Leading article: Tony Blair and the loss of civilised values


Tony Blair's support for the United States in its so-called "war on terror" has been unquestioning. But never has the Prime Minister's stance with respect to the Bush administration left him so politically isolated in Britain. Yesterday, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, which could once be relied upon to give Mr Blair an easy ride, joined the chorus of condemnation.

The committee's latest report criticises Mr Blair's unwillingness to stand up to President Bush. Echoing last week's United Nations report on Guantanamo Bay, it argues that the very existence of this prison has gravely diminished the moral authority of the US around the world. It also calls on the Government openly to condemn the US practice of "extraordinary rendition". British ministers, it argues, should tell the US that the practice of transporting terror suspects abroad for torture is "completely unacceptable".

Our government has been supine towards the Bush Administration on these issues. When allegations emerged that CIA prisoner transport flights have used Britain as a stopover, the first reaction of Jack Straw was to pour cold water on the story. The Foreign Secretary solemnly informed Parliament there had been no requests for rendition flights via UK airports since September 2001. But on Wednesday the National Air Traffic Service revealed that there have been 200 flights through British air space by CIA planes suspected of being involved in rendition. It seems that our Foreign Secretary is more concerned with keeping MPs and the public in the dark than getting to the bottom of this issue. As the Foreign Affairs Committee noted yesterday, it was only after "prodding" from EU partners that Mr Straw even wrote to the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, to request a response to the charge that America operates secret prison camps.

Unfortunately, the idea that Mr Blair will be persuaded to speak out against such practices seems unrealistic, considering the measures he is attempting to introduce here in Britain. The Prime Minister has demonstrated almost as little concern for human rights at home as President Bush has abroad. The Government is in the process of extracting "memoranda of understanding" from several nations to the effect that terror suspects deported to them from Britain will not be mistreated. Such states include renowned torture states such as Libya, Jordan, Algeria and Egypt. And, as Amnesty International points out today, the Government's introduction of control orders and detention without charge for terror suspects amounts to a "sustained attack" on the civil liberties of British citizens.

The Foreign Affairs committee assumes that ministers have been lobbying the US over human rights behind the scenes. But from what we heard from the Prime Minister in his monthly press conference yesterday, this seems fanciful. Mr Blair's condemnation of Guantanamo Bay was pathetically weak. And his defence of his domestic anti-terror agenda was equally depressing. According to our Prime Minister, "little attention is given to the human right of British citizens to live free of the fear of terrorist attack". When he makes such nonsensical statements, one wonders whether Mr Blair actually understands what civil liberties are.

The human rights legacy of the Blair era is taking shape. Abroad, the Prime Minister is content to turn a blind eye to torture. At home, he is relaxed about the reintroduction of detention without trial and determined to push through a host of other pointless curbs on our civil liberties. Unless this changes, Mr Blair is in danger of being remembered as the man who squandered Britain's reputation as civilised nation.

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