Is Tony Blair losing his grip?
Towards the end of his visit to the UN summit in New York, the prime minister was interviewed for the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme on 16 September 2005 on a range of topics, from the government’s latest proposals for yet more anti-terrorism legislation to international development issues and reform of the British National Health Service and education. Until now no transcript of the interview has been available (the Today Programme doesn’t publish transcripts of its interviews, doubtless because they are so numerous, and less understandably the No. 10 Downing Street website has not published a transcript of this particular interview either, although it usually carries transcripts of this kind. However, Owen Barder, who far-sightedly recorded the interview at the time, has now performed a real public service by transcribing it himself and putting it on his website (here). (You can still listen to a recording of the interview on the Today Programme website here, but probably not for much longer.)
The interview is well worth reading, as are Owen’s preliminary comments on it. On the issue of the new anti-terrorism proposals alone, the interview prompts at least three questions:
1. Do Mr Blair’s remarks help to clarify the uncertainties surrounding the definition of ‘terrorism’ to be applied to the government’s new proposals, which include making it a criminal offence incurring up to seven years’ imprisonment to ‘glorify’ terrorism? For that matter, do his remarks help to clarify what the government means by ‘glorify’?
2. What exactly are the new offences to be created under the government’s proposed new legislation that are not already covered by existing law? And —
3. Do the prime minister’s replies in the interview suggest that his own mind is clear on the issues that were raised, that he has thought deeply about them or has absorbed his officials’ briefs on them, or that he is capable of communicating the government’s position on them clearly and convincingly?
Taking these questions in turn, —
Question 1: On the definition of terrorism, Mr Blair was asked by the interviewer (Jim Naughtie) whether he didn’t think it striking that the UN couldn’t even agree on a definition of what terrorism was? Here is his reply (rows of dots indicate hesitations, not omissions):
Prime Minister: I think this is one of these times when … the definitional issue is less important than it really seems. I mean, in fact the vast bulk of people can agree on exactly what it means: it means killing of innocent civilians deliberately and even some of those countries because of their particular issue for example Pakistan over Kashmir, the problems of definition were fully in agreement with that personally I wouldn’t make too much of that I think that … there is a coming together in the international community around the need to fight terrorism and fight it not just at the level of security but at the level of taking on and defeating the ideas of these people and the idea that in any shape or form they have a grievance that can possibly justify what they do.
Pressed further (and very properly) by Naughtie on the question of definition, the prime minister added:
Do you really think people have a difficulty with defining terrorism? I mean, it is the, it’s the, killing of innocent people, um, deliberately, innocent civilians. And when people go on a bus or on the underground or in a café or a bar or a restaurant and kill as many innocent people as they possibly can quite deliberately that is something I don’t think it is just that people sort of recognise it when they see it. I think in practical terms most reasonable people have no difficulty with this definition.
Asked what exactly was meant by the proposed new offence of ‘glorifying’ terrorism, the prime minister replied that —
Before there is a prosecution the Attorney General gives … his consent so … you know, there is that stage and then yes the courts are going to have to take a view about that. But again I think that in situations where people for example are going out and saying look, if you go and kill people and killers and people and terrorist acts you are doing something that is a great thing, you are doing something that will secure your place in paradise and so on, I think again most people have not much difficulty deciding that. … let’s be absolutely clear: there will be all sorts of people who say for all sorts of reasons: "look, I understand why the terrorists do it, and you know, you can sympathise with their motivation." Now I happen profoundly to disagree with that, but I am not suggesting that you make that a criminal offence. Er, what I am suggesting should be an offence is somebody who in effect by glorifying is inciting and is saying to people – particularly impressionable people – and we know, look, that this is a modern phenomenon that we have, this extremism based on a perversion of Islam – is in effect saying to impressionable young people: this is something you should do.
Question 2: Nothing in these remarks, or elsewhere in the full transcript, gives us an answer to the perplexing question: what new offences are now being proposed that are not already covered by existing laws against, for example, incitement to violence? Mr Blair tells us that he isn’t suggesting that an expression of sympathy with the motivation of terrorists or of an understanding of why they commit terrorist attacks should be made a criminal offence, which is perhaps reassuring, but when he tries to explain what should be made an offence, he falls back on incitement. As Owen says in understandable exasperation,
I remain unclear what statements the Government wishes to make illegal. Are there statements which are not incitement, which is already illegal, and which are not merely expressing sympathy with a terrorist’s motivation, which Mr Blair does not think should be illegal? Can anyone think of an example of such a statement?
Question 3: It’s hard, with the best will in the world, to regard these answers by the prime minister to reasonable and pertinent questions, questions on policy issues of such high importance and salience, as anything but profoundly unsatisfactory. Even allowing for the possibility that he was tired during his visit to New York by the travelling and by much strenuous UN activity, I can find no evidence in his words of serious thought about the issues raised by his own government’s latest anti-terrorism proposals or of any diligent preparation of informative and clarifying answers to the questions that he must have expected to be asked. And even allowing also for the way the spoken word can look when transcribed on paper or the screen with every er and um (remember those embarrassing Eisenhower press conference transcripts?), it’s hard to accept these answers as an adequate account of his current policies on a major issue by an experienced head of government with a reputation as a communicator.
It looks as if our prime minister is beginning to lose the plot.
20 September 2005