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Charles Clarke's insistence that Britain is in a "state of emergency" is a cynical sham. We're safer

Dateline - London. Week two of the state of emergency: getting around is already more difficult - at Waterloo Station on Tuesday, I noticed that several trains were running late, or were even cancelled. The roads are bad, too: it took me an hour to cover half a mile into town yesterday.

Sainsbury's is low on muesli and clean out of loo rolls and Emmenthal; you can't get a same-day appointment at the doctor's no matter how early you ring; and there seems to be nothing worth watching on the television. Small things, perhaps, but that's how it begins.

The government is working hard to keep up morale. Blair and Brown bicker just as if everything were normal, and they even released the European referendum question - as though we'll be around for that! Yet some of the TV news coverage has a deja vu quality; I wonder whether they are reusing old footage, from happier days.

And it's at times like this you see the bulldog spirit: the schools are still open, and the hairdressers', and even the cafes and res- taurants - so plucky and yet so sad. It reminds me of Bogart and Bergman in Casablanca.

Some people take business-as-usual too far, of course. The other night, I saw a bunch of drunken girls (a hen party, probably) reeling down the street and singing "It's Raining Men". Don't they know there's an emergency on?

No, Britain is not in the grip of an emergency, however much Charles Clarke insists we are. We go to work; we fill the air with phone chatter about reality shows; we dine out; we fret about pensions and house prices; we book holidays and we buy Lottery tickets. All around us things work, or don't work, just as they usually do, or don't. So relaxed are we that few of us could put our hands now on the official doomsday leaflet, published last summer, that told us to stock up on bottled water, tinned food (will anybody remind us to replace this when it's past its eat-by date?) and batteries; to find out the wavelength of our local radio station; and to check we knew how to turn off the gas.

And the government itself is in normal mode. Window-dressing for the election is in full swing and it is apparently still worthwhile for ministers to spend time advocating casinos and 24-hour pub opening. The Ministry of Defence, for its part, is at a "Bikini Black Special" state of alert, which may sound alarming but is only halfway up the security scale, with amber and red above it.

A genuine national emergency of the bottled-water variety would feel rather different. The legal definition speaks of a state of affairs that threatens the life of the nation or, more specifically, "which affects the whole population and constitutes a threat to the organised life of the community of which the state is composed". In the view of the European Court of Human Rights, it needs to be that bad before a government can start throwing civil liberties on the bonfire.

The simple irony is that, far from wobbling on the brink of the abyss as Clarke asserts, we are almost certainly safer today than in any other sustained period since the 1930s. Even in the quietest spells of the cold war, after all, there were people sitting in Russian bunkers, ready at a moment's notice to rain down thermonuclear catastrophe upon us.

That would have threatened organised life. The official Joint Intelligence Committee view, first expressed in 1955 but still valid in 1990, was that "something like ten H-bombs, each of a yield of about ten megatons . . . would effectively disrupt the life of the country and make normal activity completely impossible". So, just ten big bangs and all the lights would go out.

So comprehensive was the anticipated destruction, in fact, that in all those years, official planning and preparation for Britain after the bombs fell was never more than half-hearted. There was a bunker for the government, deep beneath the Cotswolds, but even the most optimistic civil servant could see little point in having a timetable to get the literacy hour going again in primary schools if a quarter of the population would be killed or injured in the first strike alone.

And before the cold war there was Hitler, whose armies were expected to land hour by hour in the autumn of 1940 and who carried on bombing British cities and sinking British shipping until 1945. In those years the whole population was certainly concerned, and the organised life of the nation was definitely at risk.

Al-Qaeda and its allies don't match up.

On one day in September 2001, they hijacked four airliners, destroyed New York's World Trade Center, damaged the Pentagon and failed in an apparent attempt to strike the White House. About 3,000 people lost their lives. As a peacetime act by civilians against civilians it is almost certainly without parallel, but still it fell short of constituting a threat to the organised life of the community which makes up the United States. Civil administration continued; free broadcasting continued; political debate continued. After a brief, respectful interlude, the baseball season continued.

This is not to say that 3,000 deaths were easily borne, or that such a toll could be readily absorbed in this country: far from it. But it is a hard fact, and a grimly reassuring one, that 3,000 vulnerable civilians can die without pulling down a western society.

That is surely the principal reason why, even though we are told that the threat from al-Qaeda persists and that Britain is one of its favoured targets, we do not behave remotely as though we were in a state of emergency. These people may be capable of acts of violence in Britain, even relatively large-scale atrocities, but they pose no credible threat to the organised life of the national community.

The British public has been here before, after all. The IRA mounted attacks in Birmingham, Manchester, Guildford, Warrington, Deal, Aldershot and several other English towns and cities. The London targets included the Old Bailey, Harrods, Docklands, Bishopsgate and Woolwich. The IRA also struck at the heart of the political system at least twice, once in Brighton and once with the mortar bombing of Downing Street. Airey Neave died in an explosion inside the Palace of Westminster.

In Northern Ireland in those years, there was a genuine emergency - after all, the system of government there actually collapsed on several occasions. But not in Britain. This is not to say that al-Qaeda is incapable of doing greater damage here than the IRA ever did or wished to do. The Madrid attacks last March, in which 191 people died, suggest that it could. Yet Spain is still a functioning democracy; its organised life continues.

All this is dangerous complacency, Charles Clarke might reply. He told the Daily Telegraph: "I've been frightened by the things I've been told since I became Home Secretary. There are serious people and serious organisations trying to destroy our society."

Here he bumps into the problem of trust. That people should want to attack Britain is nothing new, and that they should be able to lose themselves in a large native community is not new either. What might elevate the threat to a different level is convincing evidence that they have weapons or techniques or access of an entirely different order from that at the disposal of the IRA.

The information that so frightened Clarke came, no doubt, from the intelligence services, and we are not privy to it, but neither he nor Tony Blair can reasonably hope to be given another blank cheque by the public on the strength of that sort of claim. Even if they issued a dossier, it would be unlikely to impress.

For all this, the public is not complacent. After the leaflets, the bombs in Spain, Istanbul and Bali, the warnings from chief constables and the video threats from Osama Bin Laden, there can hardly be an adult in Britain unaware of the danger from al-Qaeda. It's just that - mercifully - we are keeping it in proportion.

Let us try to be fair. In all likelihood, Clarke keeps saying that we are in a state of emergency as defined by Strasburg, not because he believes it in any meaningful way, but merely because he needs to say it to keep his derogation - his temporary release - from Britain's international obligations to observe human rights.

If he wants to put British citizens under house arrest, in other words, he has to have an emergency, even if it is only a virtual one. Had the European Convention on Human Rights set the bar a little lower, he might not be obliged to make quite such a transparent pretence.

No doubt he would like to see that bar lowered. The new Civil Contingencies Act, for example, speaks of an emergency as "an event or situation which threatens serious damage to human welfare in a place in the United Kingdom", welfare in turn being generously described as anything from loss of life to disruption of water supply. That is an altogether handier class of emergency for a government to have up its sleeve, but the European Convention is more scrupulous and so the pretence must go on.

This in turn raises the prickly matter of when an emergency that is only ever virtual can be said to come to an end. There can be no objective measure: that moment will come only when the government, or some future government, chooses of its own accord to surrender the power to lock British citizens up without trial. That I would like to see.

For the moment, make the most of it, shabby as it is. Keep a diary. Ensure that you will be ready, at some future date, to answer the eager question from the child at your knee: "What did you do in the emergency, Daddy?"