The politics review of the year - Martin Bright

Only dedicated conspiracy theorists believed the threat was invented by the intelligence services, b

It is not often that I rush up to a Tory cabinet minister from the Thatcher era and shake him warmly by the hand. But I did just that in the House of Lords lobby on 11 March after watching Tom King, now Lord King of Bridgwater, demolish the government's arguments for introducing control orders - in effect house arrest - for terrorist suspects.

It was a privilege to watch the noble baron in action. He began by laying out his credentials: as the survivor of two attacks himself (the Grand Hotel bombing in Brighton in 1984 and the mortar attack on Downing Street in 1991), King put paid to the idea that he was a friend to the terrorist. He reminded peers that with his long experience at the sharp end of politics, serving as Northern Ireland secretary under Margaret Thatcher and defence secretary under John Major, he had developed a nose for bad law on security issues: "You get good at recognising a recruiting sergeant for terrorism when you see it."

King dismissed as entirely spurious the government line that the police and security services required new powers. As a minister, he had been presented with a stream of such demands from the army, MI5 and the police, but saw it as his duty not to bow to every request. "That," he said with a withering glance at the Labour benches, "is what ministers are for." Internment in Northern Ireland had been a terrible mistake that Conservative governments of the 1980s and 1990s had learned not to repeat, he said. "We weren't going to let terrorists destroy the basic principles of justice in this country."

Security and human rights have been the theme of 2005. Tragically, we have seen another year go by in which a Labour government has allowed fear of terrorism to gnaw away at our basic freedoms. It has been unsettling to watch the Conservatives become the party of civil liberties, but it is not entirely fair to accuse them of opportunism. The forensic performance of Dominic Grieve, the shadow attorney general, who led the Tory attack during the record 30 hours of parliamentary deliberations in March, won the admiration of all who watched him in action. Journalists may have been baffled by the way the shadow home secretary, David Davis, took to quoting Kafka's The Trial during the passage of the bill, but they were left in no doubt that he abhorred the measures with the conviction of a true libertarian.

Some Labour MPs are gleeful that the Tories have been pushed into opposing the government's anti-terror legislation, because they believe the public will back the measures, however illiberal. Such shameless populism is distasteful.

The government had hoped that the trial of an alleged Algerian terrorist cell in April would nail the suggestion that ministers and police were talking up the terrorist threat in order to push through more draconian legislation. Here, after all, was a group of committed Islamic radicals accused of plotting to manufacture the deadly poison ricin in a north London flat. There would no longer be any doubt that international terrorism was a genuine danger to Britain. In fact, none but the most committed conspiracy theorists ever believed that the threat was invented by the intelligence services, but many within Whitehall had become convinced that this was the liberal consensus.

As it turned out, the "ricin" trial was a fiasco. Of the nine suspects, just one, Kamel Bourgass, was convicted, but then he had stabbed a police officer in front of a room full of witnesses. Despite the screaming headlines, no ricin had been found in the flat and the jury was not convinced that the other men were involved. Four Algerians were found not guilty and the trial of a further four collapsed as a result. Bizarrely, much of the media still ran with the line that a Qaeda plot had been foiled, but the reality was a judicial disaster that cost the taxpayer an estimated £50m.

The general election was something of a non-event. Once the Tories published their "dog-whistle" manifesto invoking fears of rising tax, crime and immigration, it was clear they were unlikely to win. A partial revival did not translate into an increase in their share of the vote. The Liberal Democrats, for their part, failed to make the expected breakthrough and the Labour government was returned with a reduced majority, as most commentators had predicted.

July ushered in events that all but a few fanatics hoped we would never see on British soil. For nearly four years since the suicide attacks in New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania, the intelligence services and the police had successfully averted a terrorist attack in this country. The security service, popularly known as MI5, is privately braced for heavy criticism in any investigation into the events leading up to the July attacks. The police have been less willing to admit mistakes. But it is quite proper to ask whether the obsession with the threat from a group of near-destitute North African asylum-seekers, many of whom scraped a living from the black market and credit-card fraud, was a good use of anti-terrorist officers' time.

As ministers struggled to pass legislation to contain a handful of suspects whose danger to the British public had never been established, the real threat was much closer to home, among the radicalised second-generation Muslims of Britain's inner cities. The bombers who struck on 7 July were British, and the police and the security services were not even close to stopping them.

It is difficult not to feel sorry for Charles Clarke, a man of sound intellect and liberal instincts who was determined to move away from the rabble-rousing tone of David Blunkett, his predecessor at the Home Office. The first item in his in-tray was a judgment from the law lords saying that foreign suspects held without trial were being detained unlawfully. Clarke's instinct was to let them go. But, as a liberal Home Secretary, it has not been a good year to strike out in a new direction. The year ends with the men released on control orders in March back behind bars. With them sit the defendants freed by the jury in the ricin trial, who were rounded up after the July bombings. Now a new wave of anti-terrorist legislation demands further checks on our freedoms. Although the government's attempt to allow the police to hold terrorist suspects for questioning for 90 days was famously defeated, the time limit has still been increased: to 28 days.

Before we get carried away in celebrating 2005 as the year the Conservatives were finally won over to the cause of civil liberties, it is worth remembering where this started. It was the law lords who prompted the Tories into action after many of the detainees had been held in high-security prisons without trial for four years. Equally, the law lords could not have acted had the cases never been brought to court by lawyers who have fought tirelessly to bring the issue to public attention. For me, the women who have spoken up for terrorist suspects - Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, and the campaigning lawyers Gareth Peirce and Natalia Garcia - are the real heroes here.

If Lord King's bold rhetoric is my abiding memory of the debate over "control orders", an altogether different encounter impressed on me the shame of Britain's complicity with torturers in the war against terror. In a freezing corridor outside Committee Room One at the House of Lords in October, Bianca Jagger sat rocking back and forth trying to keep herself warm. The model-turned-human rights campaigner told me she felt sick at the arguments being made inside by the government's lawyers. They were arguing that in terrorist cases, evidence obtained under torture by foreign governments might sometimes be admissible as long as no British official had been directly involved in the abuse. "Do you realise what a signal this sends to other countries," she said, "that the British government finds this acceptable? You should be ashamed."

At the end of the year, as at the beginning, the law lords saved the government from itself. Early in December, the highest court in the land reasserted the principle that evidence obtained through torture was not permissible. Unfortunately, a feeling runs deep in the Labour government that it must become ever more "robust" in its anti-terror legislation precisely because its enemies (the right-wing media and the Conservative Party) will pounce as soon as it shows the least sign of a liberal streak.

There will be further security challenges for the government in 2006. Several foreign detainees are being held as a result of evidence that MI5 has already admitted may have been obtained by torture, so each will appeal; the government's plans to ban extremist Islamist groups will also be tested in the courts; at the same time, a string of terrorist trials will help persuade the public that ever stricter terror laws are necessary to protect them from harm.

Meanwhile, pressure will grow for a full public inquiry into the events of 7 July 2005. Ministers will resist this, as a thorough inquest would show that the government's quest for anti-terror laws has done little to make the UK safer from attack. There will be little point in further increasing the powers of the police and intelligence services in 2006 if they continue to look in the wrong direction for the people wanting to do us harm.