Magazine article The Spectator

'Israel's Actions Affect Our Security'

Magazine article The Spectator

'Israel's Actions Affect Our Security'

Article excerpt

The weeks since the death of Robin Cook have seen an unwholesome squabble concerning who will inherit the 'legacy' of the former foreign secretary. Chancellor Gordon Brown made an instant smash-and-grab raid, while allies of the Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain have been furtively suggesting that he is the true inheritor.

There is a respectable case to be made, however, that the backbencher John Denham is the only mainstream Labour politician who has a legitimate claim to step into Robin Cook's shoes. Denham's resignation on the eve of the Iraq war was rather more courageous even than Robin Cook's, because he had far more to lose.

Denham was on the way up. His unobtrusive competence as a minister, first at Social Security, later at the Home Office, inspired glowing reports. He was the insider's tip to join the Cabinet. When Denham resigned, he said farewell to a future at the the highest level in government: Robin Cook, however distinguished, was already in the exit chamber.

Today Denham, now 52, is chairman of the home affairs select committee. This is a powerful post which makes him perhaps the most influential and privileged Westminster observer of the domestic war against terror.

The government cannot even begin to claim consent unless it gains the approval of John Denham and his committee.

Denham is less flashy, less eloquent and much less egotistic than Robin Cook. But his supporters are entitled to claim that he has more common sense. He is quietly spoken and pragmatic, but his criticisms of government policy are perhaps all the more impressive for that.

I met John Denham last Wednesday, just as the Home Secretary Charles Clarke was preparing to publish his latest package of anti-terrorism measures. Denham was the main speaker at a Chatham House conference, attended for the most part by British and foreign diplomats, on the international war against terrorism. I listened to Denham deliver his 45-minute speech. It was powerful and direct both in praise for and criticism of government policy. His theme was simple: the domestic fight against terrorism in Britain will never be won unless it carries the consent of the Muslim community.

Alarmingly, Denham believes that many of the measures taken to date carry a heavy risk that they will make the problem worse.

Some of them, he thinks, will be counterproductive.

After John Denham's speech we went outside, found a coffee shop and talked for an hour. He is extremely critical of the way the British government has consistently neglected warnings about alienation within Muslim communities. He is scornful of some of the new measures to fight terrorism, suggesting that they were introduced for public relations purposes. Meanwhile he enters new territory, never entered before by a mainstream British politician, by suggesting that our foreign policy should in part be shaped by alarms about domestic policy. He told me, for example, 'It is no exaggeration to say that Israeli policy in the occupied territories is not simply a matter of foreign policy -- it is a matter for British domestic security policy too.' Even though he had just delivered some trenchant criticisms of government policy, he still finds much to praise. 'In terms of counter-terrorism, we have done very well.

The police are getting better, the intelligence services are getting better.' He was scornful of libertarian critics of an intrusive state. He said he was in favour of the 'gathering of a wide range of information about individuals -- cell-phone usage, travel information, centralising data for identity cards and so on.

'We now know, ' he added, 'that access to a wide range of previously personal information can be enormously useful in responding to terrorism and preventing deaths, and often in unpredictable ways. I don't suppose anyone foresaw that using ID cards to purchase a mobile phone would have played such a significant role in investigating the Madrid bombings. …

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