Did Charles Clarke want my views?

Observations on the terror bill

''I am e-mailing you today," began the friendly but respectful note from the Home Secretary, "to find out your views on the action the government is proposing to take to challenge the new terrorist threats that face all of us." Charles Clarke's canvassing of opinion on his controversial anti-terrorism legislation came just as MPs were debating furiously whether to allow police to detain suspects without charge for 90 days.

I was touched, really. New Labour ministers aren't famous for wanting the views of Labour Party members (and even less the views of those of us who have left the party but are kept on e-mail lists so as to massage membership figures). This looked like a rare opportunity.

And I had a lot to tell Clarke. I pictured myself resting my arm on his ample shoulder and explaining why I think it's an outrage to keep people locked up for 90 days without trial. Of course, I'd say, I want to fight terrorism as much as he does. But he risks simply fuelling the rage that leads to terrorism. He'll be the Home Secretary who destroyed our civil liberties. I could show him that he's spearheading an inexorable slide towards authoritarianism. Perhaps, I'd say, if he had a notebook handy, he might care to jot down my detailed criticisms, and my alternative proposals.

"Yet some are opposing the government's proposals," he wrote, with barely concealed irritation, after describing the terrorist threat. But it was up to me to show him he was wrong. It would be hard work, but I was prepared to put time and effort into it.

So I eagerly followed the link to the website where Clarke said I could "register my views". I found four questions. The first was: "Do you think that our laws should be updated to cope with the current security threat?"

I started to type ferociously, but nothing was appearing on the screen. Looking more closely, I found that I was only permitted to tick one of three boxes, marked "yes", "no" and "not sure". The answer closest to my view is "yes", but I felt somehow reluctant to tick that box. Call me a miserable old cynic, but I started to have dark thoughts about the purpose of the exercise.

I tried the next question: "Do you think police should have the time and opportunity to complete their investigations into suspected terrorists?" I do. But if I ticked "yes" I would be enlisted as a supporter of the idea of locking people up in a cell for three months or until they said: "My name is Osama Bin Laden and my best friend is George Galloway."

Question three was: "Do you think the government should make sure there are new safeguards to protect innocent people?" Do I want to watch my fellow citizens being blown to pieces, or do I want to give Clarke the right to lock up anyone he chooses for three months?

The fourth and last question turned out to be: "Would you like to be kept up to date on the progress of this legislation and other issues?" Well, not by the Ministry of Truth that Clarke runs, anyway. But I couldn't type that in, either. So I settled for "no".