Reid's best hope is to make us think we need a strongman
Talking up the terror threat reveals the home secretary's ambition to lead Labour, but it will come to nothing
Peter Wilby | Monday August 21, 2006 | The Guardian
Shortly after he first moved to the Home Office in the spring, John Reid got into big trouble for taking a few days' holiday in France while dangerous foreign criminals were supposedly roaming the country. Nearly three months on, Tony Blair took the flak for being on holiday at the wrong time, while Reid, celebrating his 100th day in office, held the fort at home against what he called "a threat to every individual in every section of British society". Now, as the prime minister returns from the Caribbean, Reid returns the baton and takes a break himself.
So has he, as some commentators contend, improved his chances of succeeding Blair as Labour leader, particularly since Gordon Brown remained invisible throughout the crisis? Was his whole performance over the past 10 days deliberately designed to make him a serious contender for the highest office? Or is it, given the thousands who (we are told) might have died, in bad taste even to discuss a plot to blow up transatlantic aircraft in terms of its effect on the Blair succession?
I won't join those who argue this latest alleged threat was just a government invention to excuse the abolition of ancient liberties, or a Mossad plot to divert attention from Lebanon, or (my favourite) an airline plot to cram more passengers on to aircraft more quickly without having the aisles cluttered with people storing hand luggage. I shall assume the threat was real. But Reid's handling of it raises questions. If, as he initially assured us, all the main suspects in the alleged terrorist conspiracy had been arrested, why did we need such drastic airport passenger searches? Come to that, why hadn't they been introduced before? If terrorists had thought of mixing liquid explosives on board aircraft, why didn't it previously occur to the security services?
Most curious was the decision to release so many details of the alleged plot, how it was uncovered and those detained. This has never happened before in any of the threats the authorities claim to have foiled. Long periods of detention without charge are needed, we are told, partly to protect further inquiries. If too much evidence is released to defendants and their lawyers, the argument runs, it may leak to co-conspirators who can then cover their tracks or advance their evil plans. So, leaving aside the concerns about prejudicing the detainees' chances of a fair trial, why was it all right to plaster so many clues across the media?
None of this proves Reid had a Labour leadership bid in mind. One can only say his behaviour was consistent with this hypothesis, rather as increasingly violent hurricanes are consistent with the hypothesis that the planet's climate is warming. Put yourself in Reid's shoes. He has little charm. His public style is entirely at odds with the touchy-feely requirements of modern politics. He is more Scottish than Brown - and while Brown's manner suggests a dour Edinburgh solicitor or bank manager, Reid's, despite his flaunting of a doctorate, suggests a Glaswegian street thug, which is even less appealing to the English.
So if you are Reid, your best hope of political advancement is to convince everybody they need a strongman. This has been his approach at the Home Office. He has promised more prison places, more immigration controls and more deportations. But he has also revived a favourite trick of Margaret Thatcher's. This is to express exasperation with what you are supposed to be in charge of, as though it were nothing to do with you. The Home Office, therefore, is not "fit for purpose". This ensures that, if anything goes wrong in Reid's department, not only is somebody else to blame, but Reid is proved right.
The terrorist crisis gave him the perfect opportunity to elaborate his role as the strongman. The day before the suspects were arrested, he told the thinktank Demos that Britain was facing "probably the most sustained period of severe threat since the second world war" (in which 60,000 civilians died), and the people who "just don't get it" are judges, the media and other politicians - in other words, all who try to restrain the government from draconian anti-terror measures. We were "unable to adapt our institutions and legal orthodoxy as fast as we need to" - words that seem worryingly close to a call to suspend our institutions and our laws.
In subsequent days, Reid talked up the mortal dangers we supposedly face. In the worst days of the second world war, Churchill quoted Longfellow: "... westward, look, the land is bright". Reid, by contrast, saw darkness in every direction. He never mentioned the likelihood that, given the difficulties of mixing explosives in aircraft lavatories, several of the planned attacks would have failed. The loss of life, had the attacks gone ahead, would have been on an "unprecedented scale"; clearly, there were no doubts that the alleged conspirators were fit for purpose. We needed "a common purpose and a common solidarity" against "a threat to us all". That threat, he said after meeting European security ministers, was "virtually unconstrained in its capacity and ability to do immense harm, death and destruction". In a BBC interview, he effectively confirmed, through a forest of double negatives, reports that "up to two dozen" separate terror investigations were ongoing. In the same interview, he hinted that ministers would again introduce proposals for 90-day detention.
Again, none of this proves Reid is aiming for power. For all you and I know, we are indeed in terrible and constant danger from highly competent people. But his words and actions are consistent with ambition: they echo aspirant leaders throughout history who have conjured threats, from enemies within and without, in order to strengthen their appeal and justify arguments for enhancing their powers.
I don't begrudge Reid his 10 days of glory. But there isn't the slightest doubt about the next Labour leader. The party is a sentimental old thing, and will vote for Brown on the grounds that, if nothing else, it would be a shame to deny him after he has waited so long. In any case, the more ministers convince us of grave dangers to national survival, the more likely it is that Blair will convince himself he cannot abandon us in our hour of need, and decide he won't go after all.
Some people dream of scoring the winning goal in a World Cup final or of basking in acclaim at the Oscars. Politicians dream of taking control in a national crisis. For Reid, that dream briefly came true, but it will all be forgotten by Christmas.
Peter Wilby is a former editor of the New Statesman