The Politics of Fear: A Legislative Programme That Contains Many Laudable Goals Will Instead Be Dominated by Authoritarianism. Our Political Editor, Martin Bright, Suggests Gordon Brown Should Recall Margaret Thatcher's Response to Terrorism

By Bright, Martin | New Statesman (1996), November 12, 2007 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Fear: A Legislative Programme That Contains Many Laudable Goals Will Instead Be Dominated by Authoritarianism. Our Political Editor, Martin Bright, Suggests Gordon Brown Should Recall Margaret Thatcher's Response to Terrorism


Bright, Martin, New Statesman (1996)


Another Queen's Speech, another anti-terrorist crackdown. This year's Counter-Terrorism Bill follows last year's Terrorism Act and the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005. There are only so many ways of saying the same thing. With each new wave of legislation, only the date gives a clear indication of which law is which.

In 2001, in its report on the new Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act, the Commons home affairs select committee wrote that "this country has more anti-terrorism legislation on its statute books than any other developed democracy". Since then, a further three pieces of substantial legislation have been passed in this area; this new bill will make it four. The latest proposed measures will allow the questioning of suspects after they have been charged. Ministers are also considering increasing the length of time a suspect can be detained without charge beyond the present 28 days. Memories are short, but as the government talks once again of increasing this period of detention, it is worth remembering that when Labour came to power in 1997, the period of detention without charge was just 48 hours--only in exceptional cases could the home secretary grant an extension of up to five days.

Most of the criticism of Gordon Brown's first legislative programme has been wholly unjustified. The drive to build more affordable homes, the raising of the educational leaving age and the extension of flexible working to include the parents of older children all add up to the beginnings of a progressive vision.

But on security, the government's policy has been consistently illiberal and Brown has signalled his intention to continue where Tony Blair left off. On the weekend before the Queen's Speech, I attended a conference held by Progress, new Labour's most cheerleading fringe group, where I spoke at a meeting entitled "Beyond the Politics of Fear: How Does Labour Win the Security Debate?" It struck me that Labour already believes it has won the security debate, a feeling reinforced by the new legislation.

In the court of public opinion--or so the new Labour argument goes--no anti-terrorism measure is too harsh, no curtailment of liberty too far-reaching, just so long as most people believe it is not happening to them. At the same time, the Conservative Party's decision to defend ancient liberties in the face of legislation such as control orders, the extension of detention without trial and ID cards is seen as an open goal for a Labour government that has never been afraid to flex its authoritarian muscles. This leaves us in the strange position where we have the Tories, the Law Lords and most of liberal Britain on one side and the Labour Party and the Daily Mail on the other.

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There is some evidence of a shift of tone under Brown--but the softer language of the new Home Secretary and the excision of the phrase "war on terror" from the ministerial lexicon means little when the government is so determined to revise the internment legislation. In the chopped logic of this government, there is no security debate. …

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