The politics of delusion

Two forces are playing themselves out on the global stage - the politics of grievance and the politics of denial. They are being practised by terrorists and governments alike to terrible and lasting effect.

The first reaction to the London bombs was an understandable mix of horror and solidarity. That should not diminish with time. But, as the New Statesman argued last week, politicians and public figures must analyse and address the root causes of terrorism. They owe it to the victims and they owe it to society as part of the efforts to prevent future attacks. This debate must take place sensitively but can- didly. That is why the vilification of people such as Ken Livingstone is self-defeating. In stating the link between Iraq and suicide bombing, the London mayor was only stating the blindingly obvious. He was not condoning violence, but seeking to explain it.

Which is where the politics of denial comes in. Some would call it delusion. Not content with "saving" the Labour Party from itself, Tony Blair cast his net wider. The man who waged five wars in his first six years saw himself as the liberator of the Balkans, then Iraq (while persuading the Americans to enforce peace between Israel and the Palestinians at the same time). More recently he has vowed to save Africa, then the European Union . . . and now Islam. It falls to few countries over few generations to be led by men or women of great ambition, and in a world replete with statesmen of modest achievement, Britain now finds itself in a special place. The Prime Minister has more than once laid out his thinking on the principles of military intervention. By each of his own criteria, Iraq has been an unmitigated disaster. It has become a commonplace to compare it to Suez. Perhaps it is worse. With each week, the facts become graver still. The past ten days in Iraq have brought more than 30 suicide bombs and hundreds of deaths. The most reliable death tally, from the Iraq Body Count group, puts it at roughly 25,000.

There is no means of determining what went through the distorted minds of the four young men, and their handlers, as they made their way to the capital on 7 July. There is little evidence of material deprivation, or particular personal dif-ficulty. There is every evidence to suggest that they allowed themselves to be influenced by external voices.

Which is where the politics of grievance comes in. This is where perception and reality merge into one, where moralities are made equivalent to suit the needs of the moment. Grievance is usually part irrational, part fact-based. This is the world of the eye for the eye, where the Israeli fighters' strafing of Gaza leads inexorably to the blowing up of a bus, where the death of a child at the hands of US air strikes on Fallujah is no different from the death of a child next to a police recruitment centre in Baghdad. It matters no longer that one may be more justified than the other. It matters only that people, now very close to home, think the way they do.

Which is where the politics of caution must come in. This logic dictates that if you sell weapons to a dictatorship, you are not helping to foster stability; if you wage war without due legal or diplomatic process, you are not enhancing your own security; if you regard civilian life abroad as legitimate "collateral" damage, others will display similar disregard for people who ride on your public transport. Blair seems rather reluctant to discuss questions of cause and effect. That is unfortunate but, given the unhappy answers he would find, it is perhaps understandable. It is not as if he wasn't warned. From the Joint Intelligence Committee in 2003 to briefings recently from senior police chiefs, the Joint Terrorist Analysis Centre and the Chatham House think-tank, the message has been consistent: violence begets violence.

Such warnings might have been legitimately overridden by other factors, but they cannot at the time or afterwards be dismissed.

The timidity of our leading politicians - now including opposition parties - to engage in a harsh but necessary debate will exacerbate the problem. One need only see and hear some of the journalism in the United States to appreciate the dangers. Tune in to Melanie Morgan, a right-wing talk-show host in the supposedly liberal city of San Francisco (www.ksfo560.com). She has been broadcasting from Iraq on what she calls The Truth Tour, where only the good news is disseminated. Then read some of Britain's commentators and listen to some of our politicians, Blairite or otherwise. They are not so far apart. The politics of denial and the politics of grievance feed off each other.

Charlie goes soggy

If they can't tax us properly, what's the point of the Liberal Democrats? Charles Kennedy's suggestion that he will drop the one policy that people can remember - a 50 per cent tax rate for earnings above £100,000 - shows that he has succumbed to the worst soggy tendencies of new Labour. The Lib Dems, he declared, should not seek a punitive tax system. Time and again, however, polls show that the policy is not just popular, but is seen as eminently reasonable.

Voters do not appreciate paying a penny more than they have to. But they also accept the inevitability, if not the equity, of taxation. What alienates governments from the governed is a lack of candour. As with warfare, so it is with tax: you can dupe only a certain number of people a certain length of time. To pay for our services, stealth is not a solution. As he watches his back, Chat-Show Charlie would be advised to remember that his party's future is not orange.