Leading Article: When the state fights back

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Swift justice, the death penalty, fresh powers for the FBI: Bill Clinton's rhetoric after the Oklahoma bombing suggests an opportunistically spotted turning point. This is the President as strong man, not abroad but at home, as paterfamilias, protector of the people. Amid the firmness, the reassuring sense of purpose, there is a hint of the authoritarian, as President Clinton slips instinctively into the tough talk of his native south. Uncomfortable with foreign policy issues, at last the President has a clear domestic crisis around which he can rally his fellow citizens.

Meanwhile, here in Britain, legislation eats away at civil rights. The Public Order Act is employed at Brightlingsea, where householders receive letters warning them of their limited rights to demonstrate against the trade in animals. The Criminal Justice Act challenges the nonconformist lives of many travellers, squatters and ravers. The right to silence of suspects is curbed. Rules about disclosure of evidence are to be altered in favour of the prosecuting authorities. Ministers plan the introduction of identity cards and pursue journalists through the courts in an effort to make them reveal their sources. The Home Office proposes that journalists should be expected to caution their sources about the risk that the courts might force such disclosure.

On both sides of the Atlantic, governments are flexing their muscles internally, expanding their remit on law and order. And most people like it. In fact they have an appetite for more. As the Republicans in the US, and Labour in Britain, realise, there are votes to be had in pushing the government into more draconian crime-beating measures.

What an irony that we should be witnessing the buttressing of the state as judicial authority at a time when on every other front the state is retreating. President Clinton, indeed the American system of government, has failed utterly to grapple with the country's public finances, creating global financial tremors which cost jobs and growth. Likewise, he could not deliver his key campaign promise of affordable health care for all. Here, globalisation has stripped government of serious economic power, while politicians anxiously pare away at a welfare state judged unaffordable by the entire political establishment. Under these pressures, governments that were once providers of services seek a new, cheaper role as regulator.

These are the circumstances in which ministers return to the ideas of the 17th-century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who saw the state as primarily the body which maintains order. This reinvention of government catches the mood of the times. Social insecurity and fear of crime are fertile ground for a more authoritarian approach. Both here and in the US anti-crime measures are backed not only by the masses, but also by a once sceptical liberal intelligentsia, which tends towards an increasingly pragmatic, pick'n'mix approach to new social controls. After all, the British police can no longer guarantee to respond to your warbling burglar alarm.

These trends should worry us. Sometimes events will dictate the need for stronger police powers. It is conceivable that the FBI lacks the powers it needs to tackle terrorism; it is more likely that it has lacked the determination or the organisation. More convincingly, the Oklahoma bombing has confirmed the case for gun control.

As John Stuart Mill observed in On Liberty, the only rightful exercise of power "over any member of a civilised community against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant." Britain's Home Secretary seems consciously to have disavowed this powerful statement of principle. Mr Blair should have it woven into a sampler to hang in his office.