Labour slowly bleeding away our liberties

Tony Blair famously taunted a Labour conference with the claim that he had no reverse gear. The Prime Minister may have no personal reverse gear but the sad reality is, that in terms of civil liberties and individual freedom, the Labour government has been marching backwards since its arrival in office in 1997. This sinister trend has accelerated dramatically since the traumatic events exactly one year ago when three Leeds youths, together with a fourth friend, blew themselves and 56 innocent civilians to smithereens and maimed permanently scores of other passengers on three London underground trains and the number 30 bus.

For centuries we have grown accustomed to the idea of permanent progress. Governments of varying political hues have seen progress in their individual ways and it may have been achieved at different speeds than our neighbours, but it has been inexorable nonetheless. Advances in education, health, housing and, above all, in personal liberty have been hard won but, once achieved, have been embedded into the fabric of our society. Now, probably for the first time ever, we have a government which is openly and deliberately reducing our liberties and is increasing the power of the state.

Labour politicians would doubtless argue that the reality of 9/11 in New York and 7/7 in London have thrust us into an entirely new dimension and that the need to counter the terrorist threat justifies its repressive measures. Alas, in differing but comparable circumstances, this has been the cry of the dictator down the ages. The need to protect the German people from the "threat" of communism and the encroachment of Jewish influence justified Hitler's authoritarianism, and the need to guard the purity of the revolution from the dissidents within provoked Stalin's paranoic purges.

The reality is that one year on from 7/7 not only are we no more protected against the next outrage but the very belief that such protection is possible leads to negative policies which actually make us less safe. All that authoritarian measures produce is an authoritarian state. Fascism does not arrive suddenly on the doorstep with a falling forelock of hair and a toothbrush moustache. Instead it insinuates itself bit by bit. As the public becomes accustomed to one diminution of its freedom so it unwittingly becomes prepared for the next. As the individual adjusts to one curb or another on personal privacy so he or she is inured to the next. And all in the name of combatting terrorism and preserving public order.

The apparent logic of CCTV within private premises, such as banks, has led incrementally to thousands of cameras on public streets. The next time you leave Kings Cross station look around and see the watchful eye of the police state on every corner. Also we live in the absurdity of ASBO land where magistrates can order an individual - of any age - to keep out of certain streets, to refrain from protesting, or to keep out of specified shops. Then if such an Anti Social Behaviour Order is broken the individual is liable to be imprisoned for up to five years - without an illegal action being committed.

To protect us from insurgent terrorists, or from sinister illegal immigrants, the government is trying to force every citizen to buy a highly sophisticated identity card, linked to a national database containing highly personal information. Never mind that the 7/7 bombers were British citizens with British passports, or that an impressive number of top experts have stated that identity theft is far simpler when all the necessary information is on a single card, or that no major government computer project has yet worked satisfactorily, Blair and his new Labour acolytes press blindly on. They are always trying to avoid the last act of terrorism rather than understanding what may motivate the next.

Nothing has been more vivid in the twelve months since 7/7 than that the government only deals with the symptoms of the terrorist disease and that such an approach has failed and will go on failing. If one asks the question "What will the terrorist do?" then one is led inexorably to the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes on the London underground or to the shooting of Mohamed Abdul Kahar in the futile raid on his family's home in Forest Gate.

The different question that has to be asked is "Why do the terrorists murder civilians?" The answer to that question leads to an understanding of how the disease can be prevented. Whatever the western caricatures of Islam, young men - and occasionally even young women - do not enfold their bodies with explosives and casually set off to dismember themselves out of some sudden whimsical desire to carry out a suicide bombing. What did the three Yorkshire youths believe that the murder of civilians on their way to work would achieve? If we do not know, we need to find out, for only in such answers lies the solution to the leading problem of our time.

It would be a mistake of the highest order to believe that faraway countries of which we know very little are ignorant of the issues that provoke extreme action by those moved by what they see and hear. My experience in, say, Yemen, is that television sets are everywhere and that its citizens are very well informed, not only in terms of international matters but also on the internal affairs of the United States and Europe. For instance, I have been asked searching questions on the electoral irregularities in US elections and on the security problems of postal voting in Britain.

To concentrate on the radicalisation of Muslims we need to realise that three issues amongst many are particularly provocative. First, the continued occupation of Iraq; second, the continued imprisonment without charge or trial of 450 Muslims at Guantanamo Bay; and third, and most important, the failure of any western country to defend the rights of the Palestinians against a rapacious and aggressive Israel. It is perfectly clear to every Muslim in the world who watches television that, with complete impunity, Israel can attack a defenceless Gaza and the West Bank with highly sophisticated weapons, can destroy every power station in Gaza, can create a huge ghetto behind a wall largely built on Palestinian land, can refuse to pay millions of dollars legally belonging to the Palestinian Authority and exact lethal communal punishment on Palestinian families against all international law. And in the face of such appeasement of Israel, Bush and Blair expect the imams and the mullahs to remain silent at Friday prayers.

One year on from 7/7 the only thing that has changed is that the situation is worse. The recruitment of ordinary youths from South Leeds into the ranks of the suicide bombers has never been easier. Our individual rights and our legal protections are removed piece by piece by a Labour government using the threat of a terrorism that it is either unable or unwilling to understand. The heady idealism of Labour's 1997 victory has become the mindless authoritarianism of today.

1 July 2006