The weeks since the death of Robin Cook have seen an unwholesome squabble concerning who will inherit the ‘legacy’ of the former foreign secretary. Chancellor Gordon Brown made an instant smash-and-grab raid, while allies of the Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain have been furtively suggesting that he is the true inheritor.
There is a respectable case to be made, however, that the backbencher John Denham is the only mainstream Labour politician who has a legitimate claim to step into Robin Cook’s shoes. Denham’s resignation on the eve of the Iraq war was rather more courageous even than Robin Cook’s, because he had far more to lose.
Denham was on the way up. His unobtrusive competence as a minister, first at Social Security, later at the Home Office, inspired glowing reports. He was the insider’s tip to join the Cabinet. When Denham resigned, he said farewell to a future at the the highest level in government: Robin Cook, however distinguished, was already in the exit chamber.
Today Denham, now 52, is chairman of the home affairs select committee. This is a powerful post which makes him perhaps the most influential and privileged Westminster observer of the domestic war against terror. The government cannot even begin to claim consent unless it gains the approval of John Denham and his committee.
Denham is less flashy, less eloquent and much less egotistic than Robin Cook. But his supporters are entitled to claim that he has more common sense. He is quietly spoken and pragmatic, but his criticisms of government policy are perhaps all the more impressive for that.
I met John Denham last Wednesday, just as the Home Secretary Charles Clarke was preparing to publish his latest package of anti-terrorism measures. Denham was the main speaker at a Chatham House conference, attended for the most part by British and foreign diplomats, on the international war against terrorism. I listened to Denham deliver his 45-minute speech. It was powerful and direct both in praise for and criticism of government policy. His theme was simple: the domestic fight against terrorism in Britain will never be won unless it carries the consent of the Muslim community. Alarmingly, Denham believes that many of the measures taken to date carry a heavy risk that they will make the problem worse. Some of them, he thinks, will be counterproductive.
After John Denham’s speech we went outside, found a coffee shop and talked for an hour. He is extremely critical of the way the British government has consistently neglected warnings about alienation within Muslim communities. He is scornful of some of the new measures to fight terrorism, suggesting that they were introduced for public relations purposes. Meanwhile he enters new territory, never entered before by a mainstream British politician, by suggesting that our foreign policy should in part be shaped by alarms about domestic policy. He told me, for example, ‘It is no exaggeration to say that Israeli policy in the occupied territories is not simply a matter of foreign policy — it is a matter for British domestic security policy too.’
Even though he had just delivered some trenchant criticisms of government policy, he still finds much to praise. ‘In terms of counter-terrorism, we have done very well. The police are getting better, the intelligence services are getting better.’ He was scornful of libertarian critics of an intrusive state. He said he was in favour of the ‘gathering of a wide range of information about individuals — cell-phone usage, travel information, centralising data for identity cards and so on.
‘We now know,’ he added, ‘that access to a wide range of previously personal information can be enormously useful in responding to terrorism and preventing deaths, and often in unpredictable ways. I don’t suppose anyone foresaw that using ID cards to purchase a mobile phone would have played such a significant role in investigating the Madrid bombings. CCTV cameras were crucial in the London bombing investigation, yet virtually none were installed with terrorism in mind.’ He continued: ‘I do believe that we should rapidly drop the absolute objections to information-gathering that are still heard.’
He is more sceptical about the banning of Islamic organisations, such as al-Muhajiroun, which allegedly promote terrorism. ‘The wisdom of this is not clear,’ he says. ‘Only a year ago the Home Office was advising the Cabinet that the government would be ill-advised to do this. Now they are to be banned.... As far as I can see, in the intervening 12 months there has been no change in the situation as far as the intelligence is concerned. It’s more that there’s been a change of mood that makes the government eager to be perceived to act against these organisations.’
Denham asks, rhetorically, ‘Will suppressing these groups contribute to making the country safer? Will it even make a significant impact in a world where so much information is spread by the internet and in small groups? Will suppressing these organisations help or hinder the alienation of young people? These are crucial questions,’ he adds, ‘and there must be concern that the government agenda is sometimes driven by public and media pressure in this area, rather than by a concern for what is most effective.’
Equally, he is sceptical about Charles Clarke’s proposal to create a new offence of incitement to terrorism. He says, ‘Either the courts will set the threshold so high that only the most gratuitously offensive comments are caught, or we will find that they are coming down on the type of controversial views that should probably still be allowed in a free society. More importantly, like most of the 12-point plan, the impact on our security will be marginal.’
Denham supports the use of control orders and other forms of detention without trial. ‘There are clear circumstances in which preventive action — by detention, or otherwise restricting the liberty of individuals — is necessary. The threat is such that there will be situations in which intelligence indicates the involvement of individuals in terrorist planning, but where it is either insufficient to obtain a prosecution, or cannot be used in court without compromising sources. It is not realistic to say that we should allow the crime or terrorist act to be committed before acting.’
However, he questions the new moves to add deportation to those powers. ‘The Home Secretary told the House of Commons that control orders were sufficient. Now we are told we need deportation as well. My concern is this: if we were certain a few months ago that control orders were sufficient, why the need now to deport? Is it for security reasons or to make some kind of a point? I’ve no objection in principle to removing people from the country or preventing them coming here if they are not conducive to the public good. But I do have a concern that the energy of Parliament is being devoted to excluding a small group of foreign radicals when the major threat is not from these individuals at all. The government’s unremitting focus on legal measures aimed primarily at foreign radicals is in danger of distorting the counter-terrorism effort.’
Denham worries that ‘action against foreign radicals and controversial organisations is being given far higher priority than the challenge of long-term engagement with Muslim communities and with young Muslims in particular’. He is profoundly concerned about the need for an all-round counter-terrorism strategy which reaches to the root cause of alienation in the Muslim community, accusing the government of failing to give the ‘issues and concerns raised within the Muslim community any priority till af ter the London bombings’.
He complains that Ted Cantle’s 2001 report into the causes of the Oldham race riots, which highlighted the massive estrangement between the white and Asian communities, was largely ignored by government. ‘The action taken on the report was limited.’
‘We now know’, he adds, ‘that in 2004 a confidential report from the Home Office and the Foreign Office warned that the alienation of young Muslims could undermine community cohesion and add to terrorism concerns. But once again little action appears to have been taken.’
Denham also speaks scathingly of the new moves to integrate Muslims after the London bombings. ‘Working groups have been set up and given all of six weeks to report on the action that needs to be taken on a variety of issues including extremist ideologies, young people, the participation of women, and so on.’ These studies were due to be published as The Spectator went to press. ‘It remains to be seen whether they are given any greater weight, long-term commitment or resources,’ observes Denham. ‘I hope so, but it comes very late in the day after many previous warnings and much inaction.’
He compares the weight of government attention given to Tony Blair’s fight against street crime — when ‘ministers for every part of the criminal justice system were involved’ — with the apparently desultory work being done to end alienation within the Muslim community. He notes the symbolism of sending Hazel Blears, the Home Office minister, on her national tour of Muslim leaders in the wake of the London bombings. ‘If it was a big issue, then why was a middle-ranking minister dispatched?’ He adds that he used to do Hazel Blears’s job and he would have felt just the same had he himself been sent on the road.
John Denham accuses the government of a ‘failure to understand’ the concerns of Muslims about foreign policy. ‘One of the reasons why people got so worked up about Zimbabwe is that they identified with the white farmers. In the same way young Muslims very much identify with Palestinians. We should recognise that areas like the Israel–Palestine conflict, Kashmir or Chechnya are of as much concern to these fellow British citizens as, say, the concern over the plight of white farmers in Zimbabwe to many in the majority population or as Israel’s security is to British Jews. The complaint that the suffering of Muslims in countries like Uzbekistan or Chechnya is given lower priority and lower concern does have a real foundation. The decision not to count civilian deaths in the Iraq war or Afghanistan causes deep offence. And the fact that these are not reported in the mainstream media does not mean that they are not well known and reported in the Muslim community. We need to recognise that some foreign policy has now a very direct impact on domestic policy. And we may well need to give [these things] higher priority and more energy, and indeed be prepared to change the emphasis of our foreign policy in order to safeguard our own security.’
John Denham warns that ‘the history of terrorism suggests that we may well be facing terrorism like the July bombings for a generation’, adding that ‘history also suggests that terrorism is rarely defeated until serious efforts are made to engage with the political and social problems that give rise to it in the first place’.
‘If a substantial section of the population believes that it is in any case subject to arbitrary injustice — at home or abroad — then it is much more difficult to win consent.’ Effective policing and intelligence, he says, depend ‘on the extent to which people feel fully integrated and respected as full members of society’. He does not believe that the British government is doing nearly enough to bring that about. And if we don’t get things right, warns Denham, then the terrorism blight could be with us for much longer than just one generation.