“Terrorism is a very dangerous area in
which to cry wolf.”
Unfortunately for Davis and the scores of
Londoners killed or maimed in last week’s
blasts, the terrorists to which Tony Blair
had referred had not disappeared and the
government was not crying wolf.
Terrorism was a dangerous subject for a
man who regards himself as a future
Conservative party leader to be scoring
party political points with.
Not that Davis was the only one to have
been lulled into a false sense of security.
Jason Burke, a self-styled Al-Qaeda expert,
earlier this year wrote a critical piece in
The Observer headlined: “The threat to
Britain from Islamic militancy is far less
serious than the government is telling us.”
It was typical of dozens of comments across
the British media.
Now the tide is likely to be reversed,
with ministers given much more freedom to
push through anti-terror legislation that in
more normal times would be fought tooth and
This Wednesday the home secretary,
Charles Clarke, will chair a
counter-terrorist summit in Brussels. It is
expected to give European Union authorities
powers to access telecommunications data
stretching back years.
In this country, a welter of new
legislation could also be in the offing.
Thursday’s bombings, experts believe, will
fundamentally change the party political
dynamic on terror.
After 9/11 the government acted swiftly
to tighten terrorism legislation with little
opposition. In 2001 the power to detain
suspected foreign terrorists without trial —
a major constitutional change — was quickly
Huge budget increases were also pushed
through for the security services, to pay
for a 50% increase in the number of MI5
officers and a doubling of anti-terrorist
But last autumn the tide began to turn.
In November, the law lords ruled the holding
of suspected terrorists without trial
illegal. The government then rushed through
“control orders” allowing suspects to be
held under house arrest without trial.
The move was bitterly opposed by the
Tories but was eventually passed in a
temporary form. New anti-terrorist
legislation is due to be presented to
parliament in the autumn.
Eleven suspected terrorists are being
held under the temporary provisions which
allow for their every movement and
communication to be monitored.
Until last week there was also fierce
opposition in both the Commons and the Lords
to the government’s identity card scheme.
This bill, too, is likely to receive a boost
from last week’s bombings.
Nevertheless, the government has tried to
quell speculation that another legislative
crackdown is on the way. In an interview
yesterday Blair said all modern countries
had to take extra measures to prevent
terrorism but insisted Britain would be true
to its liberal traditions.
“If people are actually prepared to go on
to a Tube or a bus and blow up wholly
innocent people . . . without any thought
for their human rights . . . you can have
all the surveillance in the world and you
couldn’t stop that happening,” he said.
“That is why ultimately, although we have to
take the measures necessary, the underlying
issues have to be dealt with too.”
Ministers are reported to have been told
to avoid making political capital out of the
attacks, and Clarke has pointed out that ID
cards would have done nothing to stop the
A senior government source said: “There
are people who said the prime minister was
exaggerating the terrorist threat as a way
of boosting support for the war or for
so-called draconian legislation. It is a
matter for them if they want to reflect on
However, a substantial piece of
anti-terror legislation will be published
this autumn, and last week’s attacks may
push the Home Office to consider draconian
measures that were previously rejected.
Clarke has already indicated that his
bill will include a new offence covering
people “preparing” to commit a terrorist
act. This is backed by the Tories and Sir
Ian Blair, the commissioner of the
However, it is not yet clear whether
ideas floated by David Blunkett, Clarke’s
predecessor, will re-emerge. Blunkett
suggested lowering the standard of proof in
terrorism cases so that they are decided on
the “balance of probabilities” rather than
“reasonable doubt”. There have also been
calls for secret evidence, including covert
phone recordings, to be allowed in British
Yesterday an aide to the home secretary
ruled out moves to a French-style system of
using “investigative magistrates”. The aide
said the new legislation would consist
largely of “more technical adjustments”
requested by the intelligence services.
Whatever the legislation, it is likely to
run into considerably less opposition than a
few days ago. Davis is unlikely to make the
same mistake again.
Even Liberty, the civil rights
organisation, has struck a conciliatory
tone. Shami Chakrabarti, its director, said:
“The home secretary has signalled effective
but proportionate responses.”
Last week’s attacks will, however,
inevitably signal a reduction in Britain’s
long cherished civil liberties.
Many experts had thought the country’s
traditional liberal attitude which has
attracted many extremists to preach, speak
and write freely here had protected it from
attack. That all changed during rush hour