Leading article : Unseemly retreat for Labour

Click to follow
It didn't take long for the ceasefire to collapse. One minute members of the House of Commons stood together in subdued sorrow in sympathy for the tragic shootings in Dunblane. The next they were back to bickering over the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Both Conservatives and Labour should be ashamed of the political expediency they put on display in the debate last night.

The PTA is an insidious and ineffective piece of legislation. It has done little to stop bullets and bombs on the mainland and much to infringe civil liberties. British citizens can be detained for up to seven days without explanation or representation, or they can be held in internal exile, prevented from moving out of Northern Ireland. There is little evidence that these measures have made the police any more effective in preventing terrorist crimes on the mainland. That, as ever, depends on the quality of intelligence and detection, rather than sweeping powers of the kind provided by the PTA. Yet for all this, the Conservatives advocated and the Labour leadership refused to oppose the extension of the PTA for another year.

So why are politicians so keen to keep it? Symbolism for a start. The PTA sends a strong message to the IRA about the state's willingness to take powers to stop it. Yet the Act's draconian powers have helped to fuel resentment against British rule among republicans.

The British government has always given most impetus to the Northern Ireland peace process when it has taken the high moral ground, from which it is attempting to create conditions for democratic politics to emerge in the province. That should be the clue both parties should follow for their approach to the PTA.

In the end, however, domestic political considerations are driving Conservatives and Labour. Whether they are appealing to the Unionists for support within Parliament, or to voters for support at the next election, both parties are wise to the implications of the PTA. For most voters, backing the PTA means being tough on terrorism. No wonder then that Labour's past opposition to the Act has served as a great political weapon for the Tories.

Given new Labour's sensitivity to the views of voters and the way the party's actions are distorted and misrepresented, it is hardly surprising that its leaders have reconsidered their position on the Act. But by refusing to oppose the PTA, they are also demonstrating their willingness to stamp on the rights of a minority to appease the majority, and are reinforcing the public doubt that they stand for anything. Any principled position, it seems, is up for sale for the sake of electorate.

Certainly Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, showed why Labour is so sensitive about the Act. He had barely drawn breath before criticising the Opposition. Still, that does not disguise the paucity of the case put by the Shadow Home Secretary, Jack Straw, who claimed the party's change of heart was based on the Government's decision to embark on a fundamental review. But nothing fundamental is yet changed in the content of the Act.

Labour was lucky that so few backbenchers disobeyed the leadership line to abstain in the vote, given how quickly and quietly the party had dropped one of its few remaining distinctively strong liberal positions.