John Reid has dominated the political scene this month, both through his effortless upstaging of the deputy prime minister and in his confident but grave interviews. But the home secretary has also voiced a theme that has been running like a red thread through recent government rhetoric, especially that of the prime minister.
It is the belief that an era is over: an era that New Labour heralded.
It is the end of a certain kind of optimism about human nature.
New Labour was tremendously optimistic. “Thiiiings . . . can only get better” was the maddening pop jingle that accompanied the party into power nine years ago: it was meant to suggest that Labour was in tune with a country bursting to develop, change, modernise, even have fun. It had faith in human goodness: citizens, given extra rights, would use them responsibly. Northern Irish terrorists, brought into a negotiating process, would bit by bit become constitutional politicians. Devolution of power to the “Celtic” nations of Britain would lead to better, closer governing. The new immigrants, whose entrance to the UK grew rapidly, would find a place within Britishness while retaining a cultural identity of their own, as the cities became multicultural carnivals.
This was an attractive, even inspirational element of New Labour, and some of its substance remains. But the acid eating at its vitals has been the continuing growth of radical Islamist terrorism that seems, at present, impossible to extirpate.
Faced with the shock of that reality, the optimism that society – liberal and rich enough to give a dignified existence to those who live in it – will dissolve, or at any rate moderate, all challenges to it now evaporates. The demands some causes make are unassuageable.
There was – and still is – a warning of this in one of the successes of New Labour: the Belfast, or Good Friday, agreement of April 1998. It brought the IRA, in the shape of its political wing Sinn Fein, into democratic politics. By doing so, it reduced the violence against the security forces, lessened intercommunal strife, boosted investment and brought back vibrancy to the cities. But it has done so at a high cost. Unionists balked at the concessions to a terrorism that had made many of them terrified and some of them murderous. Both loyalist and republican districts are often under the effective control of paramilitaries who, like the Sicilian Mafia, control businesses, jobs and allegiance, and punish deviance with brutality, torture and murder. The IRA may have given up the bulk of its weapons but it strives to keep its substantial constituency at arm’s length from, and contemptuous of, a British state it wishes to destroy (if no longer by military means) and a unionist community that it portrays as unchanged in its bigotry.
That “model” – of peace for the state brought about by a weakening of state authority – is one that cannot be applied to the new, and greater, terrorism that now threatens.
Cometh the hour, cometh John Reid. In the speech he made two weeks ago, on the day the decision was made to arrest those suspected of planning mass murder in the air, he called for a general realisation that Britain faces, in terrorist groups with international reach and present or future access to weapons of mass destruction, “the most sustained period of severe threat since the end of world war two”. This threat could not be adequately countered by conventional British justice: its constraints meant that “we are fighting a 21st-century struggle with a framework of legality designed for the mid-20th century” – designed, as he said, in a liberal backlash to the horrors of totalitarianism. He echoed the prime minister who had warned, the week before, that social breakdown and organised crime in the UK, coupled with global terrorism aimed at mass slaughter, meant that “traditional civil liberties arguments are not so much wrong, as just made for another age”.
That other age is gone: and the gravel-voiced, lantern-jawed man with the accent of a Glaswegian dominie now points to a threat that he claims as existential, and says we must put some rights and much frivolity on hold in order to counter it.