Monday, November 14, 2005

BLAME THE TERRORISTS, NOT THE DEMOCRATS

There have been fierce arguments in parliament about the government’s terrorism bill. That is as it should be. There are valid arguments on both sides. Defenders and supporters of the bill, and of giving the state power to hold suspects for 90-days without charge, have put their case in strong language, and up to a point this too is right – both lives and liberties are at stake. But Labour MP Kitty Usher goes completely over the top in today’s Guardian when she suggests that the Conservative, Lib/Dem and Labour MPs who opposed it will have “blood on their hands” if the bombers get through. That is not the language of democratic debate – in fact, it is the language of terrorism because it uses fear to try to bully people into giving support.

Let us be absolutely clear – the people who bear 100% of the moral responsibility for the murders on 7/7 were the terrorists who exploded the bombs and those who helped them plan and execute them. If there are any more explosions, the blame will not lie with those MPs who voted either for against 90-day detention provided they were genuinely voting as they thought right – which I happen to think that the vast majority on both sides were. The blame for any future murders will lie with the murderers.

It is very strange that the position which was actually carried in parliament – to double the period during which the police can hold terrorist suspects to nearly a month – should be presented by supporters as a victory for civil liberties and by its opponents as going soft on terrorism. But that is because both sides recognise that there is a real and serious threat.

As we have seen again this week in Jordan, every society on earth is under attack from terrorist lunatics. Most people will find it hard to argue with King Abdullah’s comment on the husband and wife responsible for the wedding massacre: “To walk into a hotel, to see a wedding and to take your spouse and blow yourself up – these people are insane.”

I believe that Tony Blair is making the same mistake when he presents the police as being united in support of 90-day detention as he was when he presented the intelligence community as being united in the view that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction which could be fired in 45 minutes. In each case Blair really believed the policy for which he was arguing to be right, but he overstated both the case and the degree of expert support for it.

The are plenty of terrorism experts who believe, and some senior police officers who will say in private, that detaining people for long periods without charge can make the problems of terrorism worse. You only need to consider the one instance in the past 50 years when it was tried in this country – internment in Northern Ireland. That was a disaster and gave a huge boost to the terrorists.

It was not the opposition which ruled out a compromise: when Charles Clarke invited the Conservatives and Lib/Dems to discuss the terms of the bill both opposition parties agreed to meet him. The opposition have supported some of the government’s proposals, and as I mentioned earlier, even the rebel amendment represents a doubling of the time the police can hold people, not a refusal to compromise. It is the Prime Minister alone who created a showdown and he has nobody else to blame for the damage to his authority.

There have been many comparisons this week between the Blair government now and the later years of John Major’s government. This comparison is most unfair – to John Major. When Major lost a vote of comparable importance over Maastricht, he brought the issue back the following day as a motion of confidence, and won. Winston Churchill did the same thing during the war. Tony Blair has not dared to try anything of the kind.

The most important reason why I welcome the refusal of parliament to back 90-day detention is that I am convinced it was the right decision. But if it checks the arrogance of this government that will also be welcome. Nobody has a monopoly of wisdom, and no government which imagines that it has is going to achieve very much.

But above all, let’s make sure we reserve at least the majority of our anger for the terrorists and not for each other.

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