By Martin Kettle (THE GUARDIAN, 07/07/07):
Foul though they are, the failed car bombers have done the new government a huge favour. There was no terror emergency listed in Gordon Brown’s long-prepared grid of July initiatives for seizing the political momentum for Labour. But the attempted bombings have provided the new prime minister with a perfect platform on which to pose as the national leader he strives to be.The moderate language in which Brown and his ministers have responded to the week’s emergency has been deliberately chosen – partly with an eye on the Southall byelection – and much commented upon. Yesterday’s Islamispeace full page ads in this and other newspapers spoke for an undoubted wider welcome. The tone is calm. Inclusivity is in. Knee-jerk is out. It is the right response. Alongside Tuesday’s constitutional package, it encourages even the proverbial fool in a hurry to sense that something has changed from the Tony Blair years.
But the difference should not be exaggerated and nor should it be misunderstood. It is easier to be statesmanlike after a failed attack than after a successful one. It may be true, as Eric Hobsbawm pointed out on the radio this week, that advanced modern states can absorb the kind of attacks meted out by terrorist groups fairly comfortably; but it remains true that the pressures on political leaders after an actual atrocity are more severe than when no one has been killed. It is also true that the potential carnage and collective impact of the alleged conspiracy against airline passengers that was apparently foiled last summer was arguably far greater than those that would have resulted if last weekend’s car bombs had detonated. Not to recognise this is to equate apples with pears.
There is also a fair amount of rewriting of history going on. It is not actually true that the Blair government invariably responded to terror alerts by reaching for tough new powers. In fact it finally learned from its earlier mistakes, notably after 7/7, just as Brown has done. The much criticised John Reid never responded in this way as home secretary; on the only occasion he proposed new powers, only a few weeks ago, Reid’s approach was impeccably consensual. Nor even did Blair, in spite of his precipitate reaction after 7/7, ever demonise the whole Muslim community to the extent that commentators, including the Muslim News editor Ahmed Versi on the World At One yesterday, claim. These are not, however, errors which Brown will hurry to correct. What matters politically is that the old perceptions that harmed him have been replaced by new ones that help.
If anyone over-reacted to the alert this week it was probably the Conservative opposition, with its demands for the immediate banning of Hizb ut-Tahrir. Labour ministers have never been slow to proscribe organisations that promote terror – more than 40 have been banned since 2000, and two more were added to the list only this week – and ministerial concern about this Islamist organisation is intense. But as Reid said in the Commons on Wednesday, though he twice asked for advice on whether he could ban Hizb last year, on both occasions the advice was that the organisation had curbed enough of its activities to make a ban legally doubtful. The compensation for the government is that legal organisations are easier to penetrate.
That is why I suspect David Cameron made another wrong call this week. He reasoned that Brown’s more emollient language on the terror emergency betrayed a flakier approach to the subject as a whole. He therefore tried to create a partisan divide over toughness by calling for Hizb to be banned. But this misreads Brown’s stance. For while he may have turned down the rhetoric, he has not altered the essentials of the policy. All the evidence is that Brown thinks we face a very long haul with Islamist terrorism and all the evidence, including the emerging background details of the car bomb plot, is that he is right.
Indeed, neither his words on the terrorist threat nor his comments this week on Iraq square in any way with the view that Brown is about to throw the switch unilaterally on the inherited essentials of the Blair policies in either sphere any time soon. Claims that Brown’s Foreign Office appointments are a shot across Washington’s bows betray wishful thinking; the fact is that when Brown himself went to the White House a few weeks ago, he went to tell Washington that he could be relied on.
That does not mean Brown likes the Iraq situation one bit. But his view, as he said to Menzies Campbell in the Commons only three days ago, is that Britain has obligations to the UN and Iraq that it is not going to break. The reality is that Britain is already in scaledown mode in Iraq and that the vital strategic decisions will be made by the US after the summer.
All the evidence is that Brown is currently where the mainstream of British voters are on these subjects. The voters don’t want Britain to be in Iraq a moment longer than it has to be – and nor does Brown – but they see the moment of minimal deployment arriving in the months ahead and will therefore put up with the situation for a while longer. They continue to distinguish between Iraq and Afghanistan, and do not automatically recoil from a longer commitment to prevent the return of the Taliban. They recognise that Iraq has exacerbated the terror threat – of course it has – but they are not in denial about the reality that changes in British foreign policy, however desirable, will not make the terror threat disappear.
What we are witnessing, in other words, is not so much a change of policy. It is a change in the context in which the policy can be discussed and pursued more honestly. There is more realism in the air than there was. But we all need a dose of it. The government needs to find a way of accepting that Iraq has sharpened the terror threat. But the rest of us need to accept that the responsibility for attempting to murder civilians rests with those who carry out the atrocities. These were neither Blair’s bombs nor Brown’s bombs. They were the bombers’ bombs and no one else’s.