The Spectator

Tories and terror

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Tim Montgomerie, editor of Conservative Home, and Matthew d’Ancona are debating how the Tories should respond to Brown. You can read the first part of the debate here and the second part below.

Dear Matt

Thanks for your reply to my opening post of yesterday.  Because I agreed with just about everything you wrote and in the light of today's aborted bomb attack I thought we should shift our exchange to how the Tories should respond to Brown on homeland security and - furthermore - how the Tories can show some leadership on this issue.

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Matt responds:

Dear Tim

I think that the whole spectrum of security – from the “hoodie” issue to the defence of the realm from terror – is Cameron’s weakest point. His strategy is worryingly confused and fails to offer the reassurance I mentioned in my first post. Today’s events bring this matter into sharp focus.

I fervently hope that you are wrong that one of these attacks will be successful, but experience suggests you are right. Whether or not Brown will take the blame or not is unknowable: what is certainly apparent already is that a few dog whistles on Iraq, particularly the dreadful appointment of Mark Malloch Brown to the FCO, will do nothing to prevent such atrocities. It is psychologically easier to believe that the Islamists hate us because of Iraq, but it is also nonsense. The Birmingham plot of 2000 makes that plain enough, as does the fact that terrorists have been arrested in Canada and France, countries which both opposed the war.

On ID cards, Charles Clarke had the honesty to admit after 7/7 that they would not have prevented the attacks and I am not persuaded of their value as a counter-terrorist tool. But on other matters – the Conservative Party’s opposition to the 90 days’ detention measure in November 2005 was, for me, one of the most shameful episodes in its recent past: the sound of braying MPs declaring they were off to open the champagne after the proposal’s defeat was truly nauseating, a moment of absolute detachment from the real world.

After July 7, it took a full fortnight to gain access to all the sites of the explosions and a further six weeks to complete forensic examinations. What if those investigations had yielded intelligence indicating imminent attack by an associated cell? What if the police had detained suspected members of that cell, but been unable to thwart the plan within the present limit of 28 days? Encrypted files, global conspiracy, diabolically complex forensic tasks: these are the realities of 21st-century counter-terrorism.

Instead, the Tory Party sounds like the provisional wing of Liberty, or the West London branch of the Shami Chakrabarti Fan Club. Grandstanding as defenders of Magna Carta, they look like they are merely jumping on the libertarian bandwagon. Except, to be frank, it isn’t much of a bandwagon. All the polls, for what it is worth, showed strong public support for 90 days. The British are indeed a freedom-loving people, but they understand that in times of crisis freedoms have to be curtailed. That was in the case in the Second World War and during the Ulster Troubles. In both cases – crucially – the restrictions upon personal liberty were lifted once the crisis had passed. I am truly puzzled by the choice of a generation of Conservatives so initially alive to the meaning of 9/11 to pursue this antiquated path.

I would love to see David Trimble – wise, calm, tough-minded – given responsibility for a comprehensive rethink of this area of policy. But what I would like to know, first of all, is this: does Cameron think we are at war or not?

Best, Matt