After the defeat of the Terror Bill in Parliament this week Tony Blair told the press there was a 'worrying gap between parts of Parliament and the reality of the terrorist threat and public opinion.' In some respects this is true. There are plenty of members of the public who believe that the police should have whatever powers they ask for. Unfortunately the same people tend to believe that the SAS should have 'taken out' Gerry Adams. Quite often they also generously offer to donate their time to personally 'pull the lever myself' should hanging be reintroduced.
It's highly questionable whether the public genuinely supports the Terror Bill. Tony didn't cite any particular evidence, and let's face it, pollsters can get whatever result they want with loaded questions, e.g. 'Do you support a 90 day detention period for terrorist suspects to allow the police to do their job properly, or would you rather have your face blown off by a nail bomb? Think about that. No face. Just a big hole where your nose should be. Euch. So, what's it gonna be?'
Whatever the public may or may not think, informed opinion was certainly opposed to the bill. It smacked of internment, which was hardly an unqualified success in Northern Ireland, instead serving as a rallying point for the Republican movement both politically and physically. Welcome to Long Kesh, your one-stop Republican shop.
Although 90 days detention as proposed isn't exactly the same as being thrown into Long Kesh (later the Maze prison) it's similar in principle: detention without trial. And where would detainees be kept? If they're supposedly terrorists they presumably wouldn't be in Ford Open Prison - they'd be in the high security Paddington Green police station or a maximum security prison. Three months is a long time to be incarcerated, and, so we're told, prison isn't a very nice place, unless you're mad keen on ping pong. And bumming.
There also seemed to be an unspoken acceptance by the government that innocent people would get locked up. The figures certainly support this. Between 11 September 2001 and 31 December 2004, there were 701 arrests in the UK under the existing Terrorism Act. Only 119 of these faced charges under the Terrorism Act itself, with 45 being charged for other offences. But here's the kicker: as of March 2005 only 17 people had actually been convicted.
It's not that greater powers of detention may not have some merit - it's just that there are way too many unanswered questions. And coupled with more general fears about civil liberties and inflaming Muslim opinion, it's ridiculous to blithely describe the proposals as popular. (Moreover, it may well have been a huge distraction from the real issue: how the police are going to make sure they have decent intelligence on extremist Islamic groups, a foe they're not accustomed to, unlike the IRA, where good intelligence prevented countless bombings.)
But moving on from the bill itself, the whole debacle has shown Tony Blair in a deeply unflattering light. One of the few consistent threads running through Blairite policy is guessing what public opinion is and getting it wrong. There were shades of Norma Desmond to his pronouncements: 'You may have rejected my bill, but my public still adores me!'
No, Tony. The public thinks you're a twat.
Meanwhile there was yet more New Labour scheming. Blair seems to have realised he's in an increasingly precarious position, and so Charles Clarke waddled forward to fall on his sword, claiming it was his fault for not persuading MPs to vote for the bill. Clarke told the BBC: 'It was my judgement, I regret that I got the judgement wrong in terms of the House and the ability to get that position through, and there are lots of issues to be looked at from that point of view.'
When asked whether he would get sacked for fucking things up, Clarke said: 'I don't know, that is a matter for the Prime Minister.' Do they think we're idiots? Clarke isn't going to get sacked for the simple reason that Blair probably told him to take the blame in the first place. And yesterday it emerged that the government enlisted the help of senior policemen to lobby MPs in the run up to the vote, and an inquiry is likely. When first we practise to deceive, etc.
But something good has emerged from this whole mess. The Terror Bill was another rushed piece of legislation that seemed to owe more to the PM's patronage than any proven merits. It's classic New Labour - coming up with a crap idea then bloodymindedly claiming it's popular/workable/desirable in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. We saw it with 24-hour licensing, PFI, the war itself... we've been here before so we won't go on.
Now Labour MPs have finally blocked an ill-conceived and, frankly, *dodgy* move by the government. It's just a shame it took them eight years to get round to it.