Andrew Rawnsley has a neat piece in yesterday's Observer, explaining why the current government have been passing such draconian laws. It's not that they believe ID cards or the Anti Terrorism Crime and Security Act and the latest changes giving the Home Secretary the power to lock up UK citizens indefinitely without trial will actually be effective in the fight against terrorism. It is just that they are terrified that, if some major terrorist atrocity does happen before the election, the electorate will turn on them and vote them out blaming them for not doing enough to prevent the tragedy.
"Ministers speak frankly - well, at least in private they speak frankly - of their nightmares about a Madrid-style horror, and possibly something 10 times as cataclysmic, happening in Britain. It is the big and terrifying unpredictable about the time between now and election day. Public opinion might rally to the government. Or it might swing angrily against Ministers. No one knows. Not knowing petrifies them. This is driving a panic not to give anyone any reason to be able to point a finger of blame that the government didn't prevent an avoidable atrocity...
There is something to be said in favour of ministers being so terrified of terrorism. Better that they are alert than complacent about what is a real and present danger. The trouble is that fear is a very bad midwife of legislation...
There is only one thing worse than making complex, sensitive and unprecedented law in a rush of fear. That is doing it in a pre-election panic as well."
So as long as people believe the government have done all they possibly can to prevent the terrorist act, it doesn't matter too much whether their efforts actually are effective.
Here's where Bruce Schneier's constant lessons about security theatre and the agenda of the decision maker comes together so starkly. Yet in pretending that they are doing as much as they can, in order to be perceived to be doing as much as they can, they are actually making us less secure. Charles Clarke may well be a very nice fellah and impeccably well intentioned. I don't know him personally so I don't know. And he may take appropriately considered and balanced judgements when he faced with pressures to detain suspects without trial. But he is not going to be Home Secretary forever. There will come a time when a less well intentioned or a weaker character comes into that office and we should be concerned about the kinds of judgements that less well qualified individual will make in similar circumstances.
With regard to the government's fear about the electorate turning on the Spanish government in the wake of the Madrid bombings, what I find surprising in most analyses is the simplistic notion that they were voted out because they didn't prevent the bombings. I'd suggest that the unseemly haste with which elements of the then Spanish government rushed to the media, their first priority clearly being to manage the public relations angle, rather than to address the immense human tragedy, might have had a little to do with their downfall.