It took the Queen only eight minutes to read the speech Gordon Brown’s advisers had prepared for her and even she looked bored by the end of it. The Prime Minister may have waited ten years for this chance to set the parliamentary agenda, but one searches this Queen’s Speech in vain for any sense of direction or drive. It was a compendium of mainly old policies, in which a wider ‘vision’ was always difficult to discern. Instead, it was a speech remarkable for what it did not contain.
Gone is the sense of adventurism. Under Tony Blair, the Gracious Speech gave notice of his next series of battles with his party. One could look at his proposed Bills, and pencil in the date of impending backbench rebellion as he pursued his strategy of pro-market reform of the public services. Especially towards the end, there was a palpable sense of urgency, and a sense of a man who knew the clock was ticking. Mr Brown, by contrast, seems remarkably happy with the status quo. He is proceeding with a leisurely, almost glacial pace.
Take, for example, the numbers of Bills laid before parliament which involve the year 2020. This, we learn, is when 500,000 new apprenticeships will be set up, and when Britain’s carbon dioxide emissions will be down by a quarter, and when the promised three million new homes will have been constructed. With stunning arrogance, this assumes a seventh-term Labour government, still running along the direction which the Prime Minister laid out on Tuesday. The idea, presumably, is that Britain would by then be celebrating a near quarter-century of Brownite policies.
Meanwhile, back in 2007, a more immediate challenge beckons. It was widely expected that the Queen’s Speech would set the parameters for a straightforward confrontation between ministers seeking to increase the number of days a terrorist suspect can be detained without charge, and those who think 28 is plenty (or too much). The government had nurtured the expectation that Mr Brown wanted the threshold doubled to 56 days. It would be a Blair-style trial of strength: the former prime minister was defeated two years ago over plans to extend this to 90 days. That defeat makes the task all the more symbolic for Mr Brown: a chance to show he can boldly go where Mr Blair could not.
The other attraction for the PM, of course, is that calling for an extension allows Labour to portray the Conservatives as being soft on terrorism, as the Opposition remains implacably opposed to any extension beyond 28 days. So here is an area where the Tories are intransigent, yet public opinion is against them and in favour of longer detentions. It should be the perfect battle.
The terrorism threat has hardly subsided. The extent of it was laid out in stark terms on Monday in the first public speech by Jonathan Evans, the new director-general of MI5. He said his agency is tracking 2,000 terror suspects — a 25 per cent jump in the last year. Yet — in the event — Mr Brown’s entry to battle was half-hearted and hesitant, much less specific than the pre-spin had suggested.
It is largely due to MI5’s success, much of it secret, that Britain does not feel like a country under daily attack. As Mr Evans was politely trying to say, this is not from want of trying on behalf of al-Qa’eda.
The number of plots is growing partly because MI5’s anti-terrorist radar is so much improved. Its profile of the enemy has never been clearer. The agency has steadily worked its way down the age groups, starting with 25-year-olds, then going down to 20-year-olds, and now finding teenagers being groomed for suicide missions. There is a stronger link to university education than to poverty. Al-Qa’eda and its affiliates are emphatically not tapping into feelings of social injustice. The highest risk group is low achievers, who may see suicide bombing as a means of leaving a mark on the world.
And let us be clear: we are talking about al-Qa’eda. These are not isolated cells of homegrown jihadis, says Mr Evans, but local branches of a directly controlled global campaign usually planned in the tribal areas of Pakistan, where President Musharraf is steadily losing control. MI5 has found terror camps in Somalia which are exclusively devoted to plotting attacks on Britain. Mr Evans has been following al-Qa’eda since its first plot in Britain (which was, let it not be forgotten, in November 2000 in Birmingham — long before the Iraq war). No one speaks on the subject with greater authority.
Yet even in his speech (given in Manchester, itself a nod to the spread of the jihadi threat throughout Britain) there was no plea, coded or otherwise, for terror suspects to be held longer than 28 days. This is not surprising: as MI5 has no executive powers, it does not detain anyone and keeps a studious neutrality on this politicised debate. So the main cheerleader for extending the 28-day period is Sir Ian Blair, head of the Metropolitan Police. Given his current woes, he is hardly a witness Mr Brown would like to call on.
Nor would the Prime Minister relish anything which tests his support among Labour backbenchers, who rebelled in such numbers last time. Many of the Labour Left feel mugged by Mr Brown, and incensed by his ‘British jobs for British workers’ slogan. When David Cameron produced National Front literature with the same mantra in the Commons on Tuesday, one could sense the shiver running down Labour spines. Copying inheritance tax plans from the Tories is bad. But aping slogans from the British National Party and its predecessors is what many Labour MPs regard as ideological treason.
For these reasons, the Prime Minister may postpone a battle on civil liberties. He seems keen to postpone a battle on anything: from the general election to the European Union referendum. Postponing battles is fast becoming the essence of Brownism. That is why Jacqui Smith, his Home Secretary, says she does not know what the correct limit on detention without charge should be — she wants to launch consultation, thereby striking a stylistic change from Mr Blair’s approach. This absence of urgency is evident in much that Mr Brown says and does. Brownism is to be found in things that are not yet happening more readily than things that actually are.
The Labour MPs who are impatiently asking to see the ‘vision’ which Mr Brown has promised to lay out must now consider an unpalatable truth. It is already lying before them. It is in this mosaic of micro-initiatives, a promise not so much of ‘jam tomorrow’ but of ‘jam by 2020’. It is a vision that has as its founding principle avoiding conflict where victory is not guaranteed. The MPs who had grown used to the Blair-style boldness must reconcile themselves to a more humdrum future. This may very well be as good as it gets.
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