Wanted: a new foreign policy

There is a link between this country's foreign policy and the threat of bomb attacks in Britain. On that much, it appears, we all now agree. Ministers used to claim that there was no connection, that bombers were bombers and it was wrong to think that British policy influenced their behaviour. But they don't say that any more, so it seems that belatedly even they accept the link. The argument now is about whether that link should make any difference.

According to ministers, it would be very, very wrong (Margaret Beckett, the Foreign Secretary, called it "the gravest possible error") to alter British foreign policy in any way in response to a threat of bomb attacks here. Our foreign policy, they argue, must be based on doing what is right, and to allow terrorists to influence it would be to surrender to violence and blackmail.

Set aside for the moment the problem that, whatever some bomber might think, this government's foreign policy is not remotely right; that has been addressed in these columns many times before. Instead, let us look at the principle. Unfortunately, here too we have a problem, because principle in foreign policy is so alien to our present government. These are people who mock the very idea of ethical foreign policy, who sell arms to undemocratic regimes, who accept Guantanamo Bay, who put trade before human rights. They may have a claim to be pragmatists, but they are in no position to wear the badge of principle.

But set that aside, too, and the question of blackmail remains. Should the risk of extreme violence in this country, possibly perpetrated by British citizens (we are now told that extremists in this country number thousands), carry weight in the minds of those who make our foreign policy? Of course it should. It should weigh on all minds, not least because any of us might die tomorrow as a consequence.

Are we saying that ministers should never do anything to which a possible bomber might take exception? Of course not. But ministers do have to use their judgement. They have to decide what Britain's policy goals are and how they can be achieved with the minimum loss of life, both at home and abroad. Where there is risk of atrocities in Britain, our government should be sure that the likely benefits outweigh such costs. And once they decide that sacrifice may be required and is justified, they need to be frank about the risks to the public (who will be the ones to make the sacrifice).

As time passes, moreover, ministers need to keep the matter under review, because the balance of cost and benefit may tip the other way. For a government to blinker itself, to say that it would not alter its policy no matter what violence was visited upon its citizens or those of any other country, would be mad. What if it were found that the policy itself was aggravating violence, without hope of improvement? It would be mad to give extremists a veto over British policy by declaring, as it were, that anything they don't like, we will go on doing. A sensible government will alter a failing policy in the interests of saving lives, whatever extremists are doing about it.

The position of Ms Beckett and her fellow ministers, therefore, is a false one, probably nothing more than a shabby attempt to bluster their way out of a corner while painting their critics as cowards. So what should they be doing?

However much ministers dislike the idea, the unprecedented nature of the home-grown terror threat is telling us something important: winning hearts and minds in British cities is an overwhelming priority. At its simplest, this means avoiding such follies as "passenger profiling", which is another way of saying that to be Arab or Asian is automatically to be suspect. It means that ministers must stop hectoring leading Muslims about "not doing enough". And it means that official initiatives to build confidence and to support moderate Muslim leaders must have more content than the series of shams exposed in this magazine in recent weeks.

Above all, though, it means changing our foreign policy, not as an act of cowardice but because it is morally wrong and - as almost everyone but the government can now see - so far as international terrorism is concerned, it is aggravating the problem not solving it.The mobile backlash begins

The mobile backlash begins

The Vodafone billboards plastered round UK cities asked: "Where will your conversation take you?" On the most recent evidence, the answer is "not anywhere you'd want to be". Despite more than 80 per cent of us being attached to our handsets, mobiles are becoming a liability.

Hampshire residents have been terrorised by the country's first "mobile vigilante", a safety-conscious individual who slashes drivers' tyres and leaves a blackmail-style note accusing them of reckless phone use while in charge of a moving vehicle. For now, mainstream anti-phone activism may go no further than glares at yapping passengers on trains, but the Gosport slasher is the first figurehead of a growing mobile backlash.

The tide of change has reached as far as Kensington and Chelsea, where users courted disaster by the (legal) act of leaving messages. Through the dark art of "phone screwing", it emerged, tabloid journalists can hack into voicemails, discovering anything from the time of Prince William's meeting with an ITN interviewer to the identity of the prince's knee surgeon - heinous security breaches under investigation by the Anti-Terrorist Branch.

With mobiles also implicated in a real terror plot, air passengers reported a sense of relief on surrendering their handsets at check-in. As the grim prospect of network coverage on the Tube looms, it's time to consider extending this month's airport ban to all public places. Our collective security - and sanity - could only benefit.

This article first appeared in the 21 August 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Al-Qaeda: Britain in its sights