The denizens of Cherie Blair’s Matrix Chambers and the leading lights of the civil liberties movement might not like to admit it, but when most ordinary citizens of this country talk about Liberty they are thinking of the department store rather than the pressure group.

The majority of this country goes about its everyday life entirely untroubled by the worries of Shami Chakrabati, or the squeals of concern from Mike Mansfield QC.

Most ordinary white, middle-class citizens do not expect to be arrested under this government’s new terror laws - even in Hampshire where people are stopped under the law for such reckless threats to life as photographing the M3. So when told of new laws which police say will reduce the chances of their being blown up on the way to work, one might expect reasonable people to be only too happy to concur.

Even more so when the case for giving police the power to detain terrorist suspects for up to 90 days is being made by, well the police obviously, but also the security services and the prime minister who everyone seemed so keen to applaud for his steely response to the July 7 bombings. Nor is this a case of Mr Blair crying wolf once too often.

We may feel stung by his false claims about Iraqi WMD and justifiably nervous about taking him on trust, but no-one can now dispute the reality if the terrorist threat. Two sets of bombers have tried to blow up London’s transport network and 52 people are dead because the first set succeeded. The police argument that they need to haul in potential terrorists far earlier in the evidence-gathering process is a strong one. It should be stressed that opinion polls show the majority of voters back Mr Blair. But why are so many obviously sensible people not willing to do so?

Some are diehard liberals who take a principled stand against erosion of civil liberties. But among a growing section of metropolitan, educated, middle-class, train-travelling people there is another more serious reason. They resist giving the police these powers because they have lost all faith in the police to use them sensibly. For too many honest middle-class families - especially those in the large cities - the police are seen as unreformed and inefficient, mere bystanders to much of the crime they are meant to be preventing.

They have seen the terrorism act deployed to ban hecklers from Labour conferences. They note that in Hampshire the number of stop and searches under the act rose from 696 in 2003/4 to 4,438 in just three months of 2005. In Humberside the number of searches rose from just four in 2003/4 to 1,830 in the three months since July. Vigilance is a good thing; but this speaks to a blanket plod-ery in which police cease to use any restraint in its application.

In London the Met Police may indeed have prevented many attacks but it failed to detect not only the July 7 bombers but also the July21 attackers and went on to pump an innocent man with eight bullets. Having killed him, they then allowed (and this is the kindest way of putting it) a variety of falsehoods to circulate about the circumstances of his death while Sir Ian Blair, the commissioner, maintained for far too long that the dead man was linked to the terrorist attacks and tried to delay an independent investigation of his death.

The shoot-to-kill policy which did for poor Mr Menezez is a case in point. Most people understand why it is necessary, not least because pursuing police would be the first to die if the man they are chasing does get to detonate his bomb. The public will even tolerate tragic mistakes like the Stockwell shooting, as long as they can see the police did everything possible to avoid things getting that far.

Likewise the 90 day detention plan. It is not that opponents cannot see the merit of the police arguments. Were they confident that these powers would be used wisely and false arrests would be few they might accept them as the price of increased protection. But it is all to easy to imagine vanloads of people being carted off to Belmarsh - the careers potentially ruined, the families devastated - as the police embark on a fishing expedition to justify their detention. When Charles Clarke argues that this power would be used in a tiny minority of cases, why do the alarm bells start ringing?

Of the nearly 900 people arrested under the anti-terror laws - often hauled from their beds at the crack of dawn - in the last five years more than half have been released without charge. Under the proposed change, how many of them would have had to wait 90 days for their freedom?

The hostility of a substantial minority of the law-abiding, criminal justice-system supporting middle-class minority to the increase in police powers at a time of undoubted threat, should be a warning signal to Sir Ian and his cohorts that they are losing the trust of a segment of society raised to be his most trenchant supporters.

Get alerts on Hampshire when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Comments have not been enabled for this article.

Follow the topics in this article