The politics of fear

A legislative programme that contains many laudable goals will instead be dominated by authoritarian

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.

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. The last election was won on the present security agenda and the belief is strong that the government has an authoritarian mandate.

It is easy to forget that this government was indulging in the politics of fear long before the events of 7 July 2005; indeed long before 11 September 2001. The direction of travel was indicated by the very first piece of anti-terrorism legislation to be brought in - the Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Act 1998. It was this piece of legislation that fundamentally shifted this country's philosophy towards the terrorist threat by making it an offence "to conspire to commit terrorist acts abroad". This ensured that Britain became dependent on other countries' definition of what it was to be a terrorist in order to counter the domestic threat. Our domestic policy became yoked to the demands of foreign policy. The most glaring example of the inconsistency of this policy came when Libya was brought in from the cold. At a stroke, Islamist dissidents of the Gaddafi regime became al-Qaeda terrorists.

What followed was an obsession with foreign terrorist sleeper cells. Thousands of hours of police time and vast sums of public money were wasted on pursuing terror suspects from North Africa against whom there was no serious evidence of terrorist activity. As we now know, to tragic cost, we were looking in completely the wrong direction - the deadliest threat was home-grown.

On the pretext of "the war on terror", fundamental liberties have been swept aside. The Terrorism Act 2000 extended detention without charge to seven days. A year later the Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act brought in detention without trial for foreign terror suspects. The Criminal Justice Act 2003 extended the period a suspect could be kept without charge to 14 days. When the Law Lords ruled that holding foreign suspects without trial was unlawful, the government used the 2005 Prevention of Terrorism Act to introduce "control orders", which restricted the movement of terror suspects using electronic technology and curfews.

Labour's first piece of anti-terrorist legislation was a reaction to the Omagh bombing of 1998, and although the threat has switched from Irish republicanism to Islamist nihilism, the pattern of atrocity followed by crackdown has been maintained. It is interesting to contrast this with the reaction to the Brighton bombing of 1984, in which the IRA targeted the Conservative cabinet at the party conference.

As Simon Jenkins pointed out in his recent book, Thatcher and Sons, the then prime minister did not respond by announcing a new raft of legislation, but by requesting that Marks & Spencer open early to allow survivors to replace clothes lost in the blast. As an admirer of Lady Thatcher, it is a model of leadership Gordon Brown would do well to follow. Faced by the present Islamist threat, a truly courageous government would have held its nerve and refused to allow our fundamental liberties to be whittled away by the men of violence.

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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