministers had allowed the impression to be created that it was only for lack of a "glorification" law that the demonstrators with provocative placards outside the Danish embassy two Fridays ago were not arrested then and there. This was as disingenuous as it was absurd. The placards concerned did not glorify anything; if they were evidence of a crime, it was incitement to violence or murder.

Not for the first time, the Government twisted a particular event for propagandistic scaremongering about the repressive measures supposedly needed to combat the undoubted threat from terrorism. Yesterday we printed excerpts from a pamphlet published by the Centre for Policy Studies think-tank, illustrating how the Government had, in the words of the author, Peter Oborne, "set out to politicise terror, to use it for narrow party advantage". The appalling consequence, as he pointed out, is that "few people now believe what the Prime Minister, the security services and the police now tell us about security matters". This same credibility gap, a long-term legacy of the "dodgy dossier" about Iraq's weapons and all that followed, is repeatedly identified as a liability for the Government in persuading the public to guard against terrorism. Yesterday, it was reported that sceptical MPs were being told that rejection of the "glorification" clause would be tantamount to support for terrorism. This is plain dishonest. What was at stake was not the fight against terrorism, but the authority of the Prime Minister. However Mr Blair turns the argument, these are not the same thing.

Deliberately to confuse the personal with the political and the political with national security is a misuse of office. Because of the cynicism it generates among the public, it also risks devaluing what have been real victories over real terrorists. Yesterday, some of the true heroes of the July 7 bombings received their awards from the Queen and were honoured at a special service. The courage, tenacity and presence of mind of these individuals showed our public services at their very best.

All is not yet lost on the legislative front. Despite yesterday's vote, MPs' qualms about aspects of the Terrorism Bill suggest that implementation of the contested measures will not be straightforward. The Bill will return to the Upper House. We trust their lordships will continue their resistance.

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