I am not sure if Tony Blair was naive or self-serving in saying “I told you so” in this week’s Sunday Times. It seems unbelievable that he still cannot see why Parliament, reflecting a widespread view, denied him the powers which he and the then Home Secretary Charles Clarke sought to detain foreign nationals suspected of plotting terrorism.
The article was headed “Shackled in the war on terror”. It complained of Lord Hoffman’s decision that “there was a greater risk to Britain through the abrogation of the foreign national’s civil liberties than through terrorism”, and of the similar judgements which followed. It complained about the lost vote for the right to detain suspects for 90 days. Blair says:
So the fault is not with our services or, in this instance, with the Home Office. We have chosen as a society to put the civil liberties of the suspect, even if a foreign national, first.”
I like that “in this instance” – the Home Office usually bogs things up, he is saying, but it was someone else’s fault this time.
It was not just that the powers seemed extreme – in many ways it seemed sensible to have power to hold and deport people whose words and actions brought threat to our country – but that Blair and those below him had shown contempt for civil liberties, from the unthinking reactionary David Blunkett down to every dim little Plod who used the Terrorism Act as a catch-all when he could not think of any real offence to bring charges under.
Let’s spare ourselves a recital of Home Office cock-ups – I want to get this finished this week. Why were we so distrustful of Blair that we would rather let suspected foreign terrorists wander the streets than surrender any more powers to a Blair government?
The continual attempts to shackle the courts and the anti-judge campaigns run by Blunkett and Clarke.
The certainty that a government which lied about everything, and made even the Law Officers of the Crown complicit (at the least) in the biggest of those lies, would lie about the scale of the terrorist threat (we do not under-estimate it – we just don’t trust what this government says about it).
The evident incompetence of the senior people in the security forces and particularly in the police – lots of very brave people no doubt, but fools at the top.
The stamping down on protest – a government so unwilling to face the people it governed that it passed a whole act of Parliament to try and drive protesters out of sight in Westminster.
Individual acts of excessive power by minions too stupid to understand the implications of their actions but who took their cue from the government. The roll of dishonour is a long one, but we have room for the security thug who dragged 82 year old Walter Wolfgang out of the Labour conference and the policeman who would not let him back in, the policeman who arrested Maya Evans for reading a list of Iraq war dead aloud in Whitehall, and the Scottish harbour master, Keith Berry, who had Sally Cameron arrested under the Terrorism Act for walking on a cycle track.
You might say that Blair is not to blame for these individual acts of petty tyranny by jumped-up petty officials with too much power and no brain. After the cycle track incident, a spokesman for Forth Ports said:
“We will robustly prosecute anyone who breaches these new security measures because they have been introduced by the Government and we are obliged to enforce them.”
Not to think about them, nor to consider if the act in question does actually constitute a risk, but to say, as others have said before them in similar circumstances, “I was only obeying orders”.
Of these three examples, only Maya Evans was arguably committing an offence (under Socpa, the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act which, as its weighty title implies makes it an offence to read aloud where your elected representatives might hear you). The other two are straightforward abuses of power by dim little people.
The rejection of Blair’s demand for more powers did not reflect disagreement with the principles but a deep distrust of the man. It reflects also, however, a feeling that too much power is delegated to people who are not fit to exercise it.