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Blair's New Authoritarianism

Terror and Democracy

by TARIQ ALI

In the face of terror attacks Anglo-Saxon politicians mouth the same rhetoric. One sentence in particular–shrouded in layers of untruth–is constantly repeated: ‘We shall not permit these attacks to change our way of life.’ It is a multi-purpose mantra. The first aim is to convince the public that the terrorists are crazed Muslims who are bombing modernity/democracy/freedom/ ‘our values’, etc.

This is the first lie. The terror attacks, however misguided and criminal, are a result of the Western military presence in the Arab world. If all the foreign troops and bases were withdrawn, the attacks would cease. This is essentially a post-First Gulf war syndrome.

Israel/Palestine is another issue, but that has been simmering for fifty years and was not the main reason for the bombings in New York, Madrid and London. It has now been added to the repertoire, but the struggle to force Israel back to the 1967 frontiers is one waged by the Palestinians themselves. They have received little support from elsewhere.

The sentence itself is a falsehood, because the attacks have changed ‘our way of life’. The Patriot Act in the United States and the measures being proposed by Tony Blair in Britain demonstrate this quite clearly. What is being proposed in Britain is the indefinite suspension of habeas corpus. Worried by the recent judicial activism with senior Judges in Britain expressing a real concern at the growing attack on civil liberties, Tony Blair warned them in public that he would brook no dissent:

"Should legal obstacles arise, we will legislate further, including, if necessary amending the Human Rights Act, in respect of the interpretation of the ECHR. In any event, we will consult on legislating specifically for a non-suspensive appeal process in respect of deportations. One other point on deportations. Once the new grounds take effect, there will be a list drawn up of specific extremist websites, bookshops, centres, networks and particular organisations of concern. Active engagement with any of these will be a trigger for the home secretary to consider the deportation of any foreign national. As has been stated already, there will be new anti-terrorism legislation in the autumn. This will include an offence of condoning or glorifying terrorism. The sort of remarks made in recent days should be covered by such laws. But this will also be applied to justifying or glorifying terrorism anywhere, not just in the UK."

Will the British Parliament accept this view and legislate in favour of the new authoritarianism? Probably. It is a parliament dominated by cons and neo-cons. If Blair is a second-rate politician with a third-rate mind, his Conservative opponent, Michael Howard is a third-rate politician with a second-rate mind. He has both accused Blair of inconsistencies and demanded even tougher measures. In reality he is Blair’s echo-chamber.

In a recent article in the Daily Telegraph, Howard denounced the law lords’(Britain’s equivalent of the Supreme Court) decision last year. The judges had stated that the indefinite detention without trial of foreign terror suspects under the 2001 Anti-Terrorism Act contravened the Human Rights Act, and referred to the difficulties the latter act creates for deporting extremists to countries where they may face persecution or torture. Wrote Howard:

"Parliament must be supreme. Aggressive judicial activism will not only undermine the public’s confidence in the impartiality of our judiciary. It could also put our security at risk – and with it the freedoms the judges seek to defend. That would be a price we cannot be expected to pay."

Here again we note a refusal to accept what really puts ‘security at risk’. These views of the neo-con Blairites and the old Conservatives are an indication that Britain is undergoing a crisis of representation. The corrupt first-past-the-post electoral system has now become a serious threat to democratic functioning in Britain. Blair was re-elected with only 35 per cent of the popular vote, and barely a fifth of the overall electorate-the lowest percentage secured by any governing party in recent European history. A majority of the population opposed the war in Iraq; a majority of the population favors withdrawing British troops; 66 percent believe that the attacks on London were the result of Blair’s decision to send troops to Iraq.

This is also the view of important sections of the Establishment, including MI5, the intelligence agency whose web-site makes the link of Iraq to the terror attacks. Many measures proposed were tried during the years of the Irish ‘troubles’. Special courts sanctioned imprisonment without trial, etc. But judges were more reliable in those days. That is why Blair is proposing that judges who try Muslim suspects should themselves be security-vetted. In other words files will be opened to determine the reliability of judges.

While Blair was denouncing soft judges, his wife Cherie Booth, a practicing lawyer who will have to carry on working after her husband is no longer Prime Minister, contradicted the Dear Leader in a public. In a lecture in Kuala Lumpur she said:

"Sometimes democracy must fight with one hand tied behind its back. None the less, it has the upper hand. Preserving the rule of law and recognition of individual liberties constitutes an important component of its understanding of security. At the end of the day, this strengthens its spirit, and this strength allows it to overcome its difficulties. Our institutions are under threat; our commitments to our deepest values are under pressure; our acceptance of difference is at a low point. At this time our understanding of the importance of judges in a human-rights age should be at its clearest. And it is at this time that our support for the difficult task that judges have to perform must be at its highest."

In the latest New Left Review, reviewing a new biography of Blair, the historian Richard Gott suggested that it was religion that explained Blair’s isolation from his own people:

"As an overtly religious prime minister, Blair has been at odds with the larger part of his country which, like most of Europe, has become increasingly secular in recent years. His religious fervour-he was, unusually, confirmed in the Anglican communion as an adult, when a student at Oxford-is a relatively unfamiliar phenomenon in contemporary Britain. Indeed Blair, who has apparently read through the Koran three times, sometimes seems more at home with the Muslim revival experienced by part of the British electorate than with the secular style of the Church of England. Blair does not like to be bracketed with right-wing religious fundamentalists in the United States, but like many of them he is a genuine ‘friend of Israel’, a country that he visited twice before becoming prime minister. His knowledge of and support for Israel has long been guided by Lord Levy, a millionaire in the music business who became Blair’s tennis partner, the Labour Party’s chief fundraiser and, for a while, the prime minister’s eyes and ears in the Middle East."

Whatever the case, it is now obvious that there will be no peace in Britain or Iraq as long as Blair remains Prime Minister. He is part of the problem, not the solution. His departure has become an important prerequisite to a safe Britain, which could detach itself from the Pentagon and acquire a tiny measure of independence.

TARIQ ALI is author of the recently released Street Fighting Years (new edition) and, with David Barsamian, Speaking of Empires & Resistance. He can be reached at: tariq.ali3@btinternet.com

(First published in Il Manifesto, Rome on 12th August)